Monday, June 28, 2010

Plenty Good

Explaining my inexplicable enjoyment of chain restaurants

I used to travel a lot for work, and I've eaten in all sorts of restaurants around the country, from diners to fine dining. The best meal I ever had was probably when my wife and I visited the Four Seasons in Manhattan and had the roast duck. My second-best meal was probably the "limited edition" Angus steak I got at an Outback Steakhouse in Las Vegas. It was a truly remarkable piece of beef, and tasted far better than steaks I'd had at several so-called "5-star" steakhouses in the same city. It's no secret among those who know me that my favorite restaurant is probably Olive Garden, but Outback Steakhouse is a close second and the Dinosaur Bar-B-Queue rounds out that top triad - the three restaurants sharing the "top spot" depending on what I'm in the mood for and with whom I'm dining. I'm also a huge fan of diners if they serve good-quality, tasty, traditional diner-food, particularly fried chicken.

Some people, I know, find this baffling. They sneer at my high regard for the Olive Garden, holding the chain's food in utter disdain. I think they're nuts. I've never had a bad meal at the Olive Garden, and I've eaten scores (possibly hundreds) of meals there over the last fifteen years at restaurants all over the country. I've also gone to "local" Italian restaurants that were very well-regarded and found the food to be far below what I'd expect at Olive Garden. I mean, let's evaluate:

Marinara - their tomato sauce is flavorful, has chunks of tomatoes in it (bigger chunks than I prefer, really, but I can pick around them easily enough), and always tastes fresh. I remember eating at the Italian restaurant once at the Turning Stone Casino and their marinara was a bilious yellow-orange color that looked like bilgewater and tasted like 10W-30. I was similarly unimpressed the two times that I ordered the Chicken Parmigiana at Rico's Ristorante in East Syracuse - it's one of those local places people rave about and both times I ate there I found my meal barely edible. Marinara's one of the "Mother Sauces" that any Italian restaurant ought to have mastered. Olive Garden's is consistently good.

Pasta - I think it's funny that Olive Garden used to make their pastas fresh onsite (each restaurant actually had a pasta chef who was in charge of all the fresh-made pasta for that kitchen), but found that people liked their pre-made pastas better so they stopped. It seems to me that a preferable solution might have been to improve the fresh pasta so people liked IT better, but what do I know? Regardless, their pasta is always perfectly cooked and flavorful. Which is all I really ask of pasta - it's pretty hard to screw up and even harder to make really good. In fact, I don't remember ever having pasta that I thought qualified as "really good," any more than I've ever had "really good" white rice. It's a basic starch - just don't screw it up and you're fine. Again, Olive Garden's pasta tastes just fine and feels good when you eat it - not too firm nor too soft. Personally, I don't like my pasta "al dente," and anyone who does might find Olive Garden's pasta too soft. That's their problem - it's perfect for me.

Alfredo - if anything, I'm an even bigger fan of alfredo than of marinara, at least when I eat out (my own marinara is, of course, beyond compare). Olive Garden's isn't the best I've ever had, but it's plenty rich and better than what I make at home

Soup - Olive Garden's Pasta e Fagioli is exceptionally better than the lame "bean-soup" I've had in other restaurants. The reddish broth is FAR more flavorful than I've had elsewhere, and it's one of my all-time favorite soups anywhere, any time. Which is almost too bad, because they Zuppa Toscana looks pretty good, too, but I never get it because I just can't pass up the Pasta e Fagioli. I also appreciate the fresh parmagiana (well, it's not fresh - that would be a contradiction in terms for this classic, aged, hard Italian cheese, but you get the idea) that they hand-grate on the soup in as big a pile as you like. I like a big, big pile.

Bread - the Olive Garden breadsticks are decent. I've had better and I've definitely had worse, though I admit that I'd prefer a flavorful Italian bread and butter. But the breadsticks are good enough.

Everything else - it'd be impossible to go through the menu item-by-item (well, it'd be boring, anyway. Somebody else can do it if they want), but you get the idea. Their Lasagna is at the low end of passable (certainly falling far short of Spaghetti Warehouse's classic 15-layer Lasagna), so I don't order it anymore. Their fried chicken cutlets for the Chicken Parmigiana, however, are delicious - tender and not (usually) too dry (though when it's not perfect, it's usually because it's a bit over-done). Their toasted ravioli appetizer is exceptional, and is also one of my favorite items.

Best of all, it's consistent. It's ALWAYS the same, and if it's not a 10 on a scale of 1-10, it's an 8.5. Better, it's the same 8.5 no matter which restaurant I'm at or which city I'm in. There might be local Italian restaurants that would rate a solid 10 on that scale, but a) I haven't had any luck finding one and b) I'd have needed to find one in every city I traveled to, or even in different quarters of each given city. Here in Syracuse, there's an Olive Garden nearby whether I'm on the northwest or southeast sides of the city. Convenience and a meal that I know in advance I'm going to enjoy counts for a lot.

So yes, I'm a discerning diner who knows what he likes and prefers chain "Smart Casual" restaurants to most of the alternatives. I've depended on Olive Garden and Outback Steakhouse over many years of travel, business dining and dates with my wife to guarantee delicious, dependable meals at a fair price. To all the people who deride these dining choices - I feel bad for you. I feel bad if you went there once or twice and somehow got bad food or bad service. I feel bad if your tastes are so refined that very good-quality food is beneath your standards. I feel bad that a consistent, convenient, reasonably-priced dining experience is denied to you (or by you). Ultimately, though, I'm okay with it - it decreases my wait-time for a table if you choose to eat somewhere else.

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