I first experienced an Olive Garden many years ago. My dad picked it as a place to meet for dinner when our kids were young.
In my memory it was bland and plentiful, and there was a children's menu. That is all still true, with the additions of low-fat entrees (highlighted by an olive branch), a gluten-free menu, and detailed nutritional information about each dish, if you dare.
What sticks in the mind are those, "When you're here, you're family" ads and something about unlimited portions.
When I recently visited the Palo Alto Olive Garden, the unlimited part applied to the breadsticks, salad and soup that come with entrees, but not pasta. As the website put it: "Our Never Ending Pasta Bowl promotion has ended."
Breadsticks (150 calories each) are more bread than stick — soft, warm and inoffensive. Salad is a large bowl of flabby iceberg lettuce, carrot strings, a bit of cabbage and some salty croutons. A nice touch is that the salad plates are chilled. Olive Garden has a good handle on temperature, which may have been why my father liked it. He had a thing about temperature.
The minestrone soup was the best dish we had. It had visible vegetables, beans and macaroni pasta and a light touch that's not the norm at Olive Garden.
Appetizers run the gamut from stuffed to fried. Don't look for olive branches in this department. Sicilian Scampi ($12.50) offered a half-dozen large shrimp sauteed in white wine, garlic and lemon, with soggy garlic toasts. Six very stuffed porcini mushrooms ($7.65) were hot, and while very bready they were very welcome by the time they arrived. Pacing is not a highlight of Olive Garden service. It also took a very long time to get a glass of wine.
Venetian apricot chicken ($15.75) came with a few asparagus spears, broccoli and tomatoes. Scallops of chicken breast were lined so evenly they appeared to have grill marks painted on. This entree supplied only 350 calories, as opposed to its neighbor, Chicken Alfredo ($15.95) at 1,440 calories.
Eggplant Parmigiano ($13.95) came with spaghetti and 850 calories. Wisps of eggplant were lightly breaded but heavily fried, and buried in marinara and melted cheese.
The best entree we tried, capellini di mare ($18.50) offered a good portion of shrimp, clams, and mussels in a light sauce. And only 650 calories.
There was no way we could face dessert. We'd come very close to downing a day's worth of calories in one sitting.
The sitting is comfortable, in booths or rolling chairs. And the noise level is a relief from many overheated restaurants. But the why of Olive Garden still eludes me. It isn't cheap, and the food is so bland as to feel pre-digested, as at an assisted living facility.
Finally, our server either really doesn't like her job or was having a very bad day, but we didn't feel any of the warmth implied by "When you're here, you're family." Or perhaps we were like family she didn't like.
2515 El Camino Real, Palo Alto. (650) 326-5673.
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
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