It's a battle for market share, one that seems squarely aimed at luring in those fickle Millennials or that subsequent group widely called Generation Z. Carrabba's, owned by Bloomin' Brands, and Olive Garden, owned by Darden Restaurants, seem in a race to reinvent themselves. They both recently launched dramatically revised menus incorporating a number of culinary buzzwords: small plates for sharing, lighter fare and smaller portions (and prices), specialty items with mix-and-match customizability, hand-helds, gluten-free dishes, kale, craft beer, mini dessert indulgences and — the two words that summed up 2013 — salted caramel.
We thought it was a fitting time to pay a visit to these two mega-chains (Carrabba's boasts 240 locations nationally, Olive Garden has more than 800 in North America), stopping into a South Tampa Carrabba's outpost and the Olive Garden location that opened in February on West Shore.
In my mind, Carrabba's has always been a tick more expensive than the Garden (with Macaroni Grill and Maggiano's a couple ticks above it). Sitting with the two menus side by side, the prices are virtually indistinguishable. Indeed, I tried to have a very similar meal at each with a final tally for two people of $64.61 at Carrabba's and $69.24 at Olive Garden. And overall, Carrabba's got the nod both for food quality and quality of service.
But here are the details.
Darden shareholders have been pushing for the restaurant giant to spin off or sell Olive Garden and Red Lobster. (The restaurant group's other brands include Longhorn Steakhouse and Bahama Breeze.) Instead, execs have worked diligently to bring about a "brand renaissance" at the Garden. A just-released new logo is getting mixed feedback, but the new menu features a number of fresh and welcome ideas.
At lunchtime, the main idea is speed: In order to compete with fast food and grab-and-go concepts, they've trained servers to assess diners' time crunch and to respond accordingly. Also, adding to the unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks deal for $6.99, you can opt for a "Tuscan trio combo," which means an additional pasta side, small plate or added salad topping for $2.99 more. At dinner, a similar "cucina mia" option augments the soup/salad/breadsticks, whereby you pick a pasta, pick a sauce (and an additional topping if you feel like it), and bada bing, ringing in at a very reasonable $9.99.
The best of the more than 20 new items on the Olive Garden menu are clustered in the "Tastes of Italy" small-plate section. These dishes represent the edgiest it gets: A small plate of Parmesan-and-bread-crumb-battered asparagus is snappy and very flavorful, served with a "citrus aioli" (seemed like regular mayo only slightly yellower to me; $4); a plate of olive/Parmesan fritters gets a similar treatment, a little more interesting accompanied by the Gorgonzola cream sauce option ($4.50).
Lingering at the deep-fryer for a minute, Olive Garden has added arancini, classic Sicilian risotto balls that are bread-crumbed and fried. Theirs aren't quite as zesty as the new ones on the Carrabba's menu (those are studded with fennel sausage and plopped in a slightly spicy marinara, $6), but it's an appealing shared finger food ($4.50), as is the duet of herb-flecked chicken meatballs wading in marinara ($4).
One of the nicest new dishes at Olive Garden is just about the most expensive thing on the menu ($18.99) but it stacks up ably with similar dishes at comparable restaurants: a 6-ounce fillet is grilled nicely, topped with a dollop of herb puree that reads like pesto and served with a tender-crisp medley of squashes and peppers interspersed with mellow-nutty roasted garlic cloves. Chicken Toscana ($13.99) makes use of the chain's new Piastra flat-top grill, which gives meats an even, deep sear on both sides. As a dish it's nothing special (its sticky-sweet "red wine demiglace" tastes like neither red wine nor demiglace), served with sauteed spinach and a rice pilaf masquerading as risotto.
In all, improvements like mini desserts (shades of Seasons 52, another Darden chain), Tuscan-style wings (a nod to Anthony's Coal Fired's success with that dish) and hummus (it's white bean, so Italian-ish) give Olive Garden a fighting chance. But there's a lot of competition at the $15 Italian-meal-that-includes-soup-or-salad price point, with 15 of those anchoring Carrabba's newly debuted menu.
Budget-minded diners will already be familiar with the "Amore Monday" menu (yeah, who doesn't love Mondays?), where you choose from a list of appetizers or desserts, then add a soup or salad and then an entree from three price levels, $12, $15 or $18 for the whole shooting match — a bunch of the new dishes appear on that Monday menu.
The single best dish we tried from the new menu was a gorgeous vanilla bean panna cotta served in a jar and topped with sweet-tart fresh raspberries ($6). In recent months, I've eaten overly rubbery versions of this Italian custard at a number of high-end restaurants, and Carrabba's got it plushly perfect.
Before that, though, I was impressed with new prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin medallions (a real steal at $13.90). In the past, I've felt that what makes a lot of Carrabba's dishes taste good is liberal use of cream or butter — this one eschews that in favor of deep savoriness imparted by wood smoke and prosciutto, counterbalanced by a touch of sweetness in a port wine fig sauce, nicely accessorized with a passel of tender-crisp green beans.
Tomato cream sauce is the dominant flavor in the new rigatoni Martino ($14), with planks of grilled chicken, sun-dried tomato and sliced mushroom, as well as in the shrimp and scallop linguine alla vodka ($15), the latter's vodka demure enough that the sauces tasted identical. To my mind, a more contemporary dish was the new grilled Tuscan skewers ($15), juicy sirloin sandwiched between soft grilled cherry tomatoes and lengths of red onion, all drizzled with a simple but appealing red wine sauce.
Since the deeply awful economic woes of 2008 and 2009, the restaurant industry has been slow to bounce back, with sit-down restaurants losing out to fast food and the like (read: places you don't have to tip). It's clear that both of these restaurant giants have a lot of smart people working furiously to keep pace with food trends while giving customers perceived value. The jury's out on whether the launch of new menus at Olive Garden and Carrabba's will keep both concepts healthy in a competitive market, but both offer a number of appealing dishes that keep dining out affordable for most of us.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.