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Olive Garden and Red Lobster

A couple of other casual dining chains finish high on lists of consumers' preferred restaurants but offer decidedly different menus. Olive Garden has been the top vote getter two years in a row in the Market Force survey that asks consumers to pick their favorite chain.

The Italian-American restaurant places third when the results are weighted by number of locations. Red Lobster came in third in total votes in 2011, behind Olive Garden and Applebee's, and sixth in the weighted results. We didn't sample the fare at these restaurants, but we've done some research and compiled a quick rundown of their highlights and lowlights.

Olive Garden prices range from $10.75 for linguine alla marinara to $19.95 for Steak Toscana, which comes with a side of potatoes and bell peppers. Entrees come with unlimited salad and breadsticks. Red Lobster is generally more expensive, with prices ranging from $11.25 for popcorn shrimp to $24.99 for the Ultimate Seafood Feast. Entrees are served with salad and a side dish. In general, Red Lobster and Olive Garden prices are a dollar or two higher than those at the five restaurants we visited, where entrees range from $7 for a sandwich to $23.99 for a filet and lobster tail dinner.

Many customers complain on My3cents.com that Red Lobster makes its food look succulent and tasty in commercials, but in reality the portions are small and the food isn't all that great. On the other hand, customers posting reviews on Epinions say that, for the most part, the food is fresh, affordable, and full of flavor. Olive Garden earns a favorable overall rating on Epinions. Several consumers gripe that the restaurant serves low-quality, imitation Italian food. But for every one of those complaints, there is another review that deems the food delicious. Many single out the warm, soft breadsticks and say Olive Garden prices are reasonable for the large amount of food you get.

A registered dietician writing about Olive Garden nutrition information at Livestrong.com notes that high-fat menu items abound, but healthful options are available. She points to some of the items lowest in fat and calories, such as shrimp primavera and Portobello mushroom ravioli. Olive Garden also offers gluten-free versions of many menu items. Red Lobster was named the most healthful sit-down restaurant chain in America in the most recent Eat This, Not That Restaurant Report Card, thanks to myriad menu items high in protein and low in calories, even if still too high in sodium for one expert's liking. The Eat This, Not That survey endorses the Peach-Bourbon BBQ Shrimp and Scallops, with 490 calories, 22 grams of fat, 4 grams of saturated fat, and 1,680 milligrams of sodium. All the meals on Red Lobster's Lighthouse menu have no more than 500 calories, 15 grams of fat, and 5 grams of saturated fat. Customers with allergies and others who follow special diets can download allergen information from both restaurants' websites.

For kids, Olive Garden serves pasta, pizza, or chicken for $4.95 to $5.65, not including a beverage. Red Lobster's kids menu ranges from $5.25 to $8.99 (for lobster tail) and comprises mostly chicken, fish, and pasta, along with a vegetable or fruit side and a beverage. Both restaurants offer their full menus for takeout.

Olive Garden also offers a full lunch menu, made up mostly of dinner items in lunch sizes for lower cost. One notable option is unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks for $6.95. At lunchtime Red Lobster serves a condensed menu with a handful of entrees, soups, salads, and sandwiches, along with a create-your-own-lunch deal that invites diners to choose two fish options from a designated list for $9.75.

Review continues below

Consumers looking for a dinner deal should note that Red Lobster is offering a four-course meal -- soup, salad, one of seven entrees, and dessert -- for $15. At Olive Garden, $12.95 buys three courses: a soup or salad, one of five entrees, and one of five desserts. As with the bar-and-grill-style restaurants we researched, such deals are offered for a limited time.

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