Marilyn Hagerty: Interview with genius Olive Garden reviewer

Everybody online today is enjoying the publication of The Greatest Restaurant Review Ever Written, a piece entitled "Long-awaited Olive Garden receives warm welcome" by Marilyn Hagerty of the Grand Forks Herald.

There are so many evocative parts of the review: The "two long, warm breadsticks," the raspberry lemonade that is proffered but rejected in favor of water. The understated yet wistful tone is reminiscent of a William Carlos Williams poem.

So far, the Olive Garden review has been tweeted over 6,800 times, and Liked on Facebook 4,477 times. The editors at the Grand Forks Herald are scrambling to assemble an article on the outsized reaction for tomorrow's paper, but in the meantime, we called Marilyn Hagerty to get her response to the sudden Internet fame.

UPDATE: I'd like to make clear that I didn't intend to come off as disrespectful in this post. The reason I asked about the lemonade and the breadsticks is because so many of her readers seemed to enjoy those lines in her review and I wanted to get the back story. I'm a fan of Marilyn and her work--I really do think she has a brilliant voice, both in print and on the phone--and I apologize if my enthusiasm seemed sarcastic rather than genuine.

Hi, is this Marilyn?


Hi Marilyn, this is Kevin Hoffman. I'm the editor in chief of City Pages in the Twin Cities. How you doing?

I'm good.

I just wanted to call to tell you how much I enjoyed your Olive Garden review.

Oh, I'm sure you did.

And I was wondering if you had just a few minutes to do an interview about it?

Yeah, I do.

Are you aware of all the attention that it's been getting on the internet?

I wasn't until I just had a phone call from somebody in New York.

Was that Gawker?

I don't think so.

Did you think when you were writing it that it would get so much attention outside of Grand Forks?

I didn't really care.

How long have you been reviewing restaurants?

Oh, about 30 or 40 years ... I can't remember when I started doing that. I used to be the lifestyle editor of the Grand Forks Herald, and I started it sometime ... I can't remember when it's so long ago.

I take it there aren't a ton of restaurants to review in Grand Forks so it must be difficult to find a new place to go each time?

Yeah, that's exactly it. I had attended meetings of the national newspaper food editors for many years, and we had sessions on how to write restaurant reviews. And I got thinking, we don't have one, but why couldn't we? But if I did that, there are about three or four fine dining places, and then what would you do? So I decided that I would just write about all the restaurants, including McDonald's, or wherever people eat. Sort of like a news story to have our readers in our area to know what they can expect, what they can find, how much it will cost when they're visiting here. And the hometown people kind of like it, I mean they often tell me they do.

Oh, I bet. Now, when did you actually go to the Olive Garden?

When did I go to the Olive Garden? Two or three weeks ago.

Was there anything you left out of your review in terms of your experience there?

Um, how would I know? I put in what I put in. Yeah, you're getting at the fact that I didn't criticize it enough, I suppose, because that is what most people who want to be critical say. And I usually do put in pluses or minuses and say a few good things and bad things. Anyway, in the past when that has been criticized, I mean, what do you do? You keep going. The publisher came out to my desk one day and said, "Marilyn,  I like what you're doing, because it gives a picture of what places to eat are like in Grand Forks." And I'm a journalist, I'm not just someone sitting out in the country writing.

You decided to go with the water instead of the lemonade that was recommended. Why did you make that decision?

Because I don't like lemonade, it makes my stomach feel funny.

But then you said that on a warm summer day, you'll go back and give that a try?

Yeah, because on a day when it's 20 below or something, I don't really care for lemonade. But in the summer time, I'm saying I might like it.

Marilyn Haggery ate both breadsticks. They were warm and delicious.
Marilyn Haggery ate both breadsticks. They were warm and delicious.

What about the breadsticks? Did you enjoy them?

Yeah, I ate both of them. They were warm. They were better than some places.

Is Olive Garden one of the better restaurants you've gone for your reviews? I know you've also gone to Taco Bell.

There are a hundred licensed restaurants in Grand Forks. I've been to all of them--I've been doing this for that long--I've been to them many times, several times over as they change. And I go to the little restaurants around Grand Forks. This week, I'm just back from a week in Florida so I'm writing about four restaurants that I visited while there. What people are eating and ordering, what things cost, what kinds of  fish are in season, that sort of thing. So it's a little different every week, but it's always the EatBeat, and it's always on the bottom of the food page on Wednesday.

Have you been reading the reactions to your column online today?

I tell ya, I really don't have time to sit and read what people think, because I have a deadline. I'm writing about a riverboat that we used to have here, and I met the pilot down in Florida, so I'm writing a story about this riverboat pilot for the Sunday paper, and I have to finish it today, so I don't really have time to do that. I did see four or five messages when I opened my laptop this morning. One was kind of snotty, and the rest were very nice.

For the review, do you typically go by yourself or do you bring along other people?

Both ways. I either go by myself--I have several friends who like to go with me--and I identify them by their full name the first time, and I call them SB or DJ or something in future references in the column. I just started doing that, I'm not quite sure why.

Did you bring anybody with you for the Olive Garden review?

No, I did not.

How come?

Because I was pretty busy that week, I had to get an EatBeat done, and friends who wanted to go said we couldn't get in because we tried to make a reservation and they don't take them, and we knew we'd have to wait a couple hours when it first opened. That is why, as I explained, I went in the middle of the afternoon, because I wanted to get in.

Olive Garden has been packed since Marilyn Hagerty's review.
Olive Garden has been packed since Marilyn Hagerty's review.

Has Olive Garden gotten even busier and more popular since your review came out?

I don't know about the Olive Garden, but I have been told by restaurant owners that after there's a review, then they have a rush for quite awhile. And those who have been around a while know that will happen. But some of them don't know it and they get a rush. That's what I've heard.

Are there any restaurants opening soon that will be the subject of your future reviews?

Yes, I have done one for next week, I've already finished it. My deadline is 10 days before--I have to have the review in 10 days before it's printed. And I have submitted one on "The Drunken Noodle," which just opened in East Grand Forks.

Oh wow, when is that going to run?

What's today? Today's Thursday. It's going to run Wednesday. This coming Wednesday. The Drunken Noodle.

"The Drunken Noodle" doesn't sound like the kind of restaurant that you'd normally be at. Was it pretty wild there? Was there a lot of drinking?

No, it's just an Asian restaurant that's opened up. I think probably late at night there is a lot of drinking, but I like to drink too.

Oh, what do you like to drink?

Well, it depends what kind of food I'm eating. I like wine, I like beer, I like martinis, I like Crown Royal. I don't drink a lot, but when I drink I know what I want to drink.

If you don't mind me asking, would you mind telling me how old you are?

Do you know how old is the Queen of England?

I don't know [Google says she's 85].

Well, I'm the same age.

Do you go on the Internet at all?

Yes, of course!

Everybody on the Internet today is sharing your column and really enjoying it.

I feel they're being rather condescending, but it's OK with me.

Thanks for your time, and good luck to you.

OK, bye.

Previous Coverage:
Olive Garden Review: The greatest restaurant review ever written

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