On the way home from a short road trip on Saturday with my wife, I had an intense craving for all-I-can-eat something. Seeing the sign for Exit 41A-B on Interstate 95 just south of Baltimore, I recalled there was an Olive Garden not far from the exit. After cutting across four lanes of traffic in less than three seconds, we arrived at the Garden and were promptly seated (30 minutes for an Olive Garden is prompt in my book). When our waiter appeared, we issued our orders for the holy grail of Italian buffets: the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl.
But by the end of the night, my wife and I would know this menu item by a different name—the Never-Ending Bowl of LIES.
A Journey of Noodly Anguish
For those of you unfamiliar with the way the Olive Garden Never-Ending Pasta Bowl works, here’s a quick rundown.
- A mere $8.95 per person gets you the following:
- Unlimited salad.
- Unlimited breadsticks.
- One large bowl of a pasta and sauce of your choice.
- Unlimited helpings of any other pasta and sauce in smaller bowls.
- For $1.95 more, you are entitled to “unlimited” meatballs and Italian sausage.
- For the late-Summer 2007 Never-Ending Pasta Bowl event, available pastas include:
- Angel Hair
- Whole Wheat Linguine
- Orecchiette (looks like a nipple)
- Available sauces include:
- Sausage and Peppers Marinara
- Smoked Mozzarella Alfredo
- Five Cheese Marinara
- Meat Sauce
- The Never-Ending Pasta Bowl is a limited-time offering, but it pops up once or twice a year and runs for a month or two. Be sure to call your nearby location or check the Olive Garden website before setting out for the restaurant.
So for $10.90 a person plus tax and tip, you seem to get a whole lot of food and quite a bit of variety—salad, bread, pasta, and meat.
Unfortunately for my fellow buffet champions and me, the Olive Garden stacks the deck against you. I bet this is one of the most profitable all-you-can-eat offers in the country, which explains why it keeps coming back again and again.
Sprinkling Sauce in Your Wounds: How I Lost to the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl
I will be the first to admit that I fell for the Olive Garden’s trap on this one. Despite following all of my usual all-you-can-eat buffet strategies, I still came up far short of eating my money’s worth; I had just one large and one small bowl.
After returning home and contemplating my horrendous failure for many hours in the bathroom, I discovered the secrets to the Olive Garden’s Never-Ending Bowl of Lies—secrets I will eventually use to defeat this buffet once and for all.
The Olive Garden has established an ingenious system of attracting buffet-loving customers and parting them from their money for little in return. Here’s how they do it in nine easy steps:
- They build a sense of anticipation and desire. As a limited-time but recurring offer, the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl is like the Olympic Games of low-cost buffets. The Olive Garden makes sure to bombard you with television commercials when the Bowl returns, once again triggering your dormant primal urges for unlimited pasta. The Bowl would not be nearly as successful if it were a permanent menu item. It’s a time of great joy for buffet fans—a veritable Hanukkah for pasta lovers.
- They price it cheap… but not too cheap. At just $8.95 for the Bowl and $1.95 more for the meat, you’re getting a fabulous deal, right? I mean, $8.95 is miles away from ten dollars, and you have $1.95 sitting in your couch right now. Seriously, if you can’t afford $11 for some never-ending Olive Garden goodness, you’re probably on welfare!
- The rest of their menu is overpriced. Around here, a bowl of Olive Garden spaghetti and meat sauce is $10. Ten freaking dollars and you don’t even get meatball one! For a dollar more, you can get the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl with its unlimited spaghetti and meat sauce and switch to a different dish on your next serving. The fettuccine alfredo has a menu price of $11! Seriously, if you order a plate of fettuccine alfredo at the Olive Garden during their Never-Ending Pasta Bowl events, you suck at math.
- The salad and breadsticks of evil. Like a judge’s gavel sentencing a guilty man to death, so does the bowl of salad and basket of breadsticks that comes with the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl as they land on your table. These two genuinely tasty items—especially to a man who skipped lunch and ate pizza for breakfast—will be the undoing of any buffet-goer on a mission to defeat the Bowl. Probably made for a grand total of 36 cents, the salad and breadsticks will cut your stomach capacity by as much as half.
- The first bowl. Your numero uno pasta and sauce selection comes in the same bowl used to serve most entrees at the Olive Garden. If you’re thinking of sampling all seven pastas and six sauces in one sitting, you may be out of luck; your Garden waiter won’t give you a second helping until you finish your first.
- One wrong move and you’re done. Some of the sauces on the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl menu are sub-par. Hitting just one of them can kill your appetite on the spot and derail your buffet train far from your destination. (The new Sausage and Peppers Marinara sauce was my downfall.)
- No easy victory for the carnivores. Those seeking to get their money’s worth by hopping on board the meat trolley are out of luck—you get one or two meat portions at most with each pasta dish. That means you’ll have to power through five helpings of fettuccine and penne just to get near a pound of meat.
- Service slower than chunky meat sauce. Ready for another bowl of pasta? You may have to wait for a while since you can’t even place an order for another plate until your current one is done. Olive Gardens are notoriously understaffed, and the extra attention required of table-served buffets means their workforce is stretched even thinner. The long waits between servings means you’ll be more tempted to fill up on leftover salad and breadsticks.
- The dessert menu of destruction. The buffet menu, detailing the available pasta and sauce choices, is printed on one side of a separate menu. What’s on the other side? That’s right—all of those luscious Olive Garden desserts. Just a quick glance at the other side of the menu and you’ll be tempted to save room for a plate of ridiculously overpriced tiramisu or gelato.
Hindsight Is 20 Bowls of Pasta: How to Get Your Money’s Worth Out of the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl
I may have gone down once against the Bowl, but I’ll be back… and with a buffet of knowledge to help me squeeze every last dime out of my eating experience. While my stomach continues its recovery, I’ll share with you what I’ve learned so you can fight the Olive Garden in the name of all buffet lovers everywhere. Here are some strategies for countering each of the clever tactics the Olive Garden uses to make sure you walk out after eating pennies on their dollar.
- Ignore the hype. Don’t let the TV ads push you into the Bowl challenge before you’re ready. Make sure you’ve had enough time to recover from your last buffet. If possible, wait until the Bowl event is three or four weeks in. Yes, you run the risk of the limited-time offer ending at any moment, but those extra weeks will give the wait and cooking staff more practice with the buffet system so your service is faster and your food is tastier.
- Don’t let the low cost fool you. If you go into the Olive Garden thinking you have an easy victory ahead, then you have already lost. That tiny price tag may seem simple to beat, but it’s going to take no less than five or six finished helpings to call yourself a Never-Ending Pasta Bowl champ.
- Don’t compare to menu prices. You might think you’ve eaten your money’s worth with just one bowl of fettuccine alfredo since the same dish has a regular menu price of $11. It probably costs the Olive Garden about a dollar for the ingredients. You could just buy some packages of alfredo pasta mixes in your grocery store for a couple of bucks. Be sure to use one of these more realistic measures as your buffet metrics baseline.
- No salad. No breadsticks. The salad fills you up with needless calories and nutrients. If we wanted healthy food, we wouldn’t be going to buffets in the first place! And breadsticks are just pasta in thicker, cheaper form. You’re best off asking your waiter to keep these items off your table. If he still brings them anyway, make sure your tip reflects your dissatisfaction. And if you must have a bit of salad with your pasta, bring lots of friends so the salad bowl is stretched across more people.
- Go for your favorite in the first round. Since it’s the biggest helping, you want to go for your favorite pasta and sauce combination right off the bat. If you have no particular favorite, you might want to go for a long, thin noodle like angel hair to start because you’ll expend less energy on chewing.
- Know your sauces. While variety is the spice of life, you don’t want to hit a sauce your palate doesn’t like. Find the sauce you love the most and stick with it. You’ll likely find that one of the alfredo sauces goes well with everything. Save the heavier marinara sauces for your later helpings (or skip them altogether).
- Don’t try to beat the meat. As tempting as it is to go for the $1.95 meatballs and sausages, you’re better off passing on them. Every ball and sausage you stuff in your mouth is another pasta bowl you’ll be too stuffed to eat—and fewer pasta bowls means less meat. Unless you’ve plowed through six or seven pasta bowls in the past, your chances of getting your money’s worth in meat is slim. That’s why it’s so cheap.
- Time your eating carefully. First and foremost, remember Tip #1 and come in later during the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl promotion so the staff has some practice with the faster pace of service. To help keep your eating momentum going, try to time the finishing of your current bowl with your waiter’s patrols through your dining area. Have your next order ready to save yourself and your waiter some time.
- BYO menu. Do not touch the Olive Garden menus your hostess hands to you. The back of that Never-Ending Pasta Bowl menu is especially dangerous with its pictures of tempting desserts. You’re best off printing or handwriting your own copy of the pasta and sauce menu and bringing it with you to the restaurant. Even better: write out your pasta line-up beforehand and save time when ordering.
Is the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl Worth Your Money?
I’m calling the Olive Garden out on its false advertising. That pasta bowl of theirs totally ended when I walked out of the restaurant. I came back the next day, sat at a table, and ordered my third bowl and they charged me another $8.95! It’s a Never-Ending Bowl of LIES, I tell ya!
In all seriousness, I’m confident I could tackle the Bowl with enough preparation and the above strategies; but because of the difficulty of eating your money’s worth on this one, I’d have to recommend taking your monstrous appetite elsewhere. If you’re set on tackling a noodly challenge, look for similar pasta buffets at local Italian joints. Even at higher prices, you might get a wider variety of pastas, better sauces, and faster seating and service than you will from the Olive Garden and its Never-Ending Pasta Bowl.