I tried to make myself order the spaghetti, but I simply couldn’t muster enough will power.
Yes, I know. Spaghetti is what you’re supposed to eat at The Original Louis’ Restaurant (4661 Old Broadway). For 60 years, it (along with another, now-vanquished Louis’ a block away) has been Knoxville’s source for long, cylindrical pasta in meat sauce. Generations have grown up eating Louis’ spaghetti and for them it is the very definition of Italian cuisine, or at least the best American version.
But here’s the thing: Excellent spaghetti is easy to make at home. It takes about 15 minutes. And it’s cheap, even if you buy one of those fancy $8 bottles of marinara at the Kroger. Throw in some fresh mushrooms, onions, basil, and oregano, and you’ve got a lovely repast.
So, I usually can’t force myself to buy spaghetti at restaurants, where I would much rather eat food that’s vastly superior to anything I can cook. The last time I actually ordered spaghetti was a few years ago at Altruda’s, for the princely sum of $14.50 (with meatballs). I could discern nothing particularly distinctive about the pasta compared to what I usually buy at the grocery store at $3 per box, and the sauce was actually not as tasty as shelf-bought. But the meatballs—ah, there was the difference! They were inedible. I can usually work my way through most entrees, no matter how indifferently prepared, but these meatballs were so dreadful in both taste and texture that I left them on my plate as a silent cry of protest to the busboy.
Side note: You should know that I am not a complainer at restaurants. (I only do that online, anonymously.) In general, I’m not the sort of person who sends something back to the chef because I do not approve of their choice of seasoning. If the order is completely wrong, then sure, I’ll point it out. But if the food is not good, then I simply won’t return to that restaurant. I’ve got enough stress in my life already than to confront innocent servers with my opinions of their chef’s abilities.
Thus, I did not order the spaghetti at Louis’. Instead, I got the lasagna. Here’s my reasoning: Lasagna is a pain in the ass to make, it takes a long time to bake, and it has more opportunities to be exciting than spaghetti. Best to let the professionals handle it.
Louis’ lunch-time lasagna is good enough.
That verdict of averageness may very well enrage Louis’ longtime customers, but I think you may had to have grown up eating at Louis’ to fully appreciate its charms. Really, Louis’ is more than just its food—it’s a time warp to an era when fine-dining meant black vinyl booths, very dim lighting, and trompe l’oeil murals on the walls depicting the pastoral Italian countryside. Louis’ is an anomaly in Knoxville’s time-space continuum of restaurants: it looks permanently lodged in the ’70s while its menu is from the ’50s. The restaurant must serve as a comforting refuge for regulars who can take solace in the knowledge that it has not changed much since their childhoods (there’s still curb service outside) and that the food will never conform to whatever’s currently trendy.
There’s nothing wrong with Louis’ mid-century lasagna—it’s a straightforward bite of pasta, a thick meat sauce, and a layer of mozzarella on top. Louis’ sauce includes a bare hint of moussaka-like spicing (cinnamon? nutmeg?), possibly reflecting the Greek heritage of Knoxville’s oldest restaurants, though I found it a bit too gooey for my tastes. The sheets of pasta are admirably al dente and the cheese on top is perfectly browned (be prepared to wait 15 minutes for it to bake), albeit swimming in oil. If this is the sort of lasagna you enjoyed as a kid, then you will be satisfied. My tastes have moved on to trendier ingredients, I’m afraid.
My lunch order ($10.99) included a side salad of shredded iceberg lettuce with a packet of Saltines (crackers used to be a common appetizer before TGI Fridays revolutionized the genre); the blue-cheese dressing, promised to be homemade and incredible, was pretty credible. The lasagna also came with a plank of garlic bread that looked deliciously decadent but turned out to be a soft, spongy mouthful of not much garlic or even butter. If I’m going to flood my body with carbs, shouldn’t they at least taste worth it?
Worth a Return Visit?
If you like ’50s-style Italian-American food in a ’70s-style dining room, then by all means.
Those who didn’t grow up eating at Louis’ may want to pursue different options for Italian food.