Olive Garden's "Dinner Today & Dinner Tomorrow" -- how do you double unlimited breadsticks?
When 86-year-old newspaper columnist Marilyn Hagerty wrote her now-famous review of a North Dakota Olive Garden back in March, I wouldn't say that her story changed the path of restaurant reviews everywhere -- or even anywhere. But it did give food writers, myself included, an appreciation for the fact that chain restaurants should not necessarily be off the table -- or off the menu.
J. Wohletz May your basket never go empty.
Olive Garden got its start in Orlando, Florida in 1982, birthed by General Mills -- yes, the cereal company -- as was a sibling, Red Lobster. A General Mills spinoff, Darden Restaurants, has operated both chains since 1995, and the '90s were good to Olive Garden, with its signature unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks branding the chain like a marinara-soaked cash cow. A growing cash cow.
J. Wohletz Olive Garden's smoked mozzarella fonduta. It's for the breadsticks...really.
Unfortunately, the next decade wasn't as kind, and 2011 saw a decline in sales. So Olive Garden execs have been experimenting with deals, including the current "Dinner Today & Dinner Tomorrow" special for $12.95.
I visited the location at 1151 East 120th Avenue, Thornton to check out this new special for myself, and also to do some quality-control testing on the all-you-can-eat breadsticks: good, investigative journalism on my part.
Olive Garden's conformed "Tuscan countryside" décor is charmingly counterfeit, its house wine corrosive enough to remove years of built-up tarnish from silver plate ware, but I was pleased to be reminded that the two things I've always liked the most about the place -- the spaghetti and meat sauce, and the breadsticks -- haven't changed a bit.
I cannot recall a time when I've ever had bad service at any Olive Garden, and my server for this visit was fantastic: bubbly, upbeat, efficient without being buggy, and liberal with the cheese grater. She gave me a special pullout menu listing the options for the special: for $12.95, I got one of five entrees -- ravioli with five cheese marinara, lasagna rollatini with meat sauce, five cheese ziti al forno, fettuccine Alfredo and spaghetti with four cheese meat sauce -- along with my choice of soup or salad and those golden, buttery breadsticks by the basket. And I got to choose another entrée from the list to take home.
J. Wohletz Mmmm....extra dressing.
I chose spaghetti and ravioli for there, ziti and fettuccine for later. Normally I'd order a side of dipping sauce for the breadsticks, but then I noticed the smoked mozzarella fonduta on the appetizer menu, and figured that dipping breadsticks in melted mozzarella dip would be fattening, unnecessary and sickeningly self-indulgent. The picture made it look so tempting...the Olive Garden marketing machinery suckered in my weak, hungry mind.
Chain restaurant marketing is one of the many reasons why Hagerty's review -- and chain restaurant reviews in general -- aren't popular with some food critics.
Yes, chains like Olive Garden have their own PR, plenty of dough to spend on staying visible, and seemingly no lack of paying-customer attention, even if they offer little menu or atmosphere diversity or originality. And they don't usually use organic or local ingredients except as token gestures to appear more trendy than they really are.
But like it or not, millions of people eat at chain restaurants every day. It's not meant to be a whack in the dangling pepperoni-and-olives of privately-owned local restaurants when a chain is reviewed; instead, it's an acknowledgement that a large slice of the dining public occasionally supplements their steady diets of fresh, local, organic restaurant meals with a quarter pounder, a burrito supreme...or the all-you-can-eat breadsticks at Olive Garden.
J. Wohletz Zuppa Toscana -- the soup with bacon AND sausage in it!
And these breadsticks were just as warm, fresh, garlic-salty and perfect as the pictures made them appear to be. So was the smoked mozzarella dip: The ceramic dish of melted cheese garnished with diced tomatoes was fresh from the oven, so the edges were all oily and crispy, and the dip was the perfect consistency for twirling around breadstick after delicious breadstick.
Choosing between soup or salad was a tough call; since I'd ordered two specials, I got both. There were no surprises with either: The lettuce was firm, with a proportional amount of tomatoes, olives, onions and pepperoncini, and the heroin-grade-addicting dressing was loaded with enough cheese to send my gall bladder into spasms. Good thing I got rid of that a few years back.