Growing up, I was lucky enough to have parents who took me out to eat. My sister and I were fairly chill as far as kids go, and my parents fancied themselves progressively “cosmopolitan,” which at the time meant treating your children like little adults and letting them taste wine and stuff. I, in turn, fancied myself somewhat cosmopolitan (read: obnoxious) and early on developed my own rubric for what qualified as a very good restaurant.
Signs of an exceptional restaurant according to me, a kid, in 1992:
- A continually refilled bread basket.
- A generous Shirley Temple ratio of grenadine to soda.
- Cloth napkins for tucking in, because spilling.
- A bowl of free candy by the host stand. Extreme bonus if that candy happened to be Andes chocolate mints.
Almost all of these points still ring true for me (I will absolutely tuck a napkin today, especially if there’s soup involved). But sadly, the occasions upon which I encounter the world’s most perfect after-dinner mint — three ultra-thin layers of chocolate and mint wrapped in green foil — are becoming fewer. It seems our collective appreciation of Andes mints is waning, and that’s a terrible thing.
Officially called Andes Crème de Menthe (in case they weren’t already classy enough), the candy debuted to the masses in the 1950s, and they still scream of mid-century sophistication. While the brand’s mountainous logo evokes the cool air of the Peruvian mountains, the name is actually a riff on the original company founder, Andrew Kanelos, who, in the 1920s, had a Chicago store he called Andes Candies. (According to one source, he changed the name from Andy’s Candies after finding that men didn’t want to buy boxes of candy for their loved ones with another dude’s name on them.)
While Andes might be masquerading as after-dinner mints, there’s something much more satisfying about those wafer-thin squares than simply breath-freshening. They’re absolute workhorses, pulling the difficult double duty of refreshing your palate after that giant pile of garlic mashed potatoes (this was the ’90s, after all) while also providing that small hit of chocolate that so many of us require after meals. They’re bigger than a Tic Tac or a single M&M, but not so big that your parents will say you can’t also order a real dessert. And they’re individually wrapped for portability, which lends them to being heaped into a giant bowl on a restaurant’s host stand for easy grabbing.
When I was a kid, it felt sus. Wait — so they put a giant bowl of free delicious chocolate candy here, and I can just... take one? Or not even one, a handful? Am I going to get in trouble? How do restaurants expect to make money just giving out free candy?! Andes weren’t the only free mints I encountered, but they were by far the best. Peppermint hard candies are just too minty, too aggressive, and honestly who wants to spend a half hour sucking on a hard tab of toothpaste? Buttermints — those pastel, toothsome little blobs — are too chalky, and lacking the all-important chocolatey taste to really tell your taste buds their job is done for the night. That’s the thing: Andes mints are actually 2:1 chocolate to peppermint, which means they’re twice as much treat as utility breath freshener, almost like... a real dessert. And yet, they’re liberally tossed out to the masses, gratis.
The late ’80s and early ’90s had a whole thing with alpine-themed mint candies — the ad campaign for York featured people biting into a patty and immediately being whisked to some high-altitude Swiss ski slope. But Andes never needed any fancy commercials. Every Olive Garden host stand in America is advertising enough; each branch gives out the foil-wrapped gems, and the chain still features their own exclusive-to-Olive Garden flavor of the beloved mints — reportedly some riff on the brand’s Mint Parfait variety. I’m only sad these bulk jars aren’t sold at movie theaters alongside Junior Mints and Sour Patch Kids because I could easily crush 20 of them.
But that’s part of the beauty and brilliance of the humble, historic Andes mint: You don’t eat them just anywhere. We encounter them when we’re out, where they act as a sweet punctuation mark to a great restaurant meal. They signify a sense of occasion, something rarified and special, and, as they’re free, as pure a symbol as any of “unreasonable hospitality.” That’s something even a kid can appreciate.