Original Louis' Drive-In: Shaky Reputation

Despite The Original Louis' storied history, the food is not so legendary

Funny things, reputations. Easy to acquire, but the devil's work to shift. Look at George W. Bush. He's adopted a pretty admirable moral stance in Beijing this week, but it's just no good; even he must have realized by now that his name will forever stand as a hideous stain on the fabric of democracy.

Conversely, of course, there are also those who, Iago-like, can profit from their unjust reputation, basking in the warm glow of respect while all that was once good and noble in them atrophies.

Example par excellence of the latter breed is The Original Louis' Drive-In Restaurant (4661 Old Broadway St.). The elderly in particular speak of the place with fondness and delight (and indeed one can imagine how exhilarating the thought of a drive-in restaurant must have seemed in 1958). Even today you have to keep your ear to the ground for quite some time before hearing a word against this long-standing purveyor of ersatz Italian. But the tremors are there, and now I must add to these indignant vibrations.

Proof—if proof were needed—of the restaurant's evergreen popularity is found in the Disneyland-style lines that snake through the lobby at peak hours. And it's not just the waiting times that reach theme-park levels—the sound that greets one upon entering is as raucous as a rollercoaster packed with young offenders. Can't blame the owners for this, really, but they must take responsibility for something equally loud: the ghastly stench of the carpet—an acrid, stale odor that would surely overpower anyone under five feet.

On being shown to my dirty booth, I am shown a dirty menu. Dirty cutlery completes the ensemble. A salad proves to be some tired flops of old lettuce.

Two excellent items: a fresh mountain of onion rings—brittly battered and nicely done—and the pizza; crisp, light, and tasty.

But the beef ravioli is an anemic-looking affair: sloppy, overcooked pasta with a tasteless sauce. You might not think that the narrow limits of the genre allow for much error here, but Louis' manages to squeeze in a subtle disappointment or two. I had ordered the variety with meatballs, but where were they? A single example was eventually rescued from the kitchen and, somewhat laughably, presented with a flourish in a little bowl. In fairness, this lonely sphere was pretty spry, but the same could not be said for the accompanying "garlic" bread, which I would wager had been no nearer a bulb of garlic than has your average vampire. Overall the dish was better than one might expect from a prison yet worse than one might demand from a hospital. All fun and games, perhaps, around the five-dollar mark, but the ravioli actually retails at $11.95, and the correct response to this dish at that price is anger.

The breaded chicken parmigiana was tough, dry, and goatish, the meat ashamedly hiding beneath its thin vinyl of cheese. Drab, boring, unlovely, and wholly devoid of original thought, this dish sums up the sorry state of Louis' kitchen.

Up to a star and a half could be added, I suspect, by opting for the curb-side experience, both for the improvement in ambience and the lowered critical expectations that accompany the forgiving, picnic-like sense of novelty.

But any lover of good food would be at the very least frustrated by the restaurant, which maintains a palpable air of exhaustion without the odd flash of brilliance that fatigue can sometimes bring.

Seized with concern and guilt, I returned a couple of nights later to see if I was being unfair to the place. To simplify matters, the food proved just the same and the service was much, much worse, culminating on this occasion in that maddening, lazy habit of slapping the check down on the table mid-entrée. Subsequent attempts to order a dessert came to nothing.

Oh, how the mighty are fallen.