The Wholesome Reason An Olive Garden Review Went Viral

Most people don't expect to become viral internet superstars just by doing their jobs. But that's exactly what happened to food critic Marilyn Hagerty back in 2012. One February afternoon, Hagerty visited a brand-new Olive Garden in her North Dakota hometown, only to write a polite review of the experience for the Grand Forks Herald that sent the internet into a frenzy. 

According to CBS New York, Hagerty, then 85-years-old, chose to review the chain restaurant because its arrival was something folks living in her city had looked forward to for months. In her 468-word review, she described the Italian-American eatery as the "largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks," noting details that caught her attention, such as a "welcoming entryway" and a fireplace that added "warmth to the decor." She also spoke kindly about her server and her meal, a chicken Alfredo that was "warm and comforting on a cold day."

 

Audiences couldn't get enough of the review. Within a few days of its publication, the Grand Forks Herald reported that it had trafficked a massive 400,000 views. Prior to that, the publication's most-viewed article at the time had less than 10,000 hits (per ABC News). Before long, major media outlets took notice, and Hagerty was launched into stardom, spending the following months making appearances on national TV programs such as the "Today" show and even landing a guest spot on "Top Chef," per SeattleNet.

The unpretentious review caught Anthony Bourdain's attention

Part of why Marilyn Hagerty's 2012 Grand Forks Herald Olive Garden review caught people's attention was because it was so different from the food journalism many were used to reading, explains the Park Rapids Enterprise. Back in the 2010s, when critics based in skyscraper-lined coastal cities decided what was worthy of attention, a sincere account of a restaurant associated with lowbrow, mass-produced middle-American cuisine was totally unexpected.

The review was initially subject to ridicule — some called it "unintentionally funny" because of its earnestness. Others were more mean-spirited, including a Village Voice writer who denounced it as nothing but publicity for "the soul-sucking Olive Garden." But the review also had plenty of notable defenders, including the late Anthony Bourdain. As Hagerty's fame skyrocketed, the "No Reservations" star showed his support for her work on Twitter, pointing to its genuine politeness as a reminder of how the elitist culture of food criticism was distant from most of the people reading it. "Marilyn Hagerty's years of reviews to be a history of dining in the America too few of us from the coasts have seen. We need to see," he wrote

In fact, the "Kitchen Confidential" author thought so fondly of Hagerty that he helped her secure a book deal to publish her reviews. In the foreword for the compilation, Bourdain wrote, "Anyone who comes away from this work anything less than charmed by Ms. Hagerty —and the places and characters she describes — has a heart of stone."