Pros: Edible standards no better or worse than what comes from your own freezer
Cons: Stingy corporation makes a mockery of a great cuisine
Having just returned from the always-too-long odyssey that is travel in the sweatier regions of Southern California, I am all too well qualified to write about chain restaurants at the moment (despite starvation-influenced dizziness from poor diet techniques invoked to rid myself of the extra Taco Bell poundage put on during the trip)...
"Slightly better than road food" -- when I got back to the city, I ended up at an Olive Garden. Too tired to cook, or even think of a non-chain restaurant, I went for the reliable menu and "at least it has salad and a liquor license" appeal of the place.
Bad idea; I would have been happier grabbing Stouffer's fettucine alfredo and firing that up in the microwave. Olive Garden pasta is not great -- like Stouffer's -- but it's edible -- like Stouffer's. The pasta is slightly overcooked but otherwise unremarkable, and the sauce seems lackluster. Olive Garden wait staff are reasonably quick to grate cheese on your food, but the ubiquitous, too-long peppermills of other middlebrow restaurants are strangely lacking: a pity, since most all of their food needs as much perking up as it can get. Some, like the eggplant parmesan, is beyond repair; others just come as a disappointment. A spaghetti craving doesn't really get satisfied here. (Yes, the lack of authenticity is so cringingly obvious that it doesn't really need mentioning here.) And we're still waiting for an explanation of serving celery sticks with so-so spinach and artichoke dip...??
Salad appeal: this is one of those things I forget over and over only to be doomed to repeat it, like a surreal nightmare. Unlimited! Wow! Gross. It's wilted, frequently browned iceberg lettuce saturated in iffy dressing, redeemed only by the slightest quantity of additions (one tomato slice, a pepper, an olive or two, stale croutons) but also ruined by same (what focus group said "lots and lots of poorly sliced onions"?).
Whine, whine, whine. But this is a junk restaurant; one that pulled out of Canada not because it wasn't profitable in Canada, but because it wasn't profitable enough. Everything from the chintzy paper napkins to the lack of tomato in the salad is the restaurant's bottom line, not any sort of commitment to actual food service...
...which brings us around to the strange service problem of Olive Gardens. The experience is made less pleasant (and I do admit that I am probably even more biased against the food thanks to this) by oddly robotic servers. I am no fan of treating restaurant staff like automatons, but Olive Garden protocol seems to leave me little choice: their repertoire is completely scripted for them, and starting a conversation not strictly related to the menu at hand is a lost cause. (There is also a problem with the corporation's cheapness here, too: during the hours which people might be expected to go to restaurants, Olive Gardens are invariably short-staffed, leaving your server huffing and puffing and generally unavailable for trivia like a glass of water.)
A strange insight was provided to me on my second-last trip to an Olive Garden by an unusually loquacious server: I ordered two drinks, and he thanked me: apparently the location I patronize performs poorly for hard liquor sales, and his having sold two Black Russians was a boon for his status, so to speak. I understand capitalism (more or less) and the high mark-up on liquor in restaurants, but having "push your customers to drink lots of hooch" in one's job description seems unconscionable.
The desert menu seems to be as large as the food menu, begging the question of why Olive Gardens do not give up and admit to being the Chuck E. Cheeses of Italian restaurants: I would be thrilled with lackluster pasta and tons of sugar if I was still in the under-twelve set. Nary a meal passes without bizarrely loud renditions of 'Happy Birthday,' and the celebrant is usually either pre-pubescent, or at least fifteen years past retirement age. I think the Olive Garden knows that these are its demographics, but is reluctant to 'fess up, since that might mean ditching the pretension of a "wine list" (nothing over $20, nothing worth over $10...), and making better accommodations for children.
I wish I had some better things to say about this place.
The portions are becoming more reasonable in comparison to other chains, meaning you can finish off your plate of cheesy goo with minimal guilt.
It is, for better or for worse, unflinchingly reliable no matter where in the country you might fetch up.
Assuming a lack of a three-generation three-table cluster and concomitant renditions of 'Happy Birthday,' you can more or less lean back and relax: the restaurants are not cramped and the seating is comfortable.
Errors are fixed with minimal fuss; unclean cutlery brings profuse apologies.