The Grand Forks Herald reviews the new Olive Garden in town

Here's a sentence I never expected to type: You should really read the Grand Forks Herald's review of The Olive Garden.

This is in North Dakota, for those not familiar. With almost 100,000 people in the metro area, it's the third-largest city in the state. It recently got its first Olive Garden and critic Marilyn Hagerty got in ahead of the lunch rush.

The place is impressive. It’s fashioned in Tuscan farmhouse style with a welcoming entryway. There is seating for those who are waiting ...

At length, I asked my server what she would recommend. She suggested chicken Alfredo, and I went with that. Instead of the raspberry lemonade she suggested, I drank water.

She first brought me the familiar Olive Garden salad bowl with crisp greens, peppers, onion rings and yes — several black olives. Along with it came a plate with two long, warm breadsticks.

There are several things to love about this review. For me, it's about the nostalgia. If you grew up in places where Olive Garden and Red Lobster really were the best restaurants in town, you can't help but feel a warm twinge of homesickness reading this. It's not judgement. I can't judge. I chose to go to Applebee's for my fancy high school graduation dinner.

But the best part about this review comes from some background information dug up by intrepid Duluth News reporter Brandon Stahl. In the course of verifying that this was, in fact, a real review, he uncovered something wonderfully upper-Midwestern. First, read the full review. Done that? Great. Now, get this—that was not a positive review of The Olive Garden.

Stahl talked to a former Grand Forks Herald editor who says, "By the way, [Marilyn Hagerty's] regular readers will recognize that as a fairly negative review since she spent a lot more time on the ambience than the food."

Cultural context: It's the difference between a glowing review, and a passive-aggressively negative one.

Via David Brauer

Image: Enjoy the Gift of Italy., a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from herrkrueger's photostream


  1. LOL,

    I was in Houston, where restaurants abound both good and bad both chain and exclusive. 

    I guess it’s a teen thing maybe, me and my friends thought that TGIF was The Bomb.

    That may have had something to do with the fact that they always, always served us alcohol from 16 up. 

    Until one night, after we were so hammered that the wait staff were concerned we would break our heads as we kept accidentally hitting the light over the table each time we got up to release alcohol into the plumbing.

    The manager came by, said, “I’m sorry but we can’t serve you anymore tonight”, my friend was a bit put off by that, but then cheered up and replied, “That’s okay man, we’re all underage anyway.” 

    So began the search for a new watering hole.

  2. Yep, that’s Marilyn. She and her late husband Jack were the heart and soul of the Herald for what must be going on 60 years now.  And yes, that is how you read a Marilyn review. It’s easier in the paper where her review is usually laid out in four columns and you just count one star for each column talking about food and zero for talking about the decor. Her most negative review included a bit about how nice the restaurant’s parking lot was. 

      1. I’ve always wanted to write a negative film review focused entirely on praising whatever catering service was used on set, “because the actors all looked remarkably well-fed.”

      2. The image used in this piece is a really classic use of the Papyrus font, invoking the timeless feel of the rustic countryside and ancient traditions

    1.  Little known fact: The same year The Who released My Generation, Keith Moon opened a buffet in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

      Everybody’s gotta have a hobby, I guess.

  3. “By the way, [Marilyn Hagerty’s] regular readers will recognize that as a fairly negative review since she spent a lot more time on the ambience than the food.” 
    Which means she got it exactly right, as the Olive Garden is more about ambiance than anything. My shorthand crack about the place is that it’s Italian food for people who don’t like Italian food. 

  4. I have to admit to my native FlyoverLand-ness. As I was reading the review I was lol’ing at how ppl would think this is a positive review.

    Ah the “scathing politeness” of Midwestern criticism.

  5. As a native of ND, the passive aggressive “Minnesota Nice” of that not-quite glowing restaurant review makes me a little homesick.

    1. Came to say the Minnesota Nice seems to be leaking across the boarder.
      It’s probably all the students from MN rubbing off on the locals a bit, don’t ‘cha know? 

    2. Passive-aggressive writing is a real skill, e.g. “They did the best they could”.

      1. It’s an amazing skill. And it’s such a regional culture thing. Which is awesome to me. People don’t do this in Kansas. If my Grandma didn’t like your restaurant the best you’d get out of her would be, “It was different.”

        What Minnesotans/Wisconsinites/NoDaks greet with politeness and passive aggressivity, Kansans deal with through stony silence and disapproving faces. 

  6. Strangely, I get this. The town I grew up in was small enough that a 24 hour gas station with a taco bell in it was a big thing. Between that and a Denny’s up the road we had somewhere to go past 7PM.

    1. Pff, I grew up in a place that didn’t have  Walmart, let alone a Denny’s!  (They do have a small Walmart now, though … but still no Denny’s.) :)

    2. I used to work with an American nurse who had been mostly raised in Saudi Arabia.  One day, we got a float nurse who had also been raised there.  They spent their break reminiscing about how excited everybody was when Jeddah got a Safeway.

  7. I have to say- that is better than 99% of the “journalism” that I see pushed out by most of the papers that I pick up these days. Factual, informative, and a bit humble. None of the blog-inspired, “WELL I THINK…” nonsense that seems to have proliferated through every bit of our modern media.

    I wish there were more people of that woman’s caliber in the business today. I realize it’s just a snippet about Olive Garden, but the fact that she didn’t take the, “Ugh, Olive Garden is such a cliche” or “OMG OLIVE GARDEN IS THE BEST EVAR!!!!!1!” tracks straight in to pop culture hell- that seems like a rarity nowadays.

  8. Hah.  I’ve been to Grand Forks.  Twice!  My mom grew up there.  My grandmother, who still lives there along with my uncles and a cousin, is actually bit of a big deal there, as was my grandfather before he passed (he was a flight instructor at the university).  Nifty!  This kinda made my morning. :)

    It’s gorgeous there. I really enjoyed my visits. Got to see my uncle play in his band at a cool bar. The tap beer was only $3. I was happy.

  9. This review can be considered a nearly canonical example of “damning with faint praise”.  Loved it.

    1.  You got it right. It isn’t “passive aggressive”, it’s the old time adage of if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all. Let everyone else figure out why you aren’t saying anything.

  10. Aw! I went to UND in Grand Forks and I remember driving to Fargo to go to the Olive Garden when it opened. We got in at 5:00 and there was still a 15-minute wait to be seated. So exciting that Grand Forks now has its own and people there can finally realize that Olive Garden kind of sucks.

  11. I have three Aunts, who like my mother, are Minnesota/Wisconsin raised German Lutherans (all ELCA, with a little Missouri Synod thrown in when they are being, ummm…close minded?).  And, I must say that the politeness they show in public matched with their very strong willed, DIY ability is ninja like in its practice.

    What Ms. Hagerty accomplished here is a very high art that must be learned in situ. ie-I ain’t got it as we moved out of St. Paul before I finished puberty.  I can only hope, as I trudge through peri-menopause, that I can reach deep down inside, find this, dust it off, and put it into practice.  So thanks for the reminder.

    That said, wtf happened to Michelle Bachman, as she is the antithesis of such midwestern decorum?

    1. God I love Pizza Ranch. But how she skipped the chicken, I don’t know. It is the best thing on the menu.

      And half a glass of Sprite? She lives on the edge.

    2. My wife and I thought this one was ridiculous when it came out last month. “I found the canned peach slices appealing”. I had trouble getting past that sentence.

  12. Just how unassuming a restaurant critic IS Marilyn? Well, she’s got a giant picture of her FACE next to her review. And if you need me to explain why THAT’S not the greatest idea for a restaurant critic, chances are you live in a town with less than 100,000 people in it. What is it the kids say…? “You’re doing it wrong.”

    I remember when I lived in Milwaukee. The Journal-Sentinel’s restaurant critic Dennis Getto was like a bloody CIA agent. My wife used to know the maitre-‘d of one of the best restaurants in town, and they had grainy, blurry surveillance-cam pictures of the guy tacked up in the kitchen. And when Dennis came by for his review, they STILL missed him. BECAUSE HE WAS WEARING A DISGUISE. And the best part is, once they found that out? They couldn’t be sure which version of him was the “real” one…or even if either was. Didn’t matter in their case though, since he wound up loving the place anyway…and rightly so. 

    When Dennis died, the Journal-Sentinel ran a really touching obituary rhapsodizing his years of service, which HAD been genuinely marked by good writing, excellent knowledge, and a very fair approach to criticism. And they topped off the article with a HUGE picture of his smiling mug, with the caption, “At long last, we can reveal the face of our beloved restaurant critic.”      

    Guess Marilyn missed the memo. 

    1. Ah, but this misunderstands Marilyn perfectly. She is not a critic but a reviewer. She will tell you what to expect when you go to eat at a place and let you decide for yourself whether you will like it or not.  A critic will tell you whether you should like something or not.
      Lord knows our culture could use more reviewers and fewer critics.

  13. I wish that I liked Olive Garden as much as everybody else. Everybody else wants to eat at the Olive Garden, I want Korean food.

  14. My wife and I live in Sioux Falls, SD and had our wedding rehearsal dinner at the local Olive Garden. Inexplicably, people around here love it and there’s always a line out the door. I’m not a man of refined tastes, but I’m not so naive as to think OG’s lame ass, faux fancy pants dining is much more than a glorified Godfather’s.

  15. Those of us from the upper midwest would notice right away that she never said she liked the food. If she did, she would have maybe said it was ‘not too bad.’  LOL

  16. I totally get this. I once wrote restaurant reviews for a small town paper, and the unwritten rule I developed was, “never write anything bad about anyone ever.” It worked!

  17. One of the other comments here about “Minnesota Nice” nails it.  Not a trace of irony or sarcasm to be found anywhere in the prose–or at such a molecular level as to be invisible.  Matter-of-fact.   WYSIWIG.  Hemingway-like.

  18. I love these lines from her column on a trip to Florida.

    “P.S. An elderly white-haired gentleman leaned over me when I was sitting on a bench in Florida. He said, “Say something! Say something!”I thought he was trying to pick me up. Then I realized he wanted to know if his hearing aid was working. He had just paid to have it fixed and wanted to be sure about it.”

  19. M-Hag’s a nut and a half. She recently reviewed the cafeteria food in the city’s hospital and remarked that the cafeteria could use more color and cheer.  Yeah, because I wouldn’t want to be bummed out for any reason in a HOSPITAL.

    1. Cheerful might be overdoing it, but I’d say non-depressing would be a very good start for a hospital cafeteria.

  20. Pretty charming. Would love Marilyn to be a guest blogger on BB. But I’d be terrified she’d inadvertently read some of the comment threads. Thanks for posting.

  21. I’m almost certain that my own grandmother ghost wrote this review.

    OK, pretty sure.

  22. I’m not saying BB did this, but it makes me so damn sad that this is getting passed around in web in a typically hipsterish mocking manner. “Ugh, Olive Garden. Ugh, Flyover Country.” This is one of the sweetest, most genuine things I’ve ever read on this nightmare white noise mess called the internet, especially when you see who wrote it. I guess this is why we can’t have nice things.

    1. I think you’re misreading the reaction. At first it’s confusion; why would someone review an Olive Garden? Then it’s the realization that this is a sort of midwestern, boomer version of hipster mocking.

      I guess we’re not so different after all.

    2. I was already to expect the hipsterish mocking thing (see also: “North Dakota tries to be cool, fails” but what a lovely surprise. I even had an anti-hipsterish mocking thing all queued up (“Yes yes, North Dakota: uncool. We get it now.”) Guess I’ll pocket that one for later.

      I used to live in Killdeer (pop. 600, 30mi. north of Dickinson) … on weekends we’d drive 5 hours to Billings just to eat at the Olive Garden.

      1. I have a friend from Dickinson.  Yes, that’s right: someone on BB knows where you used to live without needing a map!

        She used to drive to Fargo once a month to have a “real” Saturday night.  She’d leave on Saturday morning, get back on Sunday (driving through the night).

  23. When we went Grand Forks, the thing that impressed us were the barn like home grown restaurants  with 400 or more seats. There never seemed to be more than 30 people sitting down, until we tried to get a seat for Sunday brunch.

  24. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel kind of insulted by this.  I’m from the upper midwest, from an impoverished town that had one fancy restaurant that was a big name chain restaurant, and all the subtle jabs about the culture and area just makes this feel like you’re putting us on display as freaks and simpletons and really not in a good way.

    1. I’m from the upper midwest as well (a town so small we didn’t even have chain restaurants!), and I’m just more shocked at the  fact that boing boing seems to have such a boner for ND lately.  I don’t feel mocked so much as I feel like people are just perplexed and intrigued by us–and we are intriguing.

    2. Eric, I’m from not the upper midwest, but the middle midwest (the plains? whatever you call Kansas). I now live in the upper midwest. I am not subtley jabbing and definitely not trying to do a simpleton and freaks thing. This is my experience, too.

      I love this review because a) it reminded me of how honestly exciting it is to get a new restaurant in town that you’ve heard people talk about for years and never gotten to try and b) the writing style is wonderfully unaffected and, I think, intentionally funny. 

      I will confess to being utterly enamored, in an outsidery way, of the way upper-midwesterners do the polite critique. It’s not something I grew up with in Kansas and I’ve really developed a fondness for it since moving to Minnesota. The fact that this is a negative review is awesome to me. I don’t mean that to be insulting. 

      In fact, the other reason I posted this was because I guessed it was going to end up going viral to some extent and wanted to get a respectful angle on it that I was pretty sure other websites wouldn’t give it. 

      1. That said, I did mock the North Dakota tourism ad. Because it was a crappy ad. 

        There are plenty of crappy ads about New York City and California. I haven’t mocked any here though because I don’t see those ads very often. I’m aware of what’s going on in the Midwest, where I live. I’m out of the loop on stupid things that happen in the parts of the country that are only good for short vacations. 

      2. I think I may have developed a skewed view of stuff like this since moving from northern MN to Portland, OR, where midwesterners really are the butt of way too many jokes and insults.  Thanks for clarifying.  It’s nice to hear someone NOT mocking how nice people from up there can be.

        1. Spend more time away from the plague of hipsters and pseudo-radicals.  The other 95% of Portland doesn’t care about midwesterners. As a  midwestern transplant I’ve never heard a joke from the other 95% out here at the expense of midwesterners.  Californians, on the other hand…

        2. I’m not sure why but it seems like people have a compulsion to make fun of other people to their face about where they’re from. Whenever I travel out of state I tell people I’m from Columbus Ohio (my sister went to college there so I know a bit about it) and not Utah because it’s either ‘are you getting a drink because it’s illegal there*’ or the one that gets on my nerves ‘how many wives do you have? hurr hurr’

          On the other hand though it seems like Californians are the most reviled people in America (esp in other western states) and are treated like Nu-age carpetbaggers 
          *Except for Colorado I think, Utah has more micro-brewers than any of the surrounding states. And while the booze laws may be somewhat restrictive they’re not as retarded as Pennsylvania’s and there’s no dry counties.

          1. On the other hand though it seems like Californians are the most reviled people in America

            Outside the US, California is viewed as a separate and far more acceptable nation. Everyone on earth (outside the US) has a cousin in California.

      3. This reminded me of watching television in Hawaii during a 2002 visit. Two facts:

        A) Television was imported from mainland US and stock advertising was shown repeatedly which included Olive Garden commercials at least once per half-hour.

        B) There are no Olive Gardens in Hawaii.

        1. Do you get Cici’s ads? I live in Utah and we get them even during primetime; looking at the locations map they seem to be a mostly east and south coast and totally devoid in the north west.

          1. I don’t recall if those played as well but there were a couple of brands advertised that weren’t on the island.

            And they’re taunting you with Cici’s? Jerks. 

            Imagine a Pizza Hut all you can eat bar as a restaurant and now you know what it’s like to eat at Cici’s.

          2. When I was a kid some of the Pizza Huts were sit down and had a ‘brunch’ buffet, but now all of them seem to be only delivery*. Oh and Godfather’s pizza was like that too, but better. Then it closed up, and like 15 years later a delivery only one opened close to my parent’s house, but it was like it was an entirely different restaurant.

            Also I have relatives in Las Vegas and it appears there’s quite a few down there. Sounds interesting.

            * and here’s the one by my house

      4. A journalist friend of mine made a really good point about this article that I hadn’t considered:

        “Reviews are mostly meaningless in this size market. Because you can’t dare write anything negative about any local business, for fear of losing their advertising. So, if you write a review, you have to be neutral to positive about everything, lest you not get printed,
        and then you have no credibility. Marilyn’s column sustains because she has an engaging voice, and her reviews aren’t so much reviews as they are stories, and readers connect with that quality.”

      5. Maggie, I came back to this after reading your Twitter comments to say that I’m glad you posted it. I totally get it even though I’m not from this type of town, and I think the BB audience is valuable as a relatively positive counter-point to the nastiness on other sites.

        But can I just say, the reason why people from NY and CA (I’ve lived in both) consider these kinds of places “flyover country” is exactly because on the coasts you don’t have to settle for a mediocre chain restaurant – or drive five hours to find something interesting – if you don’t want to. And what advantages there may be to living in that type of town are lost on us.

        Of course… Applebee’s easily is the most popular restaurant in Buffalo’s suburbs (other national chains only recently started moving in), and I’ve eaten there many times with my family – I’m not a big-city guy. I can barely tolerate living here, though, because it’s close enough to Toronto and NYC that I grew up knowing how much more interesting big-city living is – which I think most people from “flyover” towns don’t get.

        But… after living in Orange County, CA (and extensive travel in LA, SF, and NYC) I also share your viewpoint that crowded coast cities are ultimately better as a place to visit instead of a place to live (and many parts of southern California are way worse than flyover cities anyway).

        Still looking for that perfect place, I guess :)

        1. Hey Chris, I think I get what you’re saying here, but, um, we do have cities and urban areas out here. In fact, most of the population of the Midwest lives in cities and urban areas. 

          1. Haha, of course, you’re right. Typical city slicker (that’s what you call us, right?) professing his ignorance of the middle states here :)
            (I was specifically referring to small towns, which is the image of the middle states people from the coasts have ;)

          1. Traverse City Michigan eh? What makes it better than the rust-belt Great Lakes city I live in now (Buffalo)? :)

    3. I didn’t take it that way at all.  In fact, I posted my profound respect for the social skills of the reviewer.  I know it sounds really dorky, but it reminded me of the importance of the adage, “if you can’t say something nice don’t say it all”.

      Yeah, a few folk got snarky in their comments, and all I can say is they just…don’t …get…it.  Which kind of puts them on display.  

  25. Maggie, you’re possibly the only writer who could make an Olive Garden review sound intriguing enough for me to actually read it (…and I did).

  26. Yup, she noticed:

    Love the final lines:

    “Hagerty said her daughter, Gail Hagerty of Bismarck, urged her to read the Facebook comments about her review.

    “I told her I’m working on my Sunday column and I’m going to play bridge this afternoon, so I don’t have time to read all this crap,” she said.

    And, she noted, although chain restaurants, buffets and truck stops have been subjects of her reviews, she has eaten at The White House. Twice.”

    1. “I don’t have time to read all this crap…”

      I was wrong earlier. She would like the comment threads.

  27. Thanks Maggie for posting this and for making sure there’s a place where it’s discussed respectfully and even affectionately. The snide this column has been getting has been really annoying me, having once lived in an upper-Illinois town where we wept with joy when we got a Popeye’s. (And the Minnesota-Nice, or ND equivalent, is making me homesick.)

  28. What a b&^!h!

    This made my night.  And thanks for decoding, I wouldn’t have bothered to read the whole thing or would have taken at face value.

    Her review was delightfully catty.  I love the slam about being seated by the kitchen.

  29. I haven’t been in Europe for a while, so I wasn’t aware how bad the economy was getting. I certainly didn’t imagine it had got to the point where Italy is being offered for sale as a a $25 gift card.

  30. Happy to see BoingBoingers give the reviewer the respect she deserves. From her photo, she looks to me like someone who’s been asked to put up with a lot of crap over the years. She can see it coming a mile away.

    (my year in Minneapolis was the closest I’ve come to civilization in these United States.)

  31. There are lots of geninue Italian restaurants in Australia due to the influx of post-war immigrants, but no Olive Garden.  The only Olive Garden I’ve been to was in Japan and it was quite nice, but I have no idea how similar it was to outlets in the US.

    1. When Japan gets American restaurant chains weird (and wonderful) things can happen to them. See Pizza Hut: 

      I ~desperately~ want those pizza crust ball rolls.

  32. I grew up in Fargo and chose to have my Fancy Birthdays at the local Kon Tiki.  I therefore assumed that Polynesian food was readily available in the rest of the world, but now living in NYC it would appear that really isn’t the case.

    There are surprises everywhere it would seem.

    1. Like when I left the greater Kansas City metro and realized that not everyone has easy access to decent (let alone fabulous) BBQ. And that most of the free world is sadly devoid of burnt ends. 

    2. Wow…Kon Tiki! My neighbor’s kids appeared in the ads for that restaurant, dressed in their karate outfits.
      Do you remember Uncle Sam’s shark dinner?
      That’s right — Fargo had Polynesian food AND shark! So you big city slickers can just suck it. ; )

  33. I live in Grand Forks and I have to say there are a few really good  (not chain) restaurants here. However, you may see pheasant and bison on the menu! We are on the Plains after all. The Olive Garden is nothing special, and most people here know that. I feel it’s almost a sort of  tradition around here that when something new opens, you have to check it out. Even if you know it’s going to be mediocre… at best ! haha

    1.  I live in Grand Forks too and while I appreciate the local restaurants (Sanders, Toasted Frog, etc.) they are far too expensive and inappropriate to bring my children.  Why is it so shocking that people may want a review of a chain restaurant?  Is life that different for families on the coasts?  I don’t think so.  This is much ado about nothing.  (Except that a few snobbish people want to make a name for themselves.)

  34. Oh, and by the way…now I’ll have to wait even longer to try the Grand Forks Olive Garden.  After all this publicity, the lines will be out the doors again and I’m not waiting outside in this weather!  Thank goodness Applebee’s is close by;)

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