(Edited. Original photo by Brenda K.)
If you want to experience fine Midwest dining, look no further than Des Moines’ The Old Spaghetti Works. Why, there’s unlimited pasta; free garlic bread; a salad bar stocked with – among other items – pasta salad. Yes, pasta salad. What can one say? They truly know the way to a Midwesterner’s heart. It’s a road well-paved with carbs, rust, and stillborn dreams, and it’s delicious.
Though opinions vary wildly on the quality of Spaghetti Works’ pasta, it packs people in on a Saturday night. I know I waited at least a half-hour for a table. I was halfway tempted to call the fire marshal. It had to be over capacity in there. At one point, I must’ve watched about 70 seniors file out of the old building, one after another, as if exiting an elaborate clown car.
By now you’re probably wondering, “Well, why didn’t you just go somewhere else?”
Simple. I figured if Spaghetti Works was that popular, it was worth the wait. I had to see what all the fuss was about. You have to understand – people were dressed up. The men had their best jeans on. The women donned fancy sweaters and scarves in a dizzying array of shapes and styles. Spaghetti Works, I hazarded to guess, was a big deal in Des Moines.
Plus, the wait was a good opportunity to take in Court Street. Blocks from the heart of downtown, it possessed the vestiges of a real urban neighborhood, right there in Des Moines. There were tall brick buildings with shops and restaurants on the ground floor. Even pedestrians. Squint and you’d almost think you were in Brooklyn.
Probably most of downtown Des Moines once looked like Court Street. Until, that is, they demolished huge swathes of the city for skyscrapers like the “Principal Building”, shiny and new and completely uninviting. Why past generations saw little to no value in neighborhoods like Court Street is one of the fascinating questions of America’s history. We gave this up for strip malls? For easy parking?
No matter. The pager, which the greeter had handed off to me like a live grenade earlier, buzzed. The flickering red lights reminding me of a UFO. It was exciting. A table – finally – had opened up. I’d scored the jackpot, a booth at Spaghetti Works.
It was pretty spiffy inside. There was a truck with a salad bar in the back; exposed ductwork; and red and white checkerboard tablecloths as far as the eye could see. It was the sort of restaurant that demands you tuck your napkin in the neck of your shirt, like a true gentleman. I was ready to pay an arm and a leg, maybe more.
But wouldn’t believe it: if I stuck to the “original sauce”, a red sauce, an entire dinner would only set me back $6.49. That’s it. I’d get the endless pasta, the bottomless garlic bread, and the trip to the salad bar. Or, in short, everything. There had to be a catch, right?
The catch was the salad bar. Oh sure, from afar it was a thing of beauty, a verdant, bountiful field of toppings, from beets to carrots to olives. The cheese was positively radiant, a wonderfully synthetic shade of orange. I nearly fainted when I saw the gigantic jar of croutons, literally overflowing with rebaked bread. It was perfect. Too perfect.
The infamous salad bar truck. (Edited. Original photo by BarbaraLN.)
It was then I realized that the plate they provided was about the size of a CD, or perhaps a 45 record, and you only had one chance to load your plate. Imagine the paralyzing despair I felt as I debated the merits of filling my plate with greens or pasta salad. Space was at a premium. It was a painful ordeal, excruciating even, and I’m still not sure if I made the right choice. I went with the lettuce and made a traditional salad.
Who knows what I missed out on?
The waitress told me I could break the rules and make two trips to the salad bar, so long as I “wasn’t ridiculous about it or anything.” But she wasn’t altogether reassuring. I was left with the distinct impression that if the manager noticed me “double dipping”, so to speak, she’d be the first to testify against me in the Polk County Courthouse down the road (remember, I was on Court Avenue), verifying that I was indeed ridiculous in my liberal piling on of olives and that I’d made her quite uncomfortable with my protestations for more salad.
I never dared make a second trip.
Other than that minor bit of stinginess, Spaghetti Works was a benevolent host. The pasta and garlic bread was, indeed, as infinite as advertised. No, it wasn’t much better than what I could’ve made at home in 15 minutes with your basic grocery store ingredients, but by ponying up an extra $2.50, I was able to open up a wide world of sauce options. There was clam sauce, white or red. Beer cheese. “Hot naked“, described as an “orgy of delight with sweet basil, olive oil, butter and garlic.”
Yes, an orgy in the mind of a true Midwesterner. For another 50 cents, I could’ve combined sauces, but I wasn’t Al Capone here. I had a budget to maintain.
The waitress was even willing to bring out my ever faithful travel companion, Molly, a second bowl of pasta when she somehow managed to order the only option that was both more expensive and not infinite. “Like, it shouldn’t be a problem. But I can’t give you more ravioli, just pasta.”
It’s at moments like that when you feel reduced to the level of a pig, fiendish for pasta to a degree you never thought possible.
Nevertheless, we walked out into the cool Des Moines completely content, our distended bellies radiating enough heat to keep us sufficiently warm for hours.