When I walked through the double doors of The Old Spaghetti Factory on Central Avenue, I half-expected to be greeted by a haunting chill. Phoenix’s beloved institution sits on hallowed ground.
The iconic spaghetti has been open since the 1970s, but the historic old building was originally built as two individual residences, The Baker House and Cole Mansion. The two houses were built in 1921 and they were united into one building in 1940, first to serve as a furniture store and later as a pasta restaurant.
And then there are the ghostly tales. The internet is full of stories of haunted events. People say a man was murdered as he slept on the second floor and a woman was brutally murdered in the basement of Baker House in the 1930s, and their spirits are still very much alive.
Rumor has it that staff have reported cold spots, strange sounds, flickering lights, moving furniture, and floating apparitions, with no specifics from host station staff. None said they saw a real ghost, but they changed the subject pretty quickly, which told me there might be some truth to the stories.
But instead of shivering, I was greeted by hordes of people, a herd of hungry customers on Saturday night. There were millennials wearing sundresses and Converse sneakers, parents trying to argue with rogue toddlers, and a mix of couples of all ages and clothing lines, all thronging the lobby waiting for a table with hungry anticipation.
It was my first visit to this old spaghetti factory, or any spaghetti factory for that matter. A chain-less chain feel, the first establishment opened in Portland in 1969 and became known for its unique decor, including an old-fashioned streetcar so guests could dine at each location. They also offer affordable three-course meals, with the most popular starter being spaghetti with Mizithra cheese and brown butter.
I mostly knew it as the place my next door neighbors went for their first date in August 1974.
He chose it because he had been to Denver and considered the new franchise to be “really cool,” somewhere you’d want to impress on a date. She had never been there before, but she was as impressed with her spaghetti with Mizithra cheese as she was with her date.
Needless to say, the restaurant and the relationship worked. They go back once or twice a year and recently celebrated their 47th birthday there, this time having dinner among a crowd of teenagers dressed up for the ball. I saw them as they walked out the door, not in fancy dress but fancy dress nonetheless, and they had that same teenage glint in their eyes.
The scenery hasn’t changed much since their first date, my neighbors told me, and I can believe it. When my table was ready, I followed the hostess past the bar and its candy cane striped columns, past private cubicles lined with old books, private dining rooms accented with framed antique artwork and the remarkable refurbished Phoenix Railway streetcar sitting at the center of it all.
Whether or not you believe in ghosts, these walls have seen a few things, the story rooted in the rich wood accents and antique furnishings, and reflected in the stained glass windows and chandeliers in the centerpiece. Other than an exterior facelift in 2015 that stripped the building’s layers of white paint, returning it to its original red-brick glory, it was pretty much what it looked like in the ’70s.
My neighbors hadn’t heard it was haunted, nor had the girls hanging out in the lobby in town for a volleyball tournament. Their parents had chosen the restaurant because it worked for a crowd, offering plenty of seating for large groups and fussy options like basic butter and noodles.
My server was all smiles and recommendations. Certainly not intimidated by the lurking spirits, she enthusiastically suggested Italian cream soda, a fizzy sip topped with cream that comes in a souvenir glass to take home. As for the food, she said many people come just for the Mizithra cheese and the browned buttery pasta, but her mother was a big fan of the chicken parmesan. For those looking for something a little spicy, she recommended the Spicy Spaghetti Vesuvius. I went with the Mizithra.
Now, I would love to say the food was life changing or even unforgettable, but that would be a lie. My starter salad was a little sad, a handful of lettuce with shredded carrots and croutons that mirrored the pre-mixed stuff from the supermarket. The bread, although warm and whole, was dry and dense. I had hoped for the pasta and its cheese imported from Greece, but it was little more than noodles in a brown butter bath. The saving grace was to mop up the browned butter with the bread, but that was more about the indulgent act than the taste.
The food was disappointing, but the people watching weren’t. At the next table was a teenage girl celebrating her birthday with her grandparents. It was the birthday girl’s first time at the spaghetti factory and the grandparents’ first time in 35 years. They all smiled as staff marched past singing happy birthday, delivering slices of chocolate cake, cheesecake and tiramisu.
I finished with my one scoop of spumoni, a Spaghetti Factory signature described as a mix of chocolate, pistachio and cherry ice cream, which really tasted like chocolate.
While waiting for the check, I scanned the place for spirits, but saw smiles instead. There was a dad happily diving into big meatballs, a couple dining in the cart clinking wine glasses with seductive smiles, and a large group celebrating a birthday at a table covered in presents and surrounded by balloons.
Still, when my waiter came by, I couldn’t help but ask her if she had experienced something supernatural. She swears she saw a plate move once in the kitchen, but she said it more with fervor than dread.
Ok, so if the guests weren’t there for the ghosts, why were they there? Why did the grandparents choose this restaurant to celebrate their granddaughter and why do my neighbors come back year after year?
I looked around me at the restaurants and the decor, and I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic, as if I too was celebrating something special. Perhaps it was the fact that you could order the same meal for your 47th wedding anniversary as you did for your first date in the tiered setting that made you feel like you were stepping back to a simpler time, when an Italian soda and a plate of pasta could make you forget all the evils of the outside world. I could only guess that was why the supposed spirits stayed too.
The old spaghetti factory
1418 North Central Avenue
Opening hours: Sunday to Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9.30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.