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The Salt
4:20 pm
Tue March 13, 2012

North Dakota Food Writer Shows Why It's OK To Like The Olive Garden

Restaurant reviewing all too often seems like it's all about how edgy and connected the reviewer is. The food's a mere prop.

Columnist Marilyn Hagerty bested all those poseurs by giving her readers just what they wanted: The lowdown on dining options in Grand Forks, N.D.

After her review in the Grand Forks Herald of the town's new Olive Garden restaurant incited snippy comments from bloggers, the 85-year-old Hagerty has become a media darling. In the past two days she's done the Today show and Good Morning America, blown off Leno and jetted off to New York City.

All from writing a review that was headlined, "Long-Awaited Olive Garden receives warm welcome." It included the phrase: "All in all, it is the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks."

This straightforward prose might lead one to believe that Hagerty is a credulous woman unaware of the complexities of the food biz. That would be wrong.

Her son James Hagerty, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, outed her today, revealing that when Mom writes more about the decor than the food, "you might want to eat somewhere else."

If that's the case, people frequenting the Grand Forks Olive Garden might want to reconsider their options. In her review, Marilyn Hagerty mentioned only one dish, the chicken Alfredo. It rated just two adjectives, "warm" and "comforting."

But she lavished attention on the restaurant's interior, including "vases and planters with permanent flower displays on the ledges." In retrospect, that "largest and most beautiful" sounds more like a slam.

In fact, it sounds like Hagerty has mastered the subtle art of small-town life. The Grand Forks Olive Garden might not be great, but it's better than no Olive Garden at all. (I say this as someone who would have embraced an Olive Garden when I worked as a reporter in Meridian, Idaho.)

Indeed, further investigation reveals that Marilyn is no pushover. When her son asked her if she cared about the thousands of Facebook and Twitter critiques of her review, she told him: "I'm working on my Sunday column and I'm going to play bridge this afternoon. So I don't have time to read all this crap."

And when the Today show asked her if she'd kept up with blogs, she said: "We all have different ideas of what we want to do with our time. I would rather play bridge or watch a basketball game than do that." Blogging, she said, "sounds like a dirty word."

Fame comes at a price, even when unsought. The Grand Forks Herald dispatched her to New York City to review one of the city's most celebrated restaurants, Le Bernardin — and the Times Square Olive Garden. And the paper, where Hagerty has worked for more than 30 years, will be blogging about her adventures in Manhattan. The paper is also flogging Marilyn T-shirts, and an e-book, "The Best of the Eatbeat With Marilyn Hagerty."

Enjoy the ride, Marilyn. And if that Le Bernardin review includes a few too many mentions of the urns and the drapes, I'll know just what she thinks.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.