Since Marilyn Hagerty reviewed an Olive Garden for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota back in 2012, there’s been a long and sometimes honorable tradition of food writers considering the value of what’s maybe America’s quintessential fast-casual restaurant chain.
Now Polly Campbell, who has been a food critic for the past 23 years at the Cincinnati Enquirer, has jumped into the fray. In all her years of food writing, she’d only visited an Olive Garden once, to try the stuffed spaghetti, and she had started to wonder about this lapse in her food coverage.
What resulted is a nuanced exploration of what the Olive Garden and restaurants like it mean to American diners. Olive Garden doesn’t provide “authentic” Italian food, at least as it is eaten in Italy or even by Italian-Americans. It’s not as cheap as fast food chains. It’s not even especially good; in Campbell’s professional opinion, there are several other Italian restaurants in Cincinnati that are much better. “But,” she writes, “each one offers a certain challenge or barrier to someone just looking for something comfortable to eat.” The Olive Garden doesn’t make assumptions about its customers; everything on the menu is explained. There’s something comforting about that.
What’s the point of snobbery anyway? To show that you are a person of taste and distinction, and superior to other people? Great. You get a gold star. Maybe it’s better to remember that if the Olive Garden doesn’t have value for you personally, it might have value to somebody and it doesn’t exist to make other people feel bad about themselves.