By now you've likely read or heard about Marilyn Hagerty's earnest restaurant review of the new Grand Forks, North Dakota Olive Garden that has gone viral.
Her detailed and thoughtful review transported me to my days of pre-prom dinners and post-church Sunday lunches. But honestly, it had been more than 3 years since I stepped foot in an Olive Garden. The OG execs have Marilyn to thank for my (and many others') resurging interest in soup, salad, and breadsticks. So I did what all good foodies would do. I went to taste and review for myself...
My visit to Olive Garden was at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday. I thought at this early hour (most restaurants in Des Moines hit peak capacity around 7 p.m.) that I could be sure to get in. But, with the recent publicity surrounding dear Marilyn's restaurant review, I shouldn't have been surprised to find a packed parking lot and several large parties making their way toward the entrance. Chris dropped me off at the curb and I dodged through the tall, double-wide Tuscan doors to ensure I'd get my name in before the family of six that was fast approaching.
As I sat and waited for Chris to join me, I took a moment to take in my surroundings. I bet they used the T-shirt painting technique to achieve that withered, worn-stone affect on the walls, I thought to myself. As I glanced at the "Capacity 245" sign hung near my metal-and-plastic whicker bench, I wondered how close the restaurant was to reaching that goal at this very moment on a Tuesday evening, considering their parking lot had certainly met capacity. Apparently there was room for two more because Chris and I were seated just as soon as he could join me in the lobby.
Our table was perfectly sized for two, and I noted that my chair had rollers on the bottom, something I didn't remember from previous visits to the OG. Just as in Marilyn's experience, the waiters wore white shirts, ties, black trousers, and aprons. But instead of being adorned with gold-colored towels, each apron at the West Des Moines Olive Garden was adorned with exactly one piece of flare.
After deciding that the unusual warm March weather called for a glass of crisp, cold white wine, I studied the two manageable menus offering Antipasti, Zuppe e Insalate, Pizze, Cucina Classica, Carne, Pasta Ripiena, Pollo, and Pesce. Since I was mostly interested in what I've been missing these last few years, I found the "New!" designation next to five of the menu items to be especially intriguing. Chris and I decided we should try one of these recent additions, so we ordered an antipasti of Shrimp Scampi Fritta ($8.75).
When our kind waiter, Brian, returned to the table, he easily talked me into trying a taste from the bottle of white wine he was carrying. It was the Cavit Pinto Grigio ($6.35) and it was just what this Tuesday night ordered, though not as cold as I would prefer. He told me he had been carrying the bottle around for a while, but he ensured my wine would be cold when it came to the table. And it was. Chris went with the Cavit Pinot Noir (also $6.35). The shrimp appetizer was quite delicious, and Chris seemed pleased with the coating and flash fry technique which made the shrimp perfectly crisp with no sogginess or excessive oiliness. The garlic and white wine butter sauce drizzled over the shrimp was the consistency of gravy, so a little thicker than I had expected, but still good. Chris said he would have preferred a tomato-base dipping sauce.
When Brian returned with our bowl of chilled salad and thick paper towel-wrapped breadsticks, I took the opportunity to quiz him on the tendencies of Olive Garden customers. I was fascinated to learn that the average customer eats 2.2 breadsticks, though Brian's personal record was 18 that he served to a table of two teenage boys. Also, he shared that every bowl of salad contains exactly two tomato slices, two pepperoncini, and just one lonely black olive. And that most tables get one refill on their salad that they don't finish. Interesting, huh?
Being a lifelong lover of stuffed pasta, I ordered the Ravioli de Portobello ($12.25). The dish contained seven good-size mushroom-filled ravioli in a creamy smoked cheese and sun-dried tomato sauce with a garnish of fresh diced tomato and sliced green onions. Brian was ready with the Parmesan cheese, but this rich dish needed none of that.
Chris ordered the Parmesan Crusted Tilapia ($15.25) which came with sides of Italian vegetables over angel hair pasta tossed in a light garlic-butter sauce and a peculiarly large sprig of parsley. Chris was expecting baked fish with a light cheese coating, so he seemed a little disappointed that the breading heavily coated the thick fillet. After a few bites, we decided that we both had ordered well. We each ate about half of our meals before Brian kindly offered to box up our leftovers at the table, and we took him up on that offer.
As we ate, I didn't notice the vases and planters with permanent flower displays on the ledges, as Marilyn had. But what I did notice is that everyone around us seemed to be having a good time. I had a nice view of a couple in their 60s who had several very pleasant exchanges with their waitress. She had burned her hand when placing their plates on the table and they were very much concerned. Just behind them was, I presume, a mother and her 20-something daughter enjoying Bud Lights and miniature desserts—tiny footed bowls filled with a small cake or crust layer and topped with something fluffy, a sensibly portioned and priced dessert at $2.50 each.
We opted to finish our meal with some of the OG's Signature Cocktails. I ordered the Strawberry-Limoncello Martini ($8.75) and Chris chose the Berry Sangria ($5.75). After I worked my way past the heavily-sugared rim, I happily enjoyed this lemony finish to my meal garnished with a few slices of fresh strawberries. Chris' only complaint was that the sangria didn't come in a bigger glass.
All in all, our trip to Olive Garden was pleasant and filling. The Olive Garden chain, which now operates more than 730 locations globally, continues to attract visitors from out of town as well as locals. In fact, just today a woman stopped me on the sidewalk to ask if I lived in Des Moines. She was from out of town and was looking for the nearest Olive Garden because she had a coupon to use. I told her that, ironically, I had just been there this week. The directions were easy but good luck with the parking, I said. She waved to me from her car as she cheerfully headed off to dinner.