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At Olive Garden and Red Lobster, change is good

[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Olive Garden at 6700 US 19 North

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Food and Wine Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 14, 2000

Updating the firmly entrenched chain restaurants is a tricky business. Olive Garden emerges as the big winner, while changes at the New Red are more about marketing than menu.

Don't know if you'll take this as good news or bad: Red Lobster and Olive Garden are trying to change.

If you love them as they are -- and parking lots are full across an America that can't cook supper -- you may be worried.

If you can't remember the last time these establishments darkened your dinner hour, your curiosity (or your skepticism) may be aroused. Count the Nibbler among the latter. So when I heard Olive Garden was updating menu and decor and saw ads for the "New Red," I was intrigued.

Change is dicey for the big chains. Call it dependability or sameness, consistency is their asset. Yet variety and modernization bring customers back and attract new ones. But changing 500 or 600 restaurants is a logistical challenge.

Darden Restaurants Inc., the Orlando group that put both Big Red and later Olive Garden all over the map (and also runs Bahama Breeze) has realized that both needed refreshing. Red Lobster brought affordable seafood to landlocked Midwesterners; Olive Garden showed us there was more to Italian food than red sauce. Today they are over 30 and 18, respectively. Competitors such as Carrabba's and Romano's are younger, fresher, better looking.

Olive Garden has made the biggest improvements, including the establishment of a culinary institute and restaurant in a Tuscan hill town for training and menu inspiration.

From the outside of the restaurant, you'd never guess how much the interiors have been transformed. The lobby now mimics a bar on a piazza. The walls are painted in tomato and sienna and feel ancient; the accents are rustic Italian ceramics, artful photography and casually grouped wine bottles. Only the rolling chairs and industrial carpeting suggest a cafeteria.

New touches on the menu do add authenticity and difference. Grilled pork tenderloin was overcooked (be careful with these low-fat pigs), but the olive oil, woodsy rosemary and roast potatoes demonstrated life beyond pasta; so does a Tuscan soup of sausage, potatoes and cabbage.

Of the handful of other items imported from the restaurant in Fizzano so far, ricotta tortelloni was rich and full in a good version of a Bolognese sauce. Penne Romana is the best vegetarian entree I've found in a chain: penne, green beans, tomatoes, olive oil and white wine.

Around the sides are tempting pastries, including a surprisingly good, classic tiramisu and terrific Italian cookies (the marble sized ones packed with pistachio are almost too good to share). Bread sticks are embarrassingly bland and soft for a restaurant trying to keep up with American trends, let alone claim an Italian accent.

The chain's partner in Tuscany is the Rocca delle Macie winery, so it's trying to make wine more prominent and accessible. Each year some servers will visit the vineyards and return to train colleagues and host customer tastings. The wine list is arranged from light to dry, and servers are happy to offer tastes -- and smart enough to know when a sweet lambrusco is what Grandma wants. I'd like a barbera or dolcetto included, but the range and prices are good: Almost every label is sold by the glass, plus bottles from $14.50 to big amarones at $48 and $110.

The big crustacean moves at a much slower pace. It has installed the New Red only around Tampa Bay so far because this area is its oldest market (Lakeland has the first Lobster of all). Changes will phase in nationwide after testing here.

[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Red Lobster at 6151 34th St. North

From what I've seen and tasted, however, there's more marketing than meals. Restaurants may be cleaner and brighter, but they have the mandatory ocean-blue-and-fishnet decor of too many seafood places. New on the menu are crunchy conch fritters and a grouper sandwich, about time for a Florida seafood joint but only a quarter-inch thick on my bun. This won't impress the locals.

Menus look cool, especially the appetizer/drinks/dessert notebook, but the content's not much fresher than a first mate's platter in any fish house. Cedar planked salmon, sesame crusted tuna, mussels in marinara may be staples elsewhere, but not here. How about a clambake, softshell crabs, smoked fish, real variety in finfish, a raw bar, tempura, fish stews, chowders or a world of seafood recipes beyond pasta and pseudo Cajun? Try an independent or a Legal Seafood or McCormick & Schmick when you're out of town.

What you do get here is seafood, once a rare luxury in many parts. There are shrimp, scallops, crab and such, fried, stuffed, grilled, broiled, blackened and, whenever possible, cheesed. Most of the seafood has a lively taste: Blackened salmon was clearly fresh and terrific; lobster tails were moist and rich; even little fried shrimp showed some spring. Have lobster cooked whole, not split and made easy; mine lost moisture and flavor in the process.

Too much else sagged and limped under stuffings, cheese and bland sauces that bear no resemblance to the menu photos. Crab Alfredo is full of rich comforting warm creamies, but ultimately it was more fattening than interesting.

No complaint about cheese in the Cheddar Bay biscuits; properly baked, these are the best side dish on the table (send some over to Olive, too). But vegetables are shameful, salads average, mashed potatoes taste like pablum (give in to the crispy fries), and gumbo is tepid. Maybe standard seafood entrees are fine, but I'd work up brag-worthy side dishes before taking this show on the road.

One element that Darden has down is service. In five locations, I encountered only one annoying server who wouldn't shut up. Everyone else was friendly, hustling (although the Lobster kitchens were lagging), caring about the restaurant and the customers. A corporate commitment to diversity shows in staff and clientele.

Servers here regularly caught errors, offered extras and juggled big families. One manager made a live lobster a biology class for a table of youngsters while cracking to nearby adults that it was the younger brother of Larry the L.

Such hospitality made Red Lobster and Olive Garden a staple of 20th century dining, but we want more for our dollar now. And they need more food and flash to catch up with a new century where the cuisine is as bright and shiny as the decor.

Red Lobster

  • 654 locations
  • HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday, Saturday.
  • DETAILS: Full bar. Smoking section provided.
  • PRICES: Dinner entrees, $7.99 to $18.75; children's menu available.

Olive Garden

  • 459 locations
  • HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, Saturday
  • DETAILS: Full bar. Smoking section provided.
  • PRICES: Dinner entrees, $7.95 to $15.95; children's menu available.

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