Sure, there are better sources of inspiration for a restaurant than a lyric about half-digested upchuck, but to be fair to the gimmicky new palace of pasta Mom’s Spaghetti, Eminem has recorded far more unappetizing verses. Nineteen years have passed since Em dropped “Lose Yourself,” which means the song is about a few years away from becoming part of the oldies radio firmament. Which makes me wonder: why open this food joint now?
Granted, I can’t wrap my head around the idea that Eminem could’ve peeled off that one line about performance anxiety and transformed it into a dining establishment back then. Eminem, born Marshall Mathers, ascended to astronomical fame in 1999 spitting self-consciously vile and violent verses, delivered under the auspice of his Slim Shady alter ego. Even as he transitioned into an artist respected by septuagenarians through his star turn in the film that begat “Lose Yourself,” 8 Mile, Eminem could still stir up controversy as frequently as he displayed his erect middle finger, which is to say a lot. The zeitgeist has since moved on from Eminem, who now finds himself worth nearly a quarter of a billion dollars at age 49. What better way to diversify your portfolio than open a themed restaurant?
Mom’s Spaghetti existed sporadically before it set up shop in the southwest corner of Union Assembly, the new downtown Detroit venture operated by Michigan restaurant group Union Joints. The company launched in 1995 in nearby Clarkston, operating a restaurant out of a shuttered 19th Century Baptist Church—its big draw is the mac and cheese, so the company knows its way around a noodle. Union Joints helped Eminem and his manager, Paul Rosenberg, launch their pasta place in 2017 with a pop-up to help celebrate the arrival of the rapper’s album Revival. The temporary spaghetti joint opened in the Shelter, a basement space in St. Andrew’s Hall, a storied music venue in Detroit’s Bricktown neighborhood. Eminem performed there as he rose through the city’s hip-hop scene in the 1990s, and all the freestyle battles in 8 Mile were filmed on a soundstage modeled after the subterranean venue.
I tried hard to imagine the joy of those stans who got to chomp down on tubular noodles created in homage to a lyric from the first rap song to win an Oscar in one of the room where their hero not only polished his skills but provided the blueprint for the venue at the center of the best 8 Mile scenes. Did any of them experience a perfect bite that made them feel like they became a part of this strange feedback loop of Eminem’s history and creations, floating somewhere between the 8 Mile set and Em preparing to tear apart a competitor on the microphone sometime back in the 1990s? I could never answer this question, because I ordered my Mom’s Spaghetti meal from a walk-up window in an alley that stunk of sewage.
Smells aside, the permanent Mom’s Spaghetti has an urbane touch. It’s on the ground floor of the newish nine-story corporate headquarters for Little Caesars, the Michigan pizza chain that once employed Eminem and one of his best friends, Detroit hip-hop figurehead and D12 founder Proof. The building’s gleaming exterior retains a healthy shine thanks to the edifice’s triangular windows—they’re supposed to look like pizza slices, a design concept that delayed the building’s completion. (I’d like to interject with a tangent about the shape of Detroit-style pizza, but I must get back to the restaurant inspired by puked pasta.) Music venues sandwich the stubby tower: the Fillmore Detroit sits south across the alley from Mom’s Spaghetti’s pick-up window, and just north is the Fox Theatre, which made an appearance in a dramatic 2011 Chrysler ad prominently featuring Eminem and the intro to “Lose Yourself.”
Yes, Mom’s Spaghetti plays up Eminem’s white trash sensibilities. You can buy a ‘sghetti sandwich, which Eminem likened to a regional white-trash staple in a loopy interview on his SiriusXM channel, Shade 45. Mom’s Spaghetti also has a retail store in a room perched above the kitchen that’s called “the Trailer,” which doubles as a museum to Eminem: it’s a great place to gawk at his Robin costume from the “Without Me” video and a rare copy of a sold-out “Just Don’t Give a Fuck” 7” record pressed in the shape of a middle finger that’s available to buy for several hundred dollars.
I’m no stan, and I wasn’t about to bruise my credit score for some Eminem deadstock. But I did come to Mom’s Spaghetti to get a better sense of what it says about one of Detroit’s biggest contemporary cultural exports, and if that meant forking over $15 for a coffee mug and $11 for a ‘sghetti sandwich, so be it. Of course, that is a lot to ask of a restaurant whose novelty begins and ends at its namesake, and I didn’t think much of Eminem when I received my bag of food. The spaghetti and vegan meatballs ($14) my girlfriend ordered overwhelmed its quart-sized container: we couldn’t close the top, so we had to rush back to our car before the food got cold.
When we settled down to eat, I noticed my reasonably portioned spaghetti sandwich had spilled some of its contents into its wax-paper bag container. I did my best to capture the spillover with judicious bites that would not disrupt the sandwich’s structural integrity—that was a challenge, considering clumps of spaghetti would slink southward anytime I bit in. A touch of cheese glued strands of noodles to the two slices of lightly buttered toast, which also gave the sandwich a nice hint of flavor otherwise lacking in its bland marinara. A few bites of the family-sized vegan-meatball meal confirmed the impression I got with my sandwich: Mom’s Spaghetti ain’t bad, but it also didn’t provide me with anything I couldn’t make better myself at a fraction of the cost.
This is the kind of comfort food that provides solace simply by existing, sold through the name of a superstar whose peripatetic childhood was colored by the kind of poverty that could render food unappealing. (Eminem wrote about attempting to navigate the potential humiliation and embarrassment of being a recipient of his high school’s free lunch program in his 2008 autobiography, The Way I Am.) I could attempt to find some greater representation of Eminem’s history in the limited Mom’s Spaghetti menu (it only offers three variations of a simple spaghetti, plus the sandwich) and its presentation. Are the Oyster pail take-out containers a reference to Stanley Hong’s Mannia Café, a shuttered Chinese restaurant that hosted a weekly hip-hop series Eminem performed at in the 1990s? Does the lack of Faygo on the menu have anything to do with the fact that Eminem once had beef with some of the Detroit pop company’s biggest devotees, the Insane Clown Posse? Does any of that even matter?
If I wanted an authentic “Eminem eating experience,” I could have stopped by Gilbert’s Lodge, a restaurant in St. Clair Shores where Em once flipped burgers as a line cook. But I didn’t yearn for that: I wanted to eat the manifestation of a meme of a lyric from a song that charmed me by a musician I never thought would win me over. The taste mattered less than the fact that it exists. At the end of the meal, I gazed down at my shirt and noticed it had a few red blotches from Mom’s Spaghetti.