$7-$22 per plate
1186 N. Muldoon Rd.
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Usually it’s hard to review a chain restaurant, precisely because it’s part of a chain: what distinguishes the location you’re at from the one across town? In this case, however, there’s never been a second restaurant across town, or even across the state; comparing it to another location would require a plane ticket Outside.
Olive Garden opened its Tikahtnu Commons location to a bustling crowd
Jan. 23, and it’s only been serving lunch since Saturday. Despite reports of 90-minute waits for tables at the restaurant, which doesn’t take reservations, I headed there on a snowy Wednesday morning both to experience Anchorage’s infamous fascination with new restaurant chains and give the Italian eatery a try at its 11 a.m. opening.
When I first drove past the restaurant at 10:30 a.m., there didn’t seem to be anybody in line, so I took the opportunity to visit the nearby Target department store for about 15 minutes. Upon my return there were about 30 people already in line, many of them service members from nearby Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, standing in the snow but looking forward to their lunches.
Although the line had grown to about 50 people by the time the doors opened, I was inside about 10 minutes later as nearly a dozen hostesses and wait staff bustled to get people seated. That said, I advise being prompt; by 11:30 a.m. the place was full, with new arrivals piling up at the front desk and waiting for tables.
My first lesson at Olive Garden: ask for a table rather than a booth. While the place is wisely built to accommodate as many people as possible, big guys like myself will have a hard time fitting behind the immovable wall-mounted tables, and plenty of regular folks around the room seemed a little constricted too. I was fortunate enough to simply move over to an empty table before the place filled up, but it’s something to keep in mind depending on who you’re dining with.
I took several minutes before ordering to read the menu, which features several combinations of soup and salad alongside a small selection of panini sandwiches and pizza, plus a larger list of pasta dishes. My eye was drawn to the promotional placard at the center of the table, however, and I ordered the 3-Course Italian Dinner ($12.95), a package deal also available for lunch including salad and breadsticks, one of five pasta-based entrees and one of several “dolcini” shot-glass desserts. I chose the Smoked Mozzarella Chicken and the dark-chocolate-cake dolcini.
About half of the waiters I saw during my meal were carrying salad and breadsticks throughout the dining room, and it took perhaps 10 minutes for both to be set down at my table. The salad -- enough to be a meal for one, or easily serve two -- was quite simple, little more than iceberg lettuce and croutons tossed in a salty Italian dressing with a few olives, onions, pepperoncinis and tomato slices thrown in as garnishes. It’s a decent blend of flavors, however, and an unusual bottomless source of salad in a city and a state boasting relatively few restaurant salad bars. The two breadsticks were a good compliment to the salad, a bit too heavily buttered and salted for my personal taste but quite capable of soaking up spare dressing from the salad.
Various servers quickly asked if I wanted more of both the salad and the breadsticks, although I found the initial servings quite satisfying and held back for the entree. It was a longer wait than I expected, however, with my meal served about 40 or 50 minutes after I arrived. I don’t hold the wait against a new kitchen, though, since my order probably came in with the second wave of items as people got settled. In all likelihood it’ll ease over time as the staff settles in and the franchise’s novelty wears off.
When it arrived, the chicken was well worth the wait. One breast of lightly breaded meat, cut into about half a dozen pieces, was mixed with a modest portion of penne pasta and a decadent four-cheese sauce that carried the smoky flavor of the dish. Small bits of roasted red pepper added strong character without becoming spicy or overwhelming, taking on much the same role sun-dried tomatoes do in many dishes at the Moose’s Tooth. The size of the dish wasn’t overwhelming, but there was easily enough for two people to share in conjunction with the bottomless salad and breadsticks.
The dark-chocolate cake dolcini didn’t last long, but was a disciplined finish to an already extravagant meal: the cake was settled into the bottom of its shot glass, and then covered with a thin layer of caramel glaze and a thicker layer of vanilla creme before being finished with shaved curls of chocolate on top. It’s just right for one person -- and perhaps the only thing in the meal’s menu a couple might end up fighting over.
Olive Garden still has a few teething pains to work out as any new restaurant would have, chain or not, but it very obviously did more right than wrong when I was there. One of the enduring factors that determine a restaurant’s success or failure, independent of the name on the door, is whether the staff genuinely cares. Even with a huge group of 165 newly trained people, at least five of whom I interacted with during my visit, I was handled with a blend of courtesy and efficiency that bodes well for the franchise’s future on the Last Frontier. As a final example, when I asked for an order of breadsticks and marinara sauce to take with me, the only item in the bag I brought back to our newsroom that I was billed for was the marinara sauce.