Why you should NOT eat at      
      Olive Garden     
     The Olive Garden     

When you're here, you're family.  The kind of family that we won't fucking leave alone until you buy some wine from us.

I used to like eating at the Olive Garden.  Why not?  The food is okay, the prices are okay, the commercials are cute, and the service is good.  I used to go there with my girlfriend periodically, get some pasta and sauce or some lasagna, and mayhap a piece of cheesecake.  So what's not to like? 

Have you been there lately?  It's different now. 

It used to be that the purpose of the Olive Garden was to sell you some food and a nice atmosphere, and keep things pleasant enough to get you to want to come back another time and give them more money.  No problem there.  It was never a fancy restaurant, but it tried to be nicer than a Perkins or a Chilis.  And it succeeded.  A very mellow place to go, where you could overeat a little and relax.

As I said, it's different now.  The present purpose of the Olive Garden is to sell you their wine.  That's it.

(I am basing the following on my recent experiences in Cedar Falls.  I am assuming, that since their owner, Darden Restaurants, is a 3.7 billion dollar corporation, they don't let store policies vary too much)

You walk in, and you are facing a bar, with bottles of wine prominently displayed, drawing your attention to the blackboard with the wine specials written on it.  No big deal so far.  I like bars, and wine specials are displayed at even the finest restaurants.  And then the hostess brings you to your table.  The first thing that strikes you about the Olive Garden is the decor.  It is decorated in bottles of wine.  There may be frescos somewhere behind the bottles, but you don't see them.   Wine bottles everywhere you look.  Not interesting bottles, just the house wine which, by the way, is for sale with your meal.  I'm not doing it justice - I'm not writer enough to do it justice.

You sit at your table.  There are wine-glasses in front of you, and the hostess asks you what you want to drink.  Assume you don't say "wine" right away.  No longer your friend, she leaves you to your fate.  Worry not, for soon your waitperson appears, carrying the bottle of wine you sort of remember not ordering.   "Hello.  I am Merlot, your waitperson.  Can I pour you a glass of wine?"  Assume that you say "no."  With a sigh, the wineglasses are taken off your table.  The message is clear.  "You blew it, fuckpuppy, and now I take your wineglasses from you."

But then you get your two menus.  TWO menus?  Yes.  Many of the tackier restaurants nowadays give you a second menu, with special items that can't be put on the regular menu, because they weren't cleared with corporate headquarters.  But as you look at the wonderfully photographed second menu, you notice something odd.   Every item on the second menu also appears on the regular menu.  Every.   Single.  Item.  Well, then, why have a second menu which is just a proper subset of the first, albeit with more expensive photography?  Easy:  Because the second menu has pictures of glasses of wine with all the dishes, and advice about which wine goes best with each item.  Yes, it is a nice big glossy ad for the wines, which you get along with your menu, which itself has a wine list and lots of urgings.  The last time I was there, they went to the extent of smashing a bottle on the floor so the entire section smelled like wine, but that could have been an accident.

I don't mind tacky places.  I mind places that hadn't been tacky, that don't have to be tacky, but choose to be.

The present purpose of the Olive Garden is to sell you their wine.  That's it.  The food and the commercials exist to get you there to sell you wine.  The chairs are there so you have a place to sit while you buy their wine.  The tables are there so the wine has a place to be.  The air-conditioner is there so the wine doesn't go bad.  (They don't want the wine to go bad, because they would sell less.   If it still sold, they wouldn't care if it went bad.  The point is to get you to buy it.)  

I don't know why a fairly inviting restaurant chain chose to transform itself to a hard-sell restricted-selection liquor store.  Perhaps the "kindly grandpa" in the commercials owns a winery and is Connected.  Or, more likely, this conversation took place:

CEO of DARDEN RESTAURANTS: Things are going well.  Our "Red Lobster" restaurants are doing well.  Our "Bahama Breeze" restaurants allow people to experience the delights of visiting the Caribbean without having to worry about interacting with Caribbean people.  And our "Olive Gardens" are successfully matching a dinner-house concept against the independently-owned restaurants that used to be the mainstay of Italian dining.  But if only we could make more money...


GUY WITH MBA: Well, you have a huge mark up on your wine.  Right now you have a bunch of customers who will never buy wine.  You can't do much about them.  You have a bunch of customers who will order wine no matter what, because they like it.  We are fine on that front.  But there are a few people who are so incredibly suggestible and stupid, that they wouldn't normally buy wine, but they will if you badger them about it.   So I say that you change your restaurants from a "pleasant dining experience" to an "annoying as bugfuck we will get you to buy our god damn wine sellfest."  You may make some more money that way.



I have an acquaintance who is a serious alcoholic.  As soon as you walk in the door, he is waving a bottle at you, trying to get you to have a drink with him so he has an excuse to have several.  Even at his worst he is not as obnoxious as the Olive Garden is.  As I said, I am not a good enough writer to properly convey the cheesy hard-sell atmosphere of the new Olive Garden.  But I am a good enough gambler to issue to you the Doug Shaw Olive Garden Challenge:

Next time one of their "When you're here, you're family" ads puts you and your friends/family in the mood for their fast-food-car-dealership restaurant, move your pasta-deprived ass to your phone book, and find the address for your local, independently owned Italian restaurant.  (Currently, one-third of all Italian restaurants are Olive Gardens.  This means two-thirds aren't.  Luck will be with you)  Make a reservation if they take them.   It couldn't hurt to tell them Doug Shaw sent you.  When you go, pay attention to the decor, the food quality, and save the receipt.  Dinner may wind up taking 15 minutes longer than it did at the Olive Garden.  Oh no!  You've spent an extra 15 minutes with a loved one instead of watching TV!  Make sure to note how much the final bill was.

If for some reason you then go to the Olive Garden again, take note of how it is different.  After all is settled, look at your bill.  Notice that it wasn't that different than the local place's.  Recall how refreshing the Mom n' Pop place was, without the stink of Darden Marketing Consultants all over the designs of everything.  Recall how the food and wine at the local place was yummy plentiful without being pushed at you.   Recall how happy they were to see you there.

...and recall the Doug Shaw Olive Garden Challenge.  If you had a better time at the local restaurant, email me and let me know.  And if I am in town, I will let you buy me a glass of wine there.  If you honestly thought that the Olive Garden offered you a better dining experience, I will let you buy me dinner there, and I will buy you a glass of their wine.

Now, seriously:  Let us not let the crass and tacky defeat the classy and quality-y.  The Olive Garden used to be a nice place.  It isn't any more.  Let's all go somewhere else for dinner tonight.

Click here for Olive Garden's response!

Update! Click here for some reader feedback I've received about this page, including some from Olive Garden management. (Updated 10/2/2002)

Olive Garden partnered with Coke for a "H-2-NO" campaign!  The Coke corporate website details how managers were given bonuses and trips if they could demonstratably decrease water consumption at their restaurants.  Various techniques were taught to waitstaff to discourage customers from drinking water.  (Some time later, the campaign was amended to allow patrons to drink "Dasani" water, which is Coke's bottled water)  Coca Cola took the pages about it down as soon as smart-alecks like me started drawing attention to it.  But, just for you, here they are.  Here are two links that give some more information.

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© Douglas J. Shaw,  2001

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I didn't make this part up.  Darden restaurants are glad that they are putting your happy local family-owned restaurant out of business.  Check out their website if you don't believe me.






I didn't make this part up, either.  Darden restaurants brag about this fact on their website.