Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Saturday, 4 p.m. to midnight; Sunday, 4 to 10 p.m.
Atmosphere: Festive Italian neighborhood cafe.
Price range: Spaghetti, $3.25 to $4.45; pizzas, $2.50 to $7.95; other entrees, $4.25 to $7.25.
Reservations: Not accepted, except for the handicapped.
Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
Special facilities: On-street parking; highchairs and booster seats; wheelchair access (one small step, but call ahead and the staff will help you).
"Thank God for the Spaghetti Garden," said an Adams-Morgan woman whose job is exhausting and whose teen-ager is voracious. "It's good and it's cheap."
There is certainly better Italian food in town, but for simple homestyle fare this popular restaurant offers about as good a value as you're likely to find, served by people so eager to please that you feel almost guilty about paying as little as you do.
When we complained that our table for four was drafty, the woman who was serving us all but offered us her sweater until she could arrange to move us to another table. When we ordered two salads, she suggested that the antipasto ($2.50 and heavy on iceberg lettuce) gave us the same amount of salad and then some. When we ordered more than she thought we could eat, she told us how to revise our order so that we could satisfy all our cravings without wasting money.
In short, we were subjected to the kind of friendly bossiness that is very well suited to a restaurant that looks like this one does, with its laminated plastic tables, fake brick walls, and nearly comic efforts at looking European, including a tiny "medieval" ax on one wall that looks like the kind of hatchet a kid might take on a camping trip.
If the Spaghetti Garden were a home, you wouldn't be surprised to find Walt Disney decals on the refrigerator door. (Don't expect to find a garden, however, or even Italians; the owners are Middle Eastern and the waiters are from all over.)
The food, on a busy evening, varied in quality from so-so to heartening. Two orders of garlic bread (50 cents each, and delivered a thoughtful 10 minutes apart) were heavily garlicky but dry.
One daughter said her fat, flavorful meat-filled ravioli ($4.25) were as good as any she had eaten; the other daughter, after loading up on garlic bread, was content with half of her small pizza with cheese ($2.50, and small--but how often can you order a decent pizza for one?).
At the waitress' suggestion, I ordered manicotti with a side dish of sausage ($5.25), and enjoyed the two spicy fat sausages so much that I hardly paid attention to the rolled, filled crepes, a rich but delicate concoction topped with tomato sauce and a generous amount of melted cheese--well worth ordering, though we were told lasagna was equally good.
Torn between spaghetti with clam sauce and veal, my husband decided to order both, although the veal came with spaghetti; to our enormous disbelief, the waiter agreed to make the spaghetti with clam sauce part of the $5.25 order of veal Milanaise. In the end, because of confusion in the kitchen, we got two orders of spaghetti on the side, when we would have considered the veal alone a bargain at that price.
As it turned out, neither order of spaghetti was al dente enough for us (although pasta is boiled to order), and the tomato sauce was characterless, but the spaghetti with clam sauce was sufficiently tasty that we all insisted it be placed in the sharing spot in the middle of the table.
The veal was decent, plentiful and unadorned--almost Germanic in its bland simplicity--and we would certainly order it again. It's cheaper than buying veal at the supermarket and cooking it at home.
We ordered desserts not so much because we had room for them as because we didn't want to leave, but they were disappointing. The filling in the cannoli ($1.45) was oversweet and oddly runny; the Black Forest cake was mediocre. The (World's Best) cheesecake ($1.35) was not bad.
Dinner for the four of us came to $40.55, tip and two half-liters of wine included, but we easily could have kept the bill under $30.
As we lingered over a Neapolitan-style pot of espresso coffee (an amazing 95 cents) we knew that any restaurant that made an inexpensive meal such an endearing experience was one we would come back to, not only for cheap satisfying eats but also for the friendly boost to the spirit.