by Lauren McAllister

The Old Spaghetti Factory has been serving up steaming plates of pasta in Spokane for 34 years. Lots of steaming plates -- on any given Friday or Saturday night, servers rush more than 600 dinners to hungry patrons. The crowd resembles a cross-section of the city -- older couples, teenagers dressed up for formal dances, families with lots of kids, entire teams in matching jerseys.

Although the restaurant is noisy, it has a certain charm and ambience. The vintage railcar filled with tables is a quirky novelty, while the stained glass is genuinely antique -- salvaged from an 1889 building. The bar came from the Western Bar in Wallace, Idaho, but was built in Chicago in 1907. Antique tables and sideboards also add character to the high-ceilinged, brick-walled interior.

So how do you serve more than 600 meals in an evening? "It's a system the founders set up," says Manager Craig Louderback. "They have 39 restaurants, and every one is successful."

"We basically get a meal prepared in two minutes," he continues. Sauces are made from scratch earlier in the day. Pasta is cooked to al dente and refreshed in boiling water right before it is plated, sauced and on its way to the table.

On the Friday night we visited, there was a 45-minute wait for a table for five. Once we finally got a table, however, things began to move along. A loaf of fresh hot bread arrived on a cutting board with regular whipped butter and garlic butter. We ate as we perused the menu.

Entrees at the Factory include the freshly baked bread, soup or salad, vanilla or spumoni ice cream, and coffee or tea. The most expensive thing on the menu is $9.95. What a deal!

Salads are served on small, chilled plates. They're the old-fashioned iceberg-lettuce-and-shaved-carrot variety, but they tasted fresh and crisp. Crunchy croutons are a nice touch, and the house creamy pesto dressing is also tasty. Ordering dressing on the side is probably a good idea as all of our salads were over-dressed. The minestrone soup was quite good -- zesty and filled with legumes, al dente pasta and crisp celery.

While ravioli, tortellini and lasagna can all be found on the Spaghetti Factory menu, it is really built around spaghetti. There are five "treatments" -- rich meat sauce, white clam sauce, tomato sauce, mushroom sauce and browned butter and mizithra cheese ($6.50 to $7.95). Try two or three sauces for $8.25, or add meatballs or sausage to spaghetti and meat sauce for $8.50.

Diner number one tried the Meat Lovers' Treat ($9.75) with meatballs, Italian sausage and spaghetti with meat sauce. This was a huge plate of food, and he pronounced it "everything I wanted it to be."

Diner number two chose the Manager's Favorite with two sauces and was similarly delighted.

Diner number three chose Chicken Marsala ($9.50) with a breaded chicken breast, fresh mushrooms and marsala wine and a side of spaghetti with mizithra. Another success. Although the marsala sauce lacked zest and could have used more mushrooms, the chicken was tender and moist. The side of spaghetti with mizithra helped diminish any disappointment with the chicken.

And what is it with that mizithra cheese? You don't see it on many menus, but it's all over the Old Spaghetti Factory's. Louderback deadpans that the chain may just be the world's leading consumer of the cheese. It's a good thing, too, as this dry cheese, served grated, offers a unique and delightful flavor.

Diner number four chose the evening's special -- a Chicken Penne with alfredo and tomato sauces. This dish was the least successful of the evening, coming in too bland and in need of more sauce. Maybe when you're at a place called the "Spaghetti Factory," you should forget the penne.

I chose the Baked Chicken Greek-Style ($9.50). The baked marinated chicken breast had a nice lemony flavor accented by just the right amount of potentially overpowering oregano. The sides of spaghetti with tomato sauce and spaghetti with mizithra easily place this entr & eacute;e as one of the best deals in town. There was even enough for lunch the next day.

While technically we could count our side salads as a vegetable, we began to feel the need for some crunchy green stuff with our carb-heavy entrees. So we ordered up a large side of broccoli ($3.50) to share. It arrived within minutes -- bright green and flavored with olive oil, browned butter and that ubiquitous mizithra cheese. It provided a perfect complement to the meal. Louderback says the broccoli was added to the menu recently as an alternative for low-carb eaters.

A little scoop of spumoni ice cream in a metal bowl provides the perfect ending to the meal. Two members of our party opted for the Mud Pie and Caramel Turtle Pie ($3.25), but we all agreed these weren't really an improvement over the spumoni.

Our tab after salad, entr & eacute;e, dessert and beverages for five, and the most most expensive bottle of wine in the house ($30 Chianti Brolio) was less than $95. Service was friendly and knowledgeable -- they even had a 16-year-old "server's assistant" to keep our water glasses filled.

More than 2,400 diners a week seem to have stumbled onto the good food and good value provided by the Old Spaghetti Factory. If you're in on the secret, don't tell anyone! It's hard enough to get a table already.

Publication date: 04/01/04

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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