Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
Olive Garden
Around the USA and Canada
Review by MaceVindaloo, Diana, Rosie, PlazaQueen, PandaCat

When the prices are low, the quality is good, the venue is large, you know that the only way a restaurant can make money is via volume — and when you see the average check might come out to less than $15 per person, you do BIG volume. Such is the case with Olive Garden, a chain of sort-of "Tuscan-style" family restaurants.

We tried get a table three times here, all on the same Sunday ... the first time, the wait was 50 to 55 minutes at about 5:30pm (primetime). Next time was "about an hour" (at about 6:15) and finally, "about 35 minutes" (at about 8pm!) We realized we should have just said "yes" the first time and gone off to do some shopping and come back for our meal. You don't have to sit and wait for your table, but do tell the hostess/host that you will be wandering around, but let them know you will be back, should the table be ready before their estimated time. They are nice, youngish people and they will generally hold the table for you.

The one we went to distributed frisbee-like pages which vibrate and light up like a flying saucer-style spaceship ready to launch when your table is ready. But if you wander "out of range" the device will start singing at you like an annoying cell phone. (Ours played a computer modulated version of "Pachabel's Canon in D.") Be sure you ask the difference in signals before you wander too far away from the restaurant, so you know if you have to hoof it back pronto, or you are merely out of the zone.

People who come here seem to be groups of friends, families, and others who have something to celebrate. There were no less than a dozen "birthday parades" clapping and singing like these type of places do in the 60 minutes or so we sat at dinner. Family style dining is encouraged in a sense, in that salad and nothing-like-Italian garlic breadsticks are served in a bowl for sharing. There are "bottomless refills" on both these items. For lunch, there is also "bottomless bowls of soup" ... combining these bottomless items can be a big meal for about $6 per person, if you are that way inclined. A good deal if you are very hungry, of course. The soups are vegetable based: minestrone and pasta e fagiole (macaroni and beans). For dinner, soup or salad are included with main dishes. And instead of one menu, they give you at least two, and maybe four ... interesting way to keep everyone behaved and occupied from the outset.

This isn't "tuscan" or "italian" in any authentic manner except in the fantasies of the American public, but that's not such a bad thing. They offer American-style appetizers like toasted ravioli and chicken fingers, and somehow, putting a ramekin/monkeycup of "marinara" sauce beside it will make it "Italian." But it's good — even if the "creamy dip" is dressed up ranch dressing. (It seems they also put the same ranch dressing powder in the popular "Zuppe de Toscana" — "buttermilk" flavored sausage soup, don't you know?)

Actually, kids and picky eaters actually crave the food made here, which should tell you something about the level of "pleasability." One cannot live without the soft garlic breadsticks (meaning they aren't really breadsticks, right?). The more grown up among us feel the zuppa toscana, mushroom ravioli with sun-dried tomato sauce, and chicken marsala are VERY VERY good! The food is really decent. If your girlfriend or boyfriend cooked like this, you'd think, "hey, not a bad catch!" It's all admittedly rather processed, especially the meatballs which are so fine-grained that they cut cleanly like a fine-grained marble ... but they are tasty and the aforementioned marinara sauce, which they use for everything, is not acidic and metallic tasting like the canned sauces in many other places. It's actually light and rather fresh-tasting.

The prices, as mentioned, are very reasonable with the choices ranging from $7 to $15, and there is plenty of food on the plate. We ordered something plain and standard, like spaghetti and meatballs, and other than the rubbery, bouncy texture of the balls and the slightly overcooked spaghetti, it was a good dish popular with children. The other thing we ordered was the "Tour of Italy" which is a meat-sauce lasagne, chicken parmagiana, and fettucine alfredo (broad noodles with cream and cheese sauce). The portions are very big! Expect leftovers for lunch tomorrow.

We also ordered fried calamari and spinach artichoke dip with "tuscan bread." Both were chewy but good; the latter used pickled baby artichoke hearts and cooked chopped spinach in a cream cheese based spread. We're not sure what Tuscan bread is; it seems like a fine-grained soft bread unlike any Italian loaf any of us have ever encountered outside of Olive Garden. The so-called breadsticks are like this too, nothing crunchy about them.

We had had too much food, and could not contemplate dessert. On offer were alcoholic sweet "granitas" or iced cocktails in the "frozen dacquiri" vein, as well as cheesecake type desserts, of which tiramisu is the best known. Anyway, as appetizing and delicious as the appetizers and desserts look, they seem to be fairly standard (if Italianized) so we rarely end up ordering them. That's a good point — go for the filling and substantial mains with soup and salad instead.

They do have reasonable wines by the bottle or the glass and all are reasonably priced. We tried the Kendall Jackson Riesling and were very pleased with it at about $6 a glass. Or you can go for the "house" red, white, or rose for about $4 a glass or a "magnum carafe" (8 glasses) for about $20. Who says this place ain't classy, eh?

In truth, it's a nice place, and though not as luscious as the television commercials and "Chef Mary" might ahve you believe, there is nothing wrong with the food when you consider the pricing and the volume of food that must move out of the kitchens. And it's inexpensive — soup, salad, bread, appetizers, main dishes, wines, all came out to $55, all up. If you're normal people and not hunger-driven people who tried to get into the place for three hours befor eyou were finally seated, the pricing would be closer to $20 per person, including dessert, tax and tip. It's a good deal, as evidenced by all the big groups and families around us.

(By the way, some "high-rent" locations do charge more, about 30% additional over other locations. At Times Square in New York City, the "Tour" is $21 while it's $15 out on Long Island. Check the website for pricing if you're on a budget. $11 spaghetti with three meatballs and marinara sauce is over $15 in the Big Smoke.)

The decor is pleasant, the tables are roomy with enough space between them (though we haven't been to the NYC locations!). The servers are variable, as can be expected. The table next to us had a great server: happy, attentive, efficient. Ours was a weird guy who would stop about 4 feet from the table then stre-e-e-tch to put things onto the table, then run away for like 20 minutes. It made the meal longer than it probably needed to be, but fortunately, we were in no hurry to get anywhere. He did give us a free glass of wine when he brought nearly-empty bottles to fill our glasses, and though he didn't tell us soups and salads were included in our meal, he didn't bill them as separate items.

Overall, a very pleasant dinner, guaranteed to make most people happy, as long as you are organized about the waiting! If you're near a mall, get a pager when you first get there and d a little shopping or wandering before your table is ready. A good way to build the appetite and get a meal at a reasonable hour. Once you're at the table, they never rush you along. Isn't that nice?

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