‘SPAGHETTI IS BACK’: The story of Rick’s Drive In & Out’s viral sign and 2021’s great unifier
In 2021, a sequel year of tumult, ennui, new pandemic surges, fresh horrors and existential despair, one sign looming large in Frogtown helped unite and delight a certain subset of Los Angeles. For the uninitiated, let us be the first to tell you: “SPAGHETTI IS BACK.”
Rick’s Drive In & Out, which sits at the corner of Riverside and Fletcher drives, first added those three crucial words to its light-up marquee over the summer, declaring, without any context, the return of one of the Dodger-themed restaurant’s most popular dishes. What the staff didn’t realize was just how popular the dish would become when that sign and those words started their viral journey — but they caught on as countless photos, memes, tourists, a rival marquee blocks away and multiple Halloween tribute costumes emerged.
Just last week, the American Cinematheque in Hollywood used a photo of the sign to promote a screening of Harmony Korine’s “Gummo,” in which the film’s narrator eats a tray of spaghetti in the bath.
“It’s crazy, you know? We run out; we’ve gotta make sure we have it,” said Blanca Sanchez, a manager at Rick’s who has worked there for 20-plus years. The restaurant, she explained, was serving the spaghetti before she started, and it had never sold out before those 15 letters were placed on the marquee.
Now, she says, Rick’s sells out twice a week. New faces regularly enter the diner asking for the dish, and staff members often watch spaghetti pilgrims pose for photos in front of the marquee.
“It’s the sign doing its magic,” she said.
Social media posts continue to reference the signage, which wasn’t intended to be comical at all. Employees say they are aware of and amused by its popularity, even if they don’t completely understand it.
But that hasn’t stopped the online fans. Accompanying a photo of the marquee, author and journalist Miles Klee wrote, “This is a huge relief” in one of Twitter’s multiple viral posts showcasing the signage. “LA culture is when I say the phrase ‘spaghetti is back’ at a party and two people in the room immediately say ‘Rick’s,’” photographer Cherokee Presley Neas posted to Twitter.
It’s important to know that before spaghetti was gone, longtime Rick’s devotees considered it a mainstay, one that was typically ordered in the L-shaped dining room and enjoyed at a booth or a swivel seat at the wraparound counter under the watchful eye of the Dodgers bobbleheads stacked atop the pie case. But after COVID-19 shuttered on-site dining in March 2020, owners and brothers Angelo and John Michaels made the call to temporarily stop serving the spaghetti, which wasn’t listed on the drive-thru menu to begin with.
The most popular items — the burgers, the burritos and the breakfasts — sated fans of the 40-year-old, second-generation family-run restaurant for a time, but eventually, requests for the pasta began to trickle in.
“I think people missed it, so that’s why they’d come through and ask for it,” said Jessica De La Cruz, a Rick’s server of three years. When indoor dining resumed, “It came back. Spaghetti’s back.”
For a few weeks, the marquee at the Elysian comedy theater begged to differ: In October, “SPAGHETTI IS GONE FOREVER” and “FORGET ABOUT SPAGHETTI” went up in mock protest.
The theater sits less than a mile from Rick’s, a straight shot down Riverside Drive. Living in the neighborhood, and after months of driving by “SPAGHETTI IS BACK,” the Elysian’s executive director, Kate Banford, and her partner, Kendra Guglielmino, decided to make use of the theater’s marquee while they awaited the return of indoor events and the official launch of their new performance venue.
“We had been passing by Rick’s every day, laughing about the ‘SPAGHETTI IS BACK’ sign and joking about how spaghetti must be under attack,” said Banford. “We always were trying to figure out why they did that.”
The reason remained a mystery to them, but it didn’t matter: “SPAGHETTI IS BACK” became a viral movement, and they christened their theater’s marquee with their jokes, which graced their signage in some permutation for two weeks.
“I like the idea that in someone’s imagination there could be a great spaghetti war or a great spaghetti feud,” said Banford.
“It’s just so funny,” added Guglielmino, who saw multiple people dressed as the “SPAGHETTI IS BACK” sign on Halloween. “We’re both on Twitter, and I would see it go viral every other month, just a person posting a photo of it. I think it’s bizarre, but in a really funny way where you just think about it.”
It took me three attempts to discover whether spaghetti was, in fact, back. At 8:41 on a morning in mid-December, it was not.
“Can I get a dinner item this early?” I asked De La Cruz, who was working the register.
“Yes, anything,” she said.
“Then I guess I’ll get the spaghetti.”
“Ehhhh …” she said. She paused, and then said, “I don’t think we have that one right now.”
Despite assurances from the staff and the year’s viral marquee, a few items aren’t actually available at the diner, at least not in the morning: the chicken burrito, the carne asada burrito, the steak picado (made with carne asada) and, of course, the spaghetti. With limited grill space, the staff reserves the surface for the likes of pancakes, French toast and the tortillas for the breakfast burritos in the morning.
Come back after 11:30 a.m., they said, because that’s when they begin serving those four dishes.
At 4:16 p.m. on a late December afternoon, spaghetti still was not back. Try again tonight, after 8 p.m., they said, and when I returned at around 9:30 p.m., this time, spaghetti was truly back.
If you ask Sanchez if there’s anything extraordinary about the Rick’s spaghetti — beyond its viral signage — she’ll be the first to tell you no, not really. “But everything’s homemade,” she said, “so I think that’s a plus.”
The straightforward meat sauce is made from ground beef simmered to a velvety texture, studded with chunks of tomatoes in varying sizes. It’s ladled generously over the top of spaghetti noodles, which can be sprinkled with Parmesan cheese from packets that are served on a plate alongside two slices of garlic bread.
If you don’t happen to catch it, the burritos, the pancakes, the packed pastrami sandwiches and the classic grill burgers make for a good consolation prize.
If you do, the spaghetti at Rick’s Drive In & Out will set you back $9.29, but the order includes not only the garlic bread but also your choice of soup, salad or a drink. It’s affordable, it’s a comfort, it’s elusive and, above all, it’s back.
Rick’s Drive In & Out, 2400 Fletcher Drive, Los Angeles, (323) 660-5988, ricksdrivein.wixsite.com/ricks
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