Demos' Steak and Spaghetti House
300 Commerce St. 256-4655
11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sun.-Thurs.; 11 a.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat.
130 Legends Dr., Lebanon. 443-4600
1119 NW Broad St., Murfreesboro. 895-3701
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs.; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Price range: $$
"People go to restaurants for hundreds of reasons, and food is only one of them."Ruth Reichl, Gourmet executive editor and former New York Times restaurant critic, quoted in the book Dining Out.
I couldn't list hundreds of reasons why people go out to eat, but I have managed to come up with about seven pretty standard explanations: as a social experience, as a courtship ritual, as part of a business transaction, to celebrate a special occasion, convenience, laziness or ineptitude in the kitchen, and, finally, because it's there. When it comes to my own reasons for eating out, I can offer another: because it's my job.
While it's difficult to set aside my professional frame of reference when I am dining off-duty, I still love going to restaurants with friends, on a date, to celebrate birthdays and mark holidays, and as a very pleasant way to conduct business. And when I find myself in a time crunch, I will do one of the fast-casual thingsBaja Burrito, Calypso Café, Pizza Perfect, Panera Bread, Wild Oats. When I'm really pressed for time or on the road, I'll even acquiesce to Subway or Sonic.
But because I love to cook, and because I'm committed to healthy, balanced eating, I don't go to restaurants out of ineptitude, laziness or simply because the option is there. Not that there's anything wrong with that. If everyone thought the way I did, Chili's, American Cafe, McDonald's, Olive Garden and Shoney's wouldn't exist, and then where would our unemployment rate be?
All of this came to mind recently after someone asked me why I had never reviewed Demos' Steak and Spaghetti House, which has been operating in Nashville since 1992. I have nothing against Demos' or the Demos family, but truthfully, none of the reasons I listed above has ever compelled me to walk into the restaurant and order a meal.
Apparently, a good portion of the Middle Tennessee dining public does find reason to frequent Demos'. The Murfreesboro storethe original, opened in 1989 by second-generation restaurateur Jim Demos and his wife Dorisis a member of the Scene's Best of Nashville Hall of Fame, voted for 10 consecutive years as the readers' choice for Best Restaurant in Murfreesboro. It must be hard to find a place to hang the Scene plaques, considering all the other accolades Demos' has collected from loyal customers in Murfreesboro (Best Service, Best Business Lunch, Best Family Restaurant and Best Value) and in Lebanon (Best Restaurant, Best Place for a Steak). Though the Nashville store doesn't, in my opinion, merit such critical acclaim, rarely has there been a lunch or dinnertime when I passed by the striped awning at the corner of Commerce and Third, and the restaurant wasn't full, if not tending a wait list.
But, finally adhering to the "because it's my job" reason for going to a restaurant, last week I took my parents and my children to Demos' for a look-see. It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, with every downtown office locked up for the four-day weekend. There was no purpose like a hockey game or a touring Broadway musical for people to come downtown, so I fully expected a deserted dining room. I was wrong. Though there was no wait and the back room wasn't in use, every table in the main dining room was completely occupied, primarily by families with babies and small children.
I can see why. The children's menu is one of the cheapest in town: $2.99 for spaghetti with soup or salad, and $3.99 for chicken tenders or a burger, with potato and soup or salad. The wait staff was exceedingly patient with food-throwing toddlers and spilled milks.
The adult choices are more extensive; the greeting printed on the front of the menu says that the Demos family has "spent many years developing and collecting recipes from many parts of the country and from overseas." Though the family is of Greek heritage, those recipes don't appear to include many from Greece. I scanned the menu in vain for a moussakasurely one of the ultimate international comfort foods. There was a commendable sautéed spinach dip, a Greek salad and a Greek-style chicken sauce served with spaghetti.
As the full name of the restaurant implies, steak and spaghetti form the backbone of the menu. The club steak we sampled was a thick and juicy boneless cut of beef, cooked medium-rare as ordered, but lacking any seasoning or flavor other than the A1 we doused it with. The spaghetti with meat sauce was a generous portion, consistent with our other selections; the sauce was meaty, with a homemade taste that comes from a slow simmer on a stovetop. My children were disappointed at the lack of a Caesar salad on the menu, but more than appeased by the basket of warm onion bread that was replenished after each time it circled the table.
Rounding out the nine spaghetti and 10 steak offerings are a quartet of Mexican specialties, salads, chicken dishes, seafood dishes, stuffed potatoes and three sandwichesin other words, a menu that aims to please every palate. If you're in a fowl mood, the oven-baked bird is quite good, a skinned half-chicken nicely flavored with herbs and lemon, though I think diners should be given the option of eating the skin if they want to indulge. The mixed grillcatch of the day with three plump marinated shrimpwas also a satisfactory dish, with a nice piece of tilapia as that day's offering. I expected that the fairly low price of the seafood fettuccine ($8.99) indicated that the crabmeat would be KrabMeat, and I was right. Though it is a fairly common substitution for the real thing in value-conscious restaurants, its use remains one of my pet peeves. I would prefer nothing at allwhich is exactly what the taste of this hideous invention offersthan this red-and-white-striped poseur.
Side salads were crisp and fresh, the potato sides were fine. The room itself is in the fern bar mold of the mid-'80s: dark woods, burgundy leather-covered seats in the booths, oilcloth-covered tables, mirrors, green plants. Service was attentive and friendly. The unanimous verdict on the food was that it was "pretty good," and there's nothing wrong with that either, particularly when five people can dine in a table-service restaurant for $74.
In the book Dining Out, former New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne explains his simple yardstick for rating restaurants: "What does the public get for its money?" Using that same standard, Demos' fares OK: the public gets convenience, good service and a pretty good meal for its money. And let's not forget location: in Murfreesboro, Lebanon and downtown Nashvillewhich is still underserved by this type of restaurantDemos' grabs a segment of the dining public simply because it is there.