We're going to bet that most of you didn't know there was an Olive Garden in San Francisco. Yes, friends, here in the capital of food snobbery, in this great foodinista haven of ours where modern Cal-Mediterranean cuisine first took root, you can indeed find a little Hospitaliano, right over at the Stonestown Galleria. Inspired, for obvious reasons, by the marvelous reportage last week of North Dakota critic Marilyn Hagerty, Grub Street decided to accompany some friends to this Olive Garden for our own edification, on a chilly Saturday night and honestly it wasn't terrible.
Let us begin by explaining that while the trip may have seemed ironic when a friend first sent out the all-caps text, we all quickly got very sincerely excited by the sound of unlimited breadsticks and salad with no-nonsense Italian dressing, not to mention deep-fried ravioli. There really is no point, at this late date, in writing a take-down piece about an Olive Garden, or trying to get a big laugh at the expense of a well established chain that was mocked frequently, over a decade ago, on Will & Grace as evidenced by the backlash that followed all the Hagerty-inspired snark. No, we honestly had just never been to one, and thought it was about time. And we weren't about to ask "Is it local?" about the chicken, or expect treviso in our salad. We were hungry.
The faux-Tuscan dcor in the Stonestown restaurant, which is next door to Chevy's, isn't nearly as fresh and "welcoming" as the Grand Forks, North Dakota location that Ms. Hagerty dutifully describes. It feels worn and basement-like, like a mall restaurant in a far-off town. A pair of partitioned dining rooms flank the brightly lit, indoor-patio bar area, and it was unclear why, if people were dining at the patio tables in the nearly empty bar we were not offered this option, but we were instead given one of those vibrator puck things and told there would be a 25-minute wait. Suffice it to say we felt like strangers in a strange land, though some of us had admittedly grown up eating in other Olive Gardens, elsewhere, long ago.
Upon seating ourselves on the "terrazza," we decided we had better booze it up, and one friend zeroed in on the Toasted Marshmallow Amore, a bachelorette-party-friendly concoction of Kahlua, amaretto, Bailey's, toasted marshmallow syrup, and ice cream, with a bit of chocolate syrup circling the martini glass. We let him run with that one, and ordered ourselves a gin and tonic with a splash of Campari. "What's that?" the waitress asked. "It's red," we said, and she ran off to ask the bartender. Surprisingly, though they didn't have Campari back there, they did have Aperol, and the bartender sent out a taste to make sure we liked it. We told our plucky waitress that was just grand, and she went off to fill our order.
"Those people do appear to be eating a full-on meal," said one of us, gesturing toward a couple silently devouring two large plates of creamy pasta. We remained confused about the seating protocol, and continued perusing the laminated photo-menus labeled "Winter Warmth." So, you see? Seasonal. The trends trickle down.
"The calories are on here," someone groaned.
"That marshmallow thing you just ordered is like two plates of pasta."
Within ten minutes our vibrator puck started dancing across the patio table, before our drinks had even arrived, so that caused a brief panic. We were told they were able to transfer the drinks, even though our waitress had already asked us to pay separately, so this added to the tension. We were then led to one of the dining rooms, which turned out to be a vast, brown-carpeted rumpus room with tables and booths at the edges and a giant black stain in the middle of the floor that was probably hidden by a table on a normal evening. It turned out that several round tables had been shoved off to one side to accommodate a party of twenty an Asian family celebrating a twelve-year-old girl's birthday thus the bare center of the room. And luckily, everything was on wheels! Even the upholstered casino chairs we were in, which made such rearrangement easy. Suffice it to say, Michael Bauer would have plotzed and left by now.
Though our new, fresh-faced food server did not offer us any raspberry lemonade, he was quite attentive and thorough. He was careful to explain which items contained cheese (nearly all of them) to one person at the table who was allergic, and he was very quick on the draw with the water and bread refills, and to bring us fresh plates after we'd destroyed our appetizer sampler. His only misstep, service-wise: He didn't offer any of us a taste of the $43 Super Tuscan that we ordered (the second-most expensive wine on the menu) before pouring out four glasses. In any case, it was fine.
As for the food, it was as over-seasoned and plentiful as one should expect from any casual-dining chain. We'll note that Olive Garden's marinara sauce is pretty much just canned tomatoes (and not great ones), but the five-cheese marinara that we ordered to go with the never-ending, pleasantly seasoned breadsticks was pretty good. Also good: those parmesan-crusted fried ravioli. How can you go wrong, really? The fried zucchini were also crisp and competently fried, and the bottomless bowl of salad was as well-dressed and fresh as we could have hoped. In fact, we probably should have stopped after appetizers, bread, and salad, and we would have left happy, but we pressed on with enormous entres, all of which were salted with a pretty heavy hand (it's unclear to us how much of this stuff comes pre-seasoned, frozen, and what's made to order). The stuffed chicken marsala was really too salty to eat, and busting out all over with salty cheese. And the pasta served with our Grilled Shrimp Caprese was overcooked, but we would not have been too picky if the dish were really delicious, which it wasn't so much; it was all kind of wanly buttery and salty, and the shrimp were limp and likely had not seen a grill since before the freezer.
Eventually we all became quiet and sank into our carb comas. The wine was gone. The party of twenty sang Happy Birthday and left, and one of the tables on wheels was rolled back over the stain. We couldn't really stomach dessert, though our friend seriously considered a second Toasted Marshmallow Amore. "That was, honestly, the highlight," he said.
"Was everything okay?" asked our attentive server, noting that we had all left about a third of our entres untouched. We assured him everything was fine, just fine. "Can I get you any more salad? Breadsticks? Wine?" he asked, even though we were the last people left in the restaurant and the mall had long closed, by 11 p.m. He had places to be perhaps a club, perhaps some black-light bowling at Serra Bowl but he wasn't about to shirk his Hospitaliano duties.
We tipped him well, and wandered out into the deserted parking lot, muttering about calorie totals and the treadmill.
But those breadsticks ... they were just the kind of oiled, freshly baked and golden-crusted white bread we'd been hoping for, no more, no less. Olive Garden may not be one of the "most beautiful" restaurants in San Francisco, as the new one in Grand Forks was to Ms. Hagerty and we probably won't be back this decade but we're certain we aren't the only ones circling back for tours of the menu this week, and walking away really full.