Welcome to "Schaefer," in which Eric Schaefer -- a local guy with a big (but discerning) appetite and a sense of humor to match -- takes on the Phoenix food scene.
Olive Garden is the poster child for corporate restaurant mediocrity. Dumbed-down food posing as "authentic," catering to the masses with sodium and fat-laden gruel.
Its corporate sister, Red Lobster, is slightly less offensive to many but hardly considered destination dining among the culinary cognoscenti. These corporate behemoths thrive, earning shareholders a tidy profit while dotting the American landscape with a sad but certain comforting sameness.
But this is not a story about why Olive Garden should be stripped from our malls, or why your shame from being seen at Red Lobster by your food nerd friends is somehow justified. I'm an egalitarian lover of food and, in my mind, Olive Garden and Red Lobster are gateway drugs -- an often necessary first step toward a more enlightened appreciation of food.
And that's not to say that's there is nothing enlightened about Olive Garden's Fettucine Alfredo, an artery-clogging hot mess of cream, gluten, and cheese. Nor is there anything wrong with Red Lobster's addictive Cheddar Bay Biscuits and Popcorn Shrimp.
We can argue for an eternity about what truly constitutes "good" or "authentic," but I'd bet that if you weren't faced with the judgment of your food snob friends that you, too, would find some satisfaction in them.
It's also important to note that in much of this country, Red Lobster and Olive Garden own the category of "destination dining." Guess what, food snob? Bumblefuck, Missouri, doesn't have a locavore movement, and "farm-to-table" only exists if you're the actual farmer. While I view the movement toward independent restaurants that focus on sustainability as a positive trend, we're lying to ourselves if we think that there isn't always going to be a place in the world for the Red Lobsters and Olive Gardens. Even a $15 plate of fried shrimp at Red Lobster is a special night out for a lot of people.
To me, as a child growing up in a comfortably middle-class family in St. Louis, Red Lobster was a special treat. Who remembers their Hush Puppies -- crispy on the outside and loaded with corny creaminess on the inside? All-you-can-eat popcorn shrimp wasn't just a meal, it was a delightful challenge for this growing boy.
And, in many ways, learning to eat seafood at a young age -- even if it was at Red Lobster -- prepared my palate to appreciate seafood as I grew older, my tastes becoming more varied and sophisticated. Red Lobster gave me a baseline appreciation so that when I moved to San Francisco as a young adult, I could go full-bore seafood addict. There's no shame in that.
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I think we've lost sight of the fact that food trends in big cities haven't yet made a big impact outside of those big cities. We're quick to judge people who eat at Olive Garden. "They're hicks," we say. "They don't know what real Italian food is." And I fully agree that there is much "better" Italian food to be had than what you find at Olive Garden. But I'd also argue that I'd rather someone try Italian food at Olive Garden than never at all. I've had the Maine lobster at Red Lobster and, other than the ambiance, I couldn't find a flaw.
What prompted me to write this rant is a press release I received earlier this week, stating that Olive Garden will soon be offering "Never Ending Pasta Bowl XVIII" and Red Lobster will have its 12th annual "Endless Shrimp" event. My initial reaction was to scoff, flaunt my food snob feathers and condemn Olive Garden and Red Lobster as signs of the impending apocalypse. But if these restaurants suddenly disappeared, thousands of people would be jobless, storefronts would be vacant, and a lot of people outside the hotbeds of the food revolution might not ever know the sweet briny pleasure of a fresh lobster.
And I don't think there's anything wrong with that at all.