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.

© 2008 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 2

DumbOldLocal writes:

Okay, that's it. Turn in your credentials and surrender your access to any and all word processors. You call yourself a food critic, yet you go to Louis' and don't even order Spaghetti? Would you also go to Peter Luger's and not order the porterhouse?

You see, some places are all about "one thing." It's what they do. Sure, to appease those who don't like the "one thing," but are nonetheless obliged to accompany those who do, these establishments may make some halfhearted attempt to offer other things. However, to judge a restaurant on the basis of these silly concessions to the unlearned is akin to judging a restaurant on how well it maintains its parking lot. It's entirely, utterly and inexcusably beside the point.

Louis offers the finest plate of non-traditional spaghetti to be found on this planet. I say that without fear of contradiction by those who know. Spaghetti is entirely about the sauce, and Louis brings you a generous amount of the richest, meatiest, spiciest sauce you could ever hope to experience. The stuff sits about halfway between a fine marinara and a full blown chili (ala Cincinnati). It is a unique and special flavor not be had anywhere else. Over the years, I've become entirely spoiled by it. I cannot abide the spaghetti found in any other restaurant now, especially the fancier Italian places in town with their miserly dollops of thin, watery tomato paste - little more rice cakes in cheap ketchup.

Oh, and if you must have something other than a huge oblong platter of Louis spaghetti, go for the old "Louis Plate Number 4." You get a generous helping of the legendary spaghetti with a broiled chicken breast parmigiana - a thick, tender chicken breast unspoiled by unnecessary breading and untouched by a frying pan. Delicious.

Finally, two other quick points. That not at all garlicky garlic bread is only there to help you sop up any sauce that might remain on your plate once you're done with the spaghetti. Judged by that singular function, it performs admirably. And you really, really shouldn't have said anything about that shredded iceburg salad. Unless you are inimately acquainted with both the Original Louis and Louis Inn and the devotees of each and their reasons why... you really didn't want to open up that sore topic.

KnoxvilleGirl writes:

In response to all of the above....
1. Dirty is dirty. I don't care how you slice it. Of course, there are different degrees of dirty, but at a restaurant, no degree of dirty is acceptable. That's why we have Health Inspectors, health codes, etc. for restaurants.
2. I'm wondering if DumbOleLocal has eaten the spaghetti and sauce at the Pizza Palace. It's the original recipe that nobody else has....nobody, not even the Original Louis, despite what you might have heard. Of course, if you have tried it and don't think it's better, then that is your opinion and you can continue to enjoy the spaghetti and sauce at the Original Louis. The Pizza Palace was featured on the second episode of Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives so they just might be doing something right.
3. If you are going to offer other dishes on your menu and you make a "half-hearted attempt" at offering those other dishes, please just don't bother. What an insult to the poor people who don't want "the one thing" that particular restaurant "does".
I'm a fan of several restaurants, but if one of them takes a turn for the worse, well...I guess that's just the way it goes. Come on....if a restaurant changes ownership, management, etc. then inevitably other things are going to change as well. Would it be that unbelievable for a restaurant to go down hill? Ask Don Dare on WATE when he tears restaurants apart because of their health score. Some restaurant owners just don't care and unfortunately, will ride the reputation all the way to the bank. The problem with that is that it all catches up to you in the end.
I think I'll just keep eating my spaghetti and sauce from the Pizza Palace and hope my other favorite restaurants don't resort to "half-hearted attempts" to make me happy.

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.