The Olive Garden, Or, When One Door Closes, Another Opens

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As you've probably heard by now, Buffalo Chow is shutting down. Readers asked why, and so we posted the following "epic" series of messages to our @buffalochow Twitter account on the evening of June 13, 2011, responding to general and specific inquiries about the site's future. We would have told the story a little more eloquently and formally in a full-length article, but since we were tweeting with 140-character (and time) limits, the structure's a little off. To provide a sense of closure, what you'll find here is a cleaned-up version of the original collection of tweets, plus a few excerpts from the question and answer session that followed.

As all great stories do, this one begins and ends with The Olive Garden.

A month and a half ago, we went with friends to a bowling alley to celebrate Christina's birthday - the relaxed, informal way she wanted to enjoy her day. It was just four of us, drinking beer and having fun. At some point, two people in the group noted that they were genuinely excited about the upcoming opening of the Olive Garden on Transit. I won't say which two, but neither was me. This, of course, led to a discussion of why the Olive Garden either did or did not suck - quite possibly more than any Italian place in Buffalo.

The Olive Garden fans quickly brought up the unlimited bread sticks and salad, pointing out that the former could be made better with a side of alfredo sauce. I pointed to the utterly mediocre rest of the menu, and Jonathan Gold's amusing, accurate April 1 review of the place. And I scoffed at the idea that people could get excited about a place as bad as the Olive Garden, particularly based on one cheap lunch special.

Fast forward to last week. Dinner plans with the same amazing friends were made without my involvement. The joke was to be on me: everyone else decided that we were going to the Olive Garden, which had just opened on Transit a few weeks ago. There was a call-ahead reservation for 6:30pm. So it was going to happen, my taste be damned. And that was entirely fine by me. I decided to do something entirely different so that I, too, could enjoy the meal.

I would review it. But, unlike Jonathan Gold, whose review stands on its own, I was not going to go full snark. That's not my style. I was going to have fun.

I was going to drink my entire meal from the cocktails menu. The image you see above was going to be the first picture in the review.

We arrived 5 minutes early for our 6:30 call-ahead seating. The place was packed. People were flowing out onto the sidewalk. I recall seeing jeans shorts and big hair.

We went over to the bar to wait for our table, and I was just smiling. I filled our friends in on the plan for the night. We ordered our first drinks. The ladies picked sangrias, describing them as vaguely fruity water with little alcohol content (but nice strawberries).

I ordered this guy, the Limoncello Lemonade. I've been learning about limoncello recently and wanted to sample the Olive Garden's take. It tasted like lemonade without a drop of alcohol in the glass - just sugar, ice and vague traces of lemon - but it probably carried a very low proof, unlike actual limoncello.

Nearly an hour passed and we hadn't been seated. Thankfully, we were with friends. One went over to ask what's taking so long. The Olive Garden staff did. not. care. that they had blown a hour of our time.1 Nor did I. I was two drinks in at this point, thanks to the "Italian Margarita." The bartender actually laughed when I said "Authentic Italian Margarita." It was, for the record, the single best drink of the night - an amaretto shot dumped into the cooled orangey-tequila ice stew, and reasonably sized.

At 7:25, our red LED buzzer went off, so we made our way through the crowd to the front, where a member of the staff seated us. There was no "sorry for the wait;" we were just another name on the computer's list that just happened to have come up next on the screen. Our server was a sharper version of Kenneth from 30 Rock, and really nice. We were totally friendly with him. It wasn't his fault we'd waited.

Soon after we sat down, I ordered another two drinks. I was also not really caring one bit about whipping out my DSLR or taking pictures.

We ordered our meals. I decided to order the "Mussels di Venice" because they would have been the funniest thing to pass out in after drinking. Everyone ordered the stupid salad and breadsticks. I did, too, because I was 2/5 of the way to drunk and it sounded good at that moment.

The bowl of salad for four arrived with just enough for three people to get 3/4-full plates. There were thankfully five butter-greased breadsticks in the bowl, which the girls begin feverishly dipping in alfredo sauce to mask the non-existent flavor. The service continued to be nice. Our friends were finding me more relaxed and probably more amusing than normal.

As the entrees came out, it was obvious that no one was particularly enjoying the food. It was all just sort of there. My mussels sucked. The picture makes them look nice, but they were small, almost flavorless, and the sauce was like stale watery wine. (Contrast them with this.)

Christina's Steak di Alfredo or whatever the hell it was called tasted like beef jerky on a bed of undercooked top ramen. The beef and noodles were literally so dried out from sitting under heat lamps that they were inedible - Christina wouldn't eat the steak. I had just finished a pomegranate martini and a strawberry margarita.2 So I was totally glad to eat the steak. It was drunk food at sober(ing) prices.

Our friends got the Ravioli di Portobello and Chicken Scampi. Both reported after the fact that they weren't good.3 I sorta forgot to ask.

No one wanted dessert. Except me. I went for the chocolate cake. And it was actually really good, at least, after 4 drinks. I offered repeatedly to let anyone else try it, and no one would.

So let's sum this all up. The three people who had wanted to come didn't enjoy their meals. But I did. And we'd waited way past our reservation, paid a ridiculous price for it all, and no one was really, truly thrilled.

I went to write it up for Buffalo Chow, and realized something. No one would care. This restaurant, as much as it represented just about everything bad in dining today, was packed to enviable levels.

My review wasn't going to change that. Three out of the four people who had just eaten there would, despite their meals, come back again. And even I, the person who disliked the place the most, had found a way to make the most of the experience. The food sucked, but... so what?

And that's how Buffalo Chow ends. In this town, restaurant reviews are barely about the food any more. They're about the people and stories. The photos accompanying the "reviews" in the Buffalo News are barely about the food - they're of people sitting around chowing down on stuff that doesn't even look good.

Local publications are there to tell you stories about the people who started the places, about why the ingredients come from this or that farm, or that you should really care about something other than the flavors and quality of the food. Does the chocolate in that ice cream really taste distinctive? No? Well, let's talk about where the chocolate came from, or how the ice cream was hand-packed with love by an actual person rather than put into the carton by an evil robot bent on stealing American jobs or something. It's gotten to be ridiculous.

While I was tweeting this, @ccharvella wrote, "Follow @buffalochow right now for an explanation of why s---ty chain restaurants are not the answer." I have no issue with chains. For me, it's always - always - about getting the best food. The rest is all storytime, all filler. Excuses. Marketing. But around here, while it's becoming storytime, our favorite restaurants are nosediving. I can't even point readers to my own review of Buffalo Chop House. They've lost two chefs since we wrote it, and after two bad meals, we're not excited to go back. The same thing has happened with The King & I. Sun Garden. Many others.

I love Buffalo. I love WNY. I want so, so badly to see this city and region do well, to embrace great food, to become successful again. But our system here is broken. It's too broken for me to fix it. Too broken for me to start a business in the city and change things. Too broken to know that a local restaurant review that I read on a web site wasn't written by a friend of the owners, or owners themselves.

@chinakatsunflwr just wrote, "@buffalochow amen. WNY embraces mediocrity, from food to fashion." @chinakatsunflwr, it's hard to know where the mediocre tastes end and the shilling begins.

From day to day, it's honestly tough to know whether (lots of) people here don't know or don't care about quality food.

So for the people who read Buffalo Chow, thank you. For those who care about food quality, thank you. For those who can see through the BS that's been printed in local media here about local places, thank you. I know you're out there. I appreciate you. You're the smart ones.

@nateatsbuffalo just wrote, "@buffalochow I respect and understand your decision, but you will be SO missed! I guess this leads me to ask: what's next?" @nateatsbuffalo, I'm not going to string people along with what's nexts. We have two alternatives that we're discussing. One is WNY-changing. Seriously. It would be huge. But it is highly unlikely to happen because of WNY's corruption. The other is less ambitious and more doable.

When we decide the road to take, we'll tweet it. Right now, we're still discussing and exploring. But for now, I know that spending my time reviewing places like the Olive Garden is not worthwhile.

With that, I'm off to enjoy a Bocce pizza. I'll be back after dinner to answer more questions. Thanks to all who have been reading. :-)

Question and Answer Time:

From @thenickguy: "It's more than just [Olive Garden], it's the Buffalo food scene as a whole. OG was the final straw."

- More than anything, our decision to stop was informed by our sense that the game is rigged. That reviews here are marketing tools to make restaurants want to buy ads in local publications, or the equivalent of free help for the publications' buddies. We recently wondered, for instance, why the Taste of Buffalo has no printed standards or applications for judging. Who picks what's "best of show?" We contacted the Taste (not to become judges, but to learn its standards) and were told the selection process is essentially opaque. It's friends inviting friends. Backs being scratched.

From @wnymediachris: "Is this night out at Olive Garden some elaborate prank? did you lose a bet? I mean, really. You're persuasive, how did this happen? I'm sorry for you."

- Christina claims it's because she is more persuasive than I am. I like to think it's that I'm OK taking one for the team.

From @ChinaKatSunflwr: "Being from buff, living in roc, i can attest everything youre saying is true. Roc has a leg up, more health & quality conscious"

- Rochester, particularly Pittsford, obviously knows what's up. Buffalonians should look there to see their alternate future.

From @Mechaphil: "Also, I'm really bummed you closed off the site this time. I used to peruse the old reviews during your previous hiatus."

- The reviews are still online, but in all honesty, it has been a really tough decision as to whether to keep them even this long. We have been horrified at what's going on at some of the places we previously covered and liked. So pulling reviews may happen.

From @Miraimatt: "For those of us who appreciated your writing, what Buffalo food blogs/reviewers would you recommend reading in your absence?"

- We trust @nateatsbuffalo because she has obviously good taste. I don't want her to get fat like we did while visiting places, though. It saddens me to see how far the Buffalo News (the paper of my childhood) has fallen, and that no one has fixed or stepped up to rival it. In other cities, alt-weeklies, local papers, and new web sites have really interesting restaurant coverage. See the aforementioned Jonathan Gold (@thejgold) as example.

From @chazadams: "Hard to justify forming a rival in a dying medium though"

- The Internet's not dying. ;-) Even if the Buffalo News doesn't get that. They are astonishingly bad, and honestly getting worse.

From @Miraimatt: "It'd be nice if one of the local newspapers/magazines (Artvoice, etc.) would fill in the gap here, I guess."

- Yes, but they don't have the money to make that happen. They can't afford to pay for the meals, let alone the reviews. Critics here have to be willing to work for food. Think about that for a moment. Then factor in the ad and owner conflict-of-interest issues I mentioned before, which are most pronounced in our alt-weeklies. Top it off with the WTF factor (such as @buffalospree's letter to @artvoice blasting AV for daring to cover Rochester businesses) and it's a complete #fail.


1 An hour matters when you're paying $15/hour for a babysitter.

2 Even in a rushed, tweeted review like this, it's worth noting that while the pomegranate martini was nothing special, the margarita was quite good - a nice, big glass with a succulent sliced strawberry on top and no shortage of either frozen strawberry flavor or alcohol. This drink alone made it possible to gnaw through the chewy, nasty steak.

3 After all that, only one of us - me - said that he would never (given the choice) return. At least two of us enjoyed the salad and breadsticks. The sangrias were knocked primarily for the modest alcohol, rather than their flavor. Still, while the three sober folks agreed that this had been their worst experience ever at the Olive Garden, they all indicated that they'd go back. And with that, my dear readers, storytime is now officially over.

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