I'm convinced that Olive Garden is a culinary dividing line.
There are those who love the place, especially the breadsticks. And then there are those who despise it, calling it phony Italian, microwaved food.
For some, a trip to Olive Garden is a special treat. But others say the place is a fraud because the food is unlike anything served in Tuscany, contrary to the restaurant's promises.
No wonder 85-year-old newspaper writer Marilyn Hagerty struck a nerve when she wrote an innocent review about Olive Garden. She raved about the waitress, the decor, the salad and her chicken alfredo.
Her comments in the Grand Forks Herald went viral and Hagerty became an instant celebrity, although many poked fun at her.
"My booth was near the kitchen, and I watched the waiters in white shirts, ties, black trousers and aprons adorned with gold-colored towels," she wrote. "They were busy at midday, punching in orders and carrying out bread and pasta. As I ate, I noticed the vases and planters with permanent flower displays on the ledges. There are several dining areas with arched doorways. And there is a fireplace that adds warmth to the decor," wrote Hagerty.
The review went viral and gave Hagerty her 15 minutes of fame.
She reviewed about 1,500 other restaurants for the paper over her 60-year career. But it takes only one Olive Garden review to make people notice. That's because everyone has an opinion about Olive Garden, the place people either love or love to hate.
Consumers typically are very finicky about restaurants. I was that way, too, at one time.
In the 1980s and 90s, I worked as director of corporate communications for Blue Cross and Blue Shield. I traveled all over the country. When eating out, I judged restaurants based on how they served veal marsala (prior to veal becoming politically incorrect).
My own personal yardstick was whether they used delicate, fresh veal, which is desirable, or instead, a thick, breaded veal patty. I traveled alone and dined alone, so I'd sit and read my hometown newspaper, the TIMES NEWS.
I had a few friends working at the paper. But I felt I knew everybody on the staff through their daily work, even though I'd never met many of them. I followed all of the writers and enjoyed what each had to say.
I was a big fan of Marigrace Heyer, Bob Parfitt, Bob Urban, Ron Gower, Pattie Mihalik, Ed Hedes, Jim Zbick, Frederica 'Freddy' Winkler, Gail Maholick, Elsa Kerschner and the whole bunch. They established rapport with readers in a personal way and were very credible. In my opinion, they made the TIMES NEWS the best newspaper around.
Take Freddy Winkler, for example. She wrote a chatty, informal column called 'Me and my gals.' Freddy and her friends would travel to restaurants and other destinations on a regular basis. They'd arrive unannounced. Then, afterward, Freddy would pen an honest, unbiased column in which she'd describe the experience for everyone's benefit.
When I read that column, I felt I had been along on the trip. If you were lucky enough to know Freddy, you know what a special woman she was. A fun person to be around.
I'm not sure what Freddy would think of Olive Garden, but my best guess is she'd love it. And so do I. In fact, I can't think of anything better than sharing a few breadsticks with Freddy Winkler or with any of my 'old friends' at the newspaper. And maybe that's the moral to the story.
Fine dining has nothing to do with the place. Nor has it anything to do with veal marsala.
What makes dining fine is the people you're with. So it's not where you break bread that counts. It's with whom.
I've come to learn that food is necessary but overrated. We need vittles to feed the body. But our friends nourish the soul.
And that's the honest truth about fine dining.