Two weeks ago, Marilyn Hagerty was a restaurant critic for the Grand Forks Herald. Now she's an international sensation. The 85-year-old grandmother's sincere review of the new Olive Garden, that just opened in her area, hit a nerve on the internet, when she described the long-ridiculed chain's "generous portions" and "tuscan farmhouse style" as the "the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks."
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While food snobs scoffed at her fine dining approach to the pasta franchise, others defended Marilyn, calling her critics "ageist." One thing was clear: Marilyn wrote one of the first restaurant reviews everyone in the country wanted to read. Not only did it highlight the different relationships Americans have to chain restaurants depending on where they live, but it showed the impact a single franchise can have on a local community.
While the New York Times continues to review the latest 10-seat restaurant only 1 percent of the country will ever gain access to, Marilyn, a retired lifestyles editor for the Herald, writes about the restaurant the other 99 percent can eat at any day of the week (except the Olive Garden in Grand Forks, Marilyn says, because it's too packed these days).
On Monday, Marilyn was taking her newfound fame in stride, taping segments with the Today Show and Piers Morgan in her Grand Forks home. Her son, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, thinks the whole thing is "really funny." She's been doing this job for over 30 years, so she doesn't get why everyone's paying attention now. The irony of being an internet superstar is that Marilyn isn't exactly a web guru. ("Yahoo?" she asked at the start of a phone interview with Shine. "I know I've heard of it, but can you tell me a little more about what it is?")
What Marilyn does know, better than most, is how to review a local restaurant. She doesn't give out Michelin stars, and she doesn't follow the latest trends in molecular gastronomy. She goes to the places that open up in her town, you know, like the rest of us. Then she writes about them. Here are some of her tips for doing it yourself.
Pay attention to ambience: One of the first things Marilyn notices in any restaurant is the design touches. Last week, a page from her reporter's notebook charted the "crystal chandeliers and mahogany woodwork" at The Bay House in Naples-Florida, that is. "I had brunch there a week ago while I was on a trip and that was an elegant experience," Marilyn tells Shine. When it comes to lighting for dinner service it should be "dark but not too dark."
Napkins should be thick: " I don't like those flimsy ones that look like toilet paper," says Marilyn. She uses her napkin a lot, which is why she's partial to cloth. "But you don't always find those, so if it's paper I like something that's substantial."
Bathrooms are the window to a restaurant's soul: The first place Marilyn inspects is the last place you'd think. "I always check the restrooms," she says. "I think it says a lot about a restaurant, if there's paper all over the floor or if the sink is dirty." It makes perfect sense: if a restaurant doesn't keep it's bathroom, there's a good chance the kitchen isn't sparkling either.
Watch what you drink: If you're going to weigh in on a restaurant, you need a clear head and a clear palate. "I don't drink much before a meal," she says. She'll have a glass of wine with her main course, or start with a shot of Crown Royal, but never the over-powering house cocktail. "I don't like to have mixed drinks because it ruins a meal."
Don't expect special treatment: New York Times' restaurant critics famously go to great length to conceal their identity so their presence in a restaurant doesn't alter the experience. But as a 30-year veteran of the area's only major food column, Marilyn doesn't have that luxury. "Sometimes when I come to a restaurant they whisper, 'there's Marilyn Hagerty.'" Still journalistic integrity is crucial. "I make it very clear, I don't do this for free food, so if people want to give me something I have to turn it down," she says. "We don't feel its professional." In fact, she pays for every meal she covers out of her own pocket. "I'm not compensated at all by the Herald," she says. "I do this because I want to do this." Note: If you're planning on joining Marilyn for a meal she's reviewing, expect to go dutch.
Talk to fellow diners: "Sometimes I visit with patrons in a restaurant and ask why they come and why they like things," says Marilyn.
Take service seriously: "If have my granddaughters from Bismark with me, they check the time from when we ordered to when the food is delivered," says Marilyn. She also looks for waiters with experience; they should be able to tell you right away the best thing on the menu. At one of her favorite Grand Forks restaurants, The Bronze Boot Steakhouse, "the waitresses have been there forever." Usually she orders the 4-ounce steak but "last time I was there Trudy (the waitress) told us to order sirloin." She was so right.
Condiments and extras go a long away: Another thing Marilyn likes about The Bronze Boot? "They serve a little relish tray on the side, like restaurants used too. Also your ice water comes with ice in a nice goblet." Dressing up the freebies really adds to a place's charm.
Marilyn's fast food favorites: With only 100 licensed restaurants in Grand Forks, Marilyn has expanded her coverage to include the fast food drive-thrus in her area.
On McDonald's: "I actually like the lattes they have. One morning I had one of those biscuits with the egg. I ate it in my car on the way to the Herald and my editor said 'you didn't eat that!' But liked it. Once in a great while I'll have their big hamburger. I like it too, but I always watch the needless calories."
On KFC: "People like KFC pretty well here. I've been over there 2 or 3 times. I usually turn up my nose at KFC but actually I've tasted some pretty good beans there. I like the potatoes too."
If you can't get enough of Marilyn, spend the day poring over her columns here. We did. If you're feeling inspired, leave your own review of your local Olive Garden in the comments section.
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