For our February Encounter, we eschewed lower-ranking restaurants for #12 on our list, one of the most quintessential casual dining options available: The Olive Garden.
Many of us remember the OG as the “nice” restaurant growing up, mostly because it has cloth napkins instead of paper. When you’re a kid, that just screams luxury. Also, unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks [Ed. note: Doesn’t scream luxury, but still very important].
We had not one but two special guest appearances at this encounter: Helen (Rachel’s mom) joining us for her second encounter, and Rick and Cathy (Jenna’s parents). And, like everyone else who is related to/friends with the members of our group, they viewed our choice of dining establishment with a mix of amusement and resignation. “Your little club is going to where? Well, ok. It’s up to you.”
The Olive Garden is one of the ur-casual dining restaurants. It’s often used as a stand-in for anything pedestrian/country bumpkin-y, right alongside Applebee’s. Does Olive Garden care? No. Olive Garden is ok with being your punchline, because it’s too busy serving unlimited breadsticks to your Aunt Carol to pay any mind. “Joke all you want,” Olive Garden says. “You know you secretly love us.”
Everyone is familiar with the OG’s brand of “Italian.” Even if you’ve never eaten there, you can take a guess at the general flavor profile and you’d be about 90% correct. Salt+sugar+fat+starch=Mangia! Olive Garden is basic in the best way.
Rachel says: Just like my visit to Ruby Tuesday, I came in with a strategy: Fill up on the included salad and breadsticks, and save most of my entrée for lunch the next day. This worked swimmingly, and y’all were suckers if you didn’t do the same. The breadsticks could have used more buttery topping, but that didn’t stop me from eating like four, and bringing home another four to accompany said leftovers. I had the Tour of Italy, which is lasagna plus fettucine alfredo plus chicken parmesan. My leftovers reheated beautifully and were the envy of everyone within smelling distance of my cubicle. Helen also commented on how fresh the lettuce for the salad was.
Aaron says: I had the Giro d’Italia, aka the Tour of Italy. The Giro d’Italia is also the name of a bike race in Italy, so now I sound fancy. It was good. I made two full meals out of the leftovers by borrowing Rachel’s strategy of filling up on the salad and breadsticks.
John says: I had the Chianti braised beef with gnocchi. My steak was cooked perfectly. The grilled zucchini that came with it was super odd.
Jenna says: Spaghetti and meatball flavor explosion! I went basic and it tasted as good as Cathy’s. And Cathy is a damn good cook. Also their salad is like a familiar hug. In your mouth.
Nothing too exceptional here. They do try to class up the joint with a wine list, but that wine list definitely includes a cheap white zinfandel, so it ends up being a zero-sum situation.
Rachel says: I treated myself to a club soda with a lime. #lifestylesoftherichandfamous
John says: The white zin was zintastic!
Jenna says: Can’t go wrong with red wine.
Our normal casual encounters occur on off nights, like Tuesdays. This trip, however, was during prime time aka 7:30pm on a Saturday, in St Louis Park aka one of the Twin Cities’ hottest suburbs. Also, our night started off being taken care of some kind of server-in-training, who was quickly elbowed to the side by a seasoned pro who handled our table seemingly effortlessly.
Rachel says: The trainee was named Helen, which is also my mom’s name! At least one full minute of our experience was spent with the two of them talking about how their names were both Helen. Olive Garden, where surprises abound. Carmen, our main waiter, was efficient and pleasant, but not super friendly. Given the circumstances (large group, busy night) I don’t blame her, though.
John says: Very good service! We got double-teamed by two servers: Helen (not Levitt) and Carmen. And it was spectacular.
Aaron says: Attentive water refills. Sort of long waits for other things. There were two servers, but they didn’t coordinate or communicate very well.
Jenna says: Double the pleasure, double the fun! Both of our servers were highly attentive and friendly (even more impressive since we were a rowdy, slightly annoying crew).
Since ours was a relatively large group, we were seated in our own private alcove. Very VIP.
Rachel: It’s both weird and comforting that the late 80s/early 90s color palate of cream, dusty rose and green lives on admirably inside each and every Olive Garden. When faux greenery hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s casual dining.
John says: I have always liked the atmosphere at the OG. Faux Italian bistro vibes are my jam.
Jenna says: Every OG looks the same. By the same, I mean like the dining room of a villa in Tuscany.
For most of us dining that night, and for many people outside of the Casual Encounters team, the Olive Garden was the “classy” restaurant you went to for special occasions. Probably because of the cloth napkins and “frescoes” adorning the walls. As with any childhood association, it’s hard to shake, and the casualosity rating suffered as a consequence.
Rachel says: Still the vibe of a place that’s a little nicer than your average restaurant. I think their strategy is great; they’ve differentiated themselves from other casual dining establishments by making themselves seem just a tad more formal. I don’t know about a date night here, but a birthday dinner would feel right at home.
John says: The classiest joint we’ve been to so far. I need to dine here more often.
Aaron says: A little too fancy. Might need to visit again in warmer weather so I can wear my velvet flip flops and put the casualosity to the test.
Jenna says: I’ve spent many a family birthday celebration at the OG and we’ve “dressed up,” so, not so casual.
Usually, by the end of an OG experience, you’re too full from the salad and breadsticks to venture into dessert territory. But we soldiered on, honoring the commitment we made at the outset of this adventure. Some of us even got things that weren’t tiramisu, because we’re adventurous like that.
Rachel: I went for the black tie mousse cake, aka the only cheesecake on the menu, because I take this s**t seriously. Also, it’s like three desserts in one: Cake, cheesecake, and mousse. Delicious! I was even in a good enough mood to share, which is saying something.
John says: I had three mini-desserts, obviously the best way to do dessert.
Aaron says: Truly saving the best for last. Not only did the tiramisu not have cinnamon, but it was also delicious.
Jenna says: I’m such an a**hole, I can’t even remember.
Aaron says: Sarah flipping out over her love for hollow pasta. And getting to dine with the Weisser clan and Helen!
Rachel says: That the food was exactly how I remember it. And getting lunch out of it for the next day.
John says: So many guests! Cathy, Rick, and Helen. Fargo was crazy repped.
Jenna says: We got to dine in our own private room! And our parents were there!
Least favorite part:
Rachel says: The temp in our alcove got a little high, and I was uncomfortably warm for most of our meal. Not the best environment for eating a bunch of carbs.
John says: Ziosk. F the Ziosk hard, right in the A.
Aaron says: Another Ziosk, that little bastard. Quit it with the gimmicks!
Jenna says: Honestly, I can’t think of anything. This was a super fantastic casual dining experience. Two very enthusiastic thumbs up; fine holiday fun!