As if he isn’t already wearing enough hats, our movie guru, Jud Cost, spurred on by a foul dining experience and armed with a large bottle of Tums, has been appointed MAGNET’s West Coast restaurant critic, a decision he may already regret.
It’s hard to believe the Olive Garden has been in business for more than 30 years with more than 800 restaurants worldwide—especially if you’ve ever eaten there. My wife dined at the Palo Alto, Calif., location 20-plus years ago and warned me that it was pretty bad. But nothing short of the angel of death imbedding a flaming axe in my front door could have kept me from trying the place at least once. Tonight, I got my chance.
I mean, how bad could a place be that serves the Italian holy trinity of fried calamari, a green salad with vinaigrette dressing and a big slab of lasagna? The answer descended upon us like rogue waves when you’re surfing the ocean coming from the sewage treatment plant after a summer squall has caused a tank overload.
The seawater metaphor is particularly apt, as every dish we had (short of my OK glass of house Chianti) was drowned in salt. Even one of their advertising signature items, “an unlimited supply of bread sticks,” has been unmistakably bathed in salt. No big deal. The sticks are nothing more than elongated hot dog buns with a crust. Unlike most California restaurants, their basket of fried calamari contained no circular pieces of tentacle or whole baby squid. These were in strip form, tinted an odd beige and, again, marinated in salt. The house salad consisted of 80 percent white lettuce that tasted like it had done hard time in a warehouse. The slices of tomato could have come from a jar, if that’s possible.
My wife’s entree was a lightly sautéed, over-salted chicken breast that could have been found in a fast-food joint’s chicken sandwich. I had to ask our waiter if my entree really was lasagna. Instead of the majestic slice you’d expect, this was a sad little lump covered with melted cheese and what could have been Campbell’s tomato soup, thickened with arrowroot.
So yeah, it was bad. Our meal immediately vaulted into my top five of bad restaurant lifetime experiences, right next to the British place in Winchester whose waiter, a Basil Fawlty look-alike, raised a big stink when I complained that my duck breast was still partially frozen. Our Olive Garden server was excellent. What he served us left a brackish taste in my mouth that required a quart of skim milk to quench once we returned home.
Overwhelmed by the bad food, I forgot to mention one marvelous highlight. They have non-stop jazz playing here while you eat. And not just that unidenfifiable Muzak they play in some joints. What’s the last time you dug Charlie Parker in high flight in a local eatery? We also heard my fave track by Horace Silver, “Cookin’ At The Continetal,” and some groovy sides by Anita O’Day. It eases the pain somewhat.