My weekday lunchtime habits have changed as of late. Working at a restaurant group with nearly 2,000 locations, I’ve been thinking about and eating at more chain restaurants than I ever did before. Fueled by a desire to scope out the competition and by genuine curiosity, I’ve been exploring places that I used to pay little mind to.
So while I usually dedicate this space to touting the merits of under-appreciated mom and pop shops, I thought it’d be fun to change things up a bit and shed some light on two permanent fixtures in the American dining landscape: Red Lobster and Olive Garden. Humor me, yes? Thank you.
First up, Red Lobster‘s Endless Shrimp®! For $17.99, I had my fill of six different shrimp preparations: Sriracha Grilled Shrimp, Parmesan Shrimp Scampi, Hand-Breaded Shrimp, Garlic Shrimp Scampi, Shrimp Linguini Alfredo, and Coconut Shrimp Bites.
The offer also included a salad (not pictured and not eaten) and unlimited Cheddar Bay Biscuits®. Whereas the former was anemic and sad, the latter were tasty lil’ carbohydrate bombs. We asked for seconds, thirds, and fourths. No joke.
For my first round of Endless Shrimp, I requested the Sriracha Grilled Shrimp, Hand-Breaded Shrimp, and Garlic Shrimp Scampi. The platter also included rice pilaf and steamed broccoli, both of which didn’t merit any precious gastro-real estate.
The fried shrimp with cocktail sauce was my fave of the trio due to the shrimps’ comparatively large size and relative greaseless-ness. The scampi was surprisingly well-balanced, while the Sriracha was just alright. Truth be told, I’m not a huge Rooster Sauce fan. None of the shrimp were overcooked. Yay!
Round two brought a big ol’ plate of Shrimp Linguini Alfredo. The shrimp were tiny but well-cooked, while the sauce and pasta were solid in a super-rich and indulgent kind of way. Spoiler alert: Red Lobster executes a tastier alfredo than sister restaurant Olive Garden. The irony!
My final course was the Parmesan Shrimp Scampi, which was more or less the Garlic Shrimp Scampi with shredded cheese melted on top. These went down easily, with the parm adding a bit of saltiness to the buttery mix. The only stone left unturned was the Coconut Shrimp, which I stole from my dining mate—Much. Too. Sweet.
All in all, Red Lobster’s Endless Shrimp® met and, dare I say, exceeded my expectations. I’d hit it again.
Olive Garden‘s Never Ending Pasta Bowl® was a homier affair, like a meal set in a rustic Tuscan villa, if you will.
On tap for $9.99 were six types of pasta (spaghetti, angel hair, fettuccine, penne, cavatappi, whole wheat linguine), four standard sauces (Marinara, Alfredo, Five Cheese Marinara, Meat Sauce), two premium sauces that cost a dollar extra (Spicy Three Meat, Roasted Mushroom Alfredo), and four “toppings” that also cost extra (Shrimp Fritta, Chicken Fritta, Italian Sausage, Meatballs).
The deal also included unlimited breadsticks, which were brushed with butter, sprinkled with garlic powder, and served warm. Pro tip: Eat the breadsticks immediately because they taste terrible once they’ve cooled. The window of palatability is approximately 30 seconds.
There was also all-you-can-eat salad dressed in Olive Garden’s signature Italian dressing. I liked how chilled salad plates were thoughtfully served alongside—it’s the little things.
And then there was pasta! My favorite combination was the cavatappi, ridged and tubular corkscrews, topped with the mushroom alfredo and fried shrimp. The pasta’s texture was indifferent—neither al dente nor complete mush. The sauce was tasty, but definitely could’ve used more ‘shrooms.
Round two brought whole wheat linguini with five cheese marinara and fried chicken strips, which was good but not earth-shatteringly so.
And then I was totally and completely stuffed. It turns out I can eat plenty more shrimp than pasta. Wah wah…
For dessert, Andes Mints dressed in Olive Garden clothing.
While I wouldn’t hesitate to return for more Endless Shrimp, Never Ending Pasta probably won’t lure me back in the future, mostly because I can whip up some pretty great noodles at home (see below). Much to my surprise, neither dining experience was an utter bust, which is all I could ask for, really.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, it’s back to exploring mom and pop shops!
In the mood for pasta? Let me help you out!
- Bolognese Sauce with Cloves and Cinnamon
- Braised Rabbit with Pappardelle
- Dorie Greenspan’s Beggar’s Linguine – Pasta with Brown Butter, Dried Fruits, and Nuts
- Fusilli in Cream Sauce with Peas and Bacon
- Noodles with Squid and Vegetables
- Nui Lòng – Grandpa’s Spaghetti with Offal
- Pappardelle in Lemon Cream Sauce with Peas and Smoked Salmon
- Pasta alla Norma
- Pasta with Caramelized Onions & Blue Cheese
- Pasta with Corn, Burrata, Pancetta, and Chilies
- Pasta with Eggs and Pork Floss
- Pasta with Three Peas
- Red Curry Peanut Noodles
- Scott Conant’s Spaghetti with Tomato and Basil
- Seared Gnocchi with Green Olive Sauce
- Skillet Noodle and Sausage Supper
- Soba Noodles with Kale, Tofu, and Furikake
- Spaghetti alla Carbonara