The core of a food critic's purpose is to let readers know whether they should be aware (as in smiley-face, thumbs-up) or beware (as in sneer and head-shake) of a particular restaurant. When a critic signals a "no-go," though stinging, it does allow an opportunity for a restaurant to take heed and consider improvements.
Sometimes a dining experience goes so off the rails that a critic feels the need to dig a little deeper for explanation. Such is the case of Spaghetti's in the Chapel Hills Mall.
To begin, I had absolutely no interest in "family restaurants" B.C. (Before Children). I couldn't imagine anything more unappetizing than trying to dine with a crying baby or a sticky-fingered kid hanging over a booth repeating that one phrase his parents find cute.
Then I had children, and things changed. The opportunity to leave the house, sit at a table and be served became a gift. A smiling server jumping into action with a pile of napkins when my child spilled juice became a godsend.
But Spaghetti's, an Italian family restaurant, did not inspire trust upon entry. The bright and cheery menu contradicted the black, cubicle-like booths and dark green washable tablecloths. Once a Ruby Tuesday, the space still had that barroom feel.
Upon sitting, I was told a problem with the refrigeration truck would make several items unavailable. When I pressed, I was advised to re-visit and was handed a coupon for a free appetizer. Though I appreciated the honesty, I was thoroughly unimpressed.
On my second visit, we encountered a gritty mess of food crumbs and used facial tissue under the tables, and a server who mopped the bar in the midst of service. (Aside from accident cleanups, this kind of housekeeping should always be done outside customers' view.)
When ordering, a fellow diner was asked to select another dish, as the meat was not thawed. I wondered if the chef knew the place was open. A 45-minute wait for entres was justified with an explanation that my item was made "fresh." (Um, how else was it to come?) My son was treated to a mouthful of charred paper that had once been used to separate pizza dough, but had inadvertently been baked in. (No charge, on that one.)
My last visit to the near-empty restaurant presented the head server drinking wine at the bar. After a 10-minute wait, he said he was "jumping on the clock" because the other server was "swamped." With what, I couldn't tell you. Later, my lasagna had a cool center, and my flank steak was cut with the grain, leaving it akin to chewing gum. During our meal, the staff took frequent cigarette breaks on the front patio.
Confounded by my visits, I decided to learn more from owner and Springs native Angela Harrington, now living in Iowa, where her first two Spaghetti's reside. She says that after a bumpy start with the loss of a chef, a devastating fire on Aug. 1 caused $65,000 in damages and an 11-day shutdown.
Roughly six months since opening, "it's like we're starting all over again," she says. She then mentions hope for the holiday season, sounding committed to making this Spaghetti's location work.
I sympathize with her troubles and respect her entrepreneurial spirit. But my lackluster experiences had a lot to do with an apparent lack of oversight.
If Spaghetti's is going to make it, it does need to start over again. As it stands, this isn't even Addams Family dining.
Chapel Hills Mall
1710 Briargate Blvd., #177, 260-0086, spaghettisrestaurant.com
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.