Kids fidgeted on the Victorian velveteen couches in the waiting area, whining that they were hungry.
As the hostess returned from seating a party, she walked so quickly her heels sounded like machine gun fire on the wooden floors.
In the dining room, a camera flashed, capturing some sort of special occasion.
And, even with a fair amount of traffic, servers gracefully balanced mammoth trays of pasta.
It was just another Saturday night at The Old Spaghetti Factory, one of Spokane’s most popular restaurants.
This cavernous eatery is truly an institution. It’s so phenomenally successful that unless you arrive early, you’re likely to spend some time in the comfortable, but often crowded, waiting area. I have seen people standing in the rain, waiting for the doors to open.
People line up for the cheap eats. It’s still possible to get a full meal for $4.50.
The food is not adventurous, but it is competently prepared and filling.
The often-imitated factory concept was conceived more than 20 years ago when a Portland couple opened an affordable pasta restaurant in an old warehouse. The chain has grown to more than 30 stores in this country and nine locations in Japan.
I used to frequent The Old Spaghetti Factory in Seattle, going there with friends when I was in high school. We felt so grown up without our parents.
But like a white zinfandel drinker who graduates to chardonnay, I had long since grown into restaurants that offered more creative fare.
Still, I couldn’t help getting nostalgic on a recent return visit.
And why not? The Spokane restaurant is virtually unchanged since it opened in 1974. The menu is basically the same - pasta with various sauces and a few chicken dishes thrown in for good measure. (The newest entree is chicken in a marsala wine sauce.)
The decor is mostly unchanged, too. Rough brick walls surround a fairly impressive collection of antiques, including the wooden bar that was built in 1907 for a saloon in Wallace. Or, ask for a table in the vintage trolley car.
Our section filled up quickly, even before 5 on a Saturday. (At that hour, I consider it more of a late lunch than dinner.)
Because of the close quarters, it’s impossible not to notice your neighbors.
At a nearby table, an older couple obviously knew the drill - spitting out their order with military-like precision: “I’d like the Italian dressing, the spaghetti with the rich meat sauce, a cup of coffee with cream and spumoni ice cream, please.”
The matriarch at another table took charge of slicing the hot loaf of sourdough bread for her family. Later, I saw the same woman unabashedly filling her glass of red wine with ice. This is the kind of place where that was perfectly acceptable. (Actually, that should be acceptable anywhere, but some upscale spots might frown on icing down your vino.)
Everywhere were tables filled with kids. At one table, I counted eight girls, all around 11 or 12. Kids up to age 12 can choose between noodles with tomato sauce for $2.95 or noodles with marinara and a meatball for $3.35. I can’t remember being in a restaurant where children outnumber adults - except McDonald’s, maybe.
The Spaghetti Factory isn’t fast food, but the food certainly does come fast, which is a plus for many diners. We were in and out, even with dessert and coffee, in well under an hour.
All dinners come with a salad, which is your basic chopped iceberg with some romaine, shredded red cabbage and carrots. It was served chilled and crisp, though.
In the dressing department, the Italian lacked zip, but the creamy pesto had a pleasant kick. It was rich, but the basil flavor was distinct. The honey-mustard was the best fat-free dressing I ever tasted in a restaurant. It had a good balance of sweet and mildly spicy.
For dinner, I had ordered my old standby, the manager’s favorite (pasta with two different sauces). I chose the mushroom sauce and the mizithra cheese with brown butter. (Other pasta toppings include a white clam sauce and spaghetti with meatballs or Italian sausage.)
The pasta was perfectly cooked, but the sauces were benign. The cheese was good with a slightly sharp flavor, but it’s the kind of taste I get tired of after a few bites. The marinara with mushrooms tasted faintly metallic and was sorely lacking in the garlic department. However, I realize that’s what the Spaghetti Factory customer wants.
I bet the kitchen would have juiced it up for me if I had thought to ask. (The congenial servers seem eager to please, which is quite a feat considering how busy it can get.)
The spinach and cheese ravioli ($6.25) proved to be a more inspired selection. The tender pasta was filled with three types of cheese along with Popeye’s favorite veggie.
After a dish of the excellent spumoni (it’s made by Darigold), the people at our table were feeling satisfied. Especially when the check arrived and it was less than I’ve paid for one entree at some tony restaurants - even with wine. (They serve Columbia Crest chardonnay and merlot by the glass for $3.50, which is a great deal.)
I can easily see the attraction of The Old Spaghetti Factory. The menu is simple and they do it well. The dining room has a lot of charm. You get a lot to eat for a reasonable price. The formula works, why fool with it?
That doesn’t mean I’m ready to become a steady Factory customer again. Still, it is comforting to know that some things never change.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: The Old Spaghetti Factory Address/phone: 152 S. Monroe, 624-8916 Days/hours: Monday-Thursday, 4:30-9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30-11 p.m.; Sunday, 4-9 p.m. Meals: Italian Price: $4.50-$8.25 Smoking: in lounge only Reservations: not accepted Credit cards: DC, DSC, MC, V Personal checks: yes