I used to like the Olive Garden. The first one I went to years ago had really good food. Maybe I'm an Italian food snob, but I don't think this chain has maintained the quality of food that got them started.
First let me say that I really love Italian food. I had the opportunity to eat some of the best (John Grisanti's in Memphis) when I was growing up. The first time I went to Olive Garden I was pretty pleased. My last half dozen dining experiences there have been less than satisfactory.
The Olive Garden IS a lovely place. The decor gives one the feeling of dining on a cool terrace with a lovely romantic view. The interior is darkened but not dreary, and the various decorative accents certainly add to the mood of the place.
I've eaten there with a large group and with just my husband. I will say that it is best suited for couples. They have difficulty accommodating a large group. I was part of a large group in February and we had to wait an hour and a half to be seated. This group was comprised of students, teachers and parents at a location in San Antonio. We traveled in separate cars and didn't really have the time and willingness to go look for another place. While a number of the adults waited outside on the porch, some of the parents went inside for a wine-tasting and some of the students went across the parking lot to Target. I sat outside in the wind and held the beeper. It took an hour and forty minutes to seat us. When we did finally all get seated, the waiter seemed overwhelmed. We did manage to all get served and fed.
My experience previous to that was at the location in Mesquite, Texas. It was for lunch on my birthday with my husband. Again we had to wait more than half an hour to be seated. We waited in the entry area which was pleasant (except for the screaming little kids). I love the terra cotta tile and the wrought iron furnishings. When we were eventually seated, we had to ask the server to please wipe the table again. She did so, but did not seem happy about it. I can understand it, but she should have shared her displeasure with the busboy and not with us. We were quickly served with breadsticks and then salad and in an unbelievably short time our food was there and then the check. If we'd been inclined to wolf down our food, we could have been out of there in 20 minutes. Why then did it take forty minutes to seat us?
I got the cannelloni and manicotti in both San Antonio and Mesquite. Both times it was okay. I think a Stouffer's frozen dinner would have been just as good as what I got. It looked good on the plate. It was served plenty hot, but it wasn't particularly flavorful. It was pretty darn blah in both instances. The breadsticks were good and the salad was good, but I can go to a lot of places for that kind of fare. I think that the quality of the ingredients is probably fine, but the entree is just blah.
The service in both cases was less than congenial. I'm used to better care in a place that I might consistently patronize. In both restaurants my servers seemed pretty annoyed at having to do the job. In the Mesquite location, I distinctly got the impression that we were being hurried along. I really like to eat at a leisurely pace, and didn't have that opportunity.
My overall impression of Olive Garden is that it has become one of the run of the mill chain restaurants. It is no longer anything special. I'm really let down because I really thought they would have some potential in this particular market niche. They've certainly carved out their niche, but the result is pretty cookie cutter and fairly bland.