When I recently asked my friends whether any of them were fans of Olive Garden, the snarky reactions quickly rolled in. “Really?” said one. “Silence,” wrote another. A third said their husband liked it, leaving the impression that they were not thrilled about the choice.
But a fourth friend admitted their millennial daughter enjoyed going there for special occasions. Dining chains have become hot again, and Eater points out that this has meant good things for Olive Garden in particular. It had a record Valentine’s Day this year, and its parent company, Darden Restaurants, plans to open 20 more locations before the end of the year, in addition to the nearly 900 already in operation nationwide.
The last time I visited an Olive Garden was years ago in Terre Haute, Indiana, where I had gone to give a book talk at Indiana State. I offered to take my host to his favorite restaurant, and he picked the O.G. Once I read about the restaurant’s 2023 success, it seemed time to pay a return visit to Olive Garden and evaluate it in the context of its newfound popularity.
Walking into at the Olive Garden in Ann Arbor, Michigan for lunch, I noticed that the booths were filled with patrons of all ages, from babies to seniors, and several groups of Gen Z customers. They weren’t there with their parents—they were dining on their own dime.
Years ago, this Olive Garden was the proving ground for a bona fide culinary celebrity. Stephanie Izard, the first female winner of Top Chef who now owns a flock of restaurants, worked at this location throughout her junior and senior years at the University of Michigan. Wearing a tie with a salad print, she made salads for customers and learned how a big restaurant chain worked.
The students dining here now might not know Izard preceded them. James, our friendly waiter, gave us a clue to what’s attracting them. Scour TikTok and you will quickly learn that clips featuring Olive Garden’s plastic cheese grater have received millions of views. It’s the rotary kind in which you place a chunk of cheese and then spin a handle to grate it onto your food.
You can have grated cheese dispensed atop pretty much every item on the Olive Garden menu—soup, salad, pasta, or mains (and I’m sure you could get it on dessert if you really wanted it). Grater videos like this one have snared millions of views and generated so much demand that my Olive Garden ran out of the $14.95 devices and now has none to sell to customers. (They’re available in tons of different colors and styles on Amazon.)
Another draw for TikTokers is Olive Garden’s Never Ending Pasta Bowl, which allows patrons to pick a pasta, add a sauce and a topping, and then receive plate after plate of it. In true mukbang fashion, people are filming themselves ordering every conceivable combination, stuffing pasta in their mouths and getting millions of views online.
My dining companion and I weren’t interested in eating that much, but during the course of our meal, we pinpointed five things that make the restaurant so endearing.
In an era of touchscreen menus and fast casual concepts, there is an added sense of luxury in the sit-down (i.e. full-service) restaurant model. It is reassuring to have a host seat you and hand you a menu, then have your server walk up to take your order. I’ve grown so used to minimal contact at chain restaurants that it seemed almost nostalgic to interact with someone who could answer questions about the food and drinks.
For a full-service restaurant, Olive Garden is seemingly as adaptable to modifications as Taco Bell. Don’t want garlic on your breadsticks? Just tell them. Want to add some broccoli to your pasta dish? Simply ask for a side—and you can even have it steamed rather than tossed in butter. If you’d like the broccoli on top of the marinara, they’ll do that for you. There are gluten-free options, too, and though some entrees are known for being served drowning in sauce, you can always ask for less.
My friend got the lunch-sized eggplant parmesan, a pair of crispy discs accompanied by a mound of pasta. Two people could easily split it. Even though we only wanted cups of soup, James brought us each bowls and gave me an extra portion to take home. Each diner gets two breadsticks, more if you want. Our hot teas each came with two tea bags, slices of lemon, and quart-sized carafes of hot water that James happily refilled.
At a time when menu prices are skyrocking, Olive Garden remains one of the more budget-friendly options. Lunch items at my nearest location cost $8.99 for unlimited soup and salad (add $2 for breadsticks), $9.99 for various pasta dishes, and $10.99 for spaghetti and meatballs. You can create your own pasta for $12.99. Regular entrees climb up to the $20 range, but you’re likely to have enough leftovers to make an additional meal out of it. For those families that can’t make it an everyday option, it’s a relatively affordable luxury for special occasions.
The pickup desk is right next to the host stand, and there are dedicated parking spaces so customers get waltz in, grab their fettuccine Alfredo, and be back in their car in just a few steps. The servers in our section were routinely circling with carryout bags and to-go containers. Indeed, Olive Garden earns an almost equal satisfaction rating for its dine-in and takeout service.
Given all that, how did the food taste? In a word: fine. In fact, it was a notch above what I remembered. I liked my chicken soup; my garlic-free breadstick was hot; I could not finish all my spaghetti (though I ate the broccoli); and my friend could not finish theirs, either. The top-notch service was most memorable.
Olive Garden doesn’t pretend to be the equivalent of a restaurant by Emeril Lagasse, nor does it match the artisanal quality of the Pasta Grannies. But there’s no shame in liking it—and your enthusiasm for the chain might even go viral.