This week, Monica and I grabbed a quick dinner at Rafael's Italian Restaurant at 3877 Hixson Pike. Even after driving by Rafael's almost on a daily basis for more than a decade, our dinner excursion Tuesday night marked my first-ever visit to this popular restaurant.
A family-owned restaurant, Rafael's has two locations in Chattanooga: this location in Hixson and another location at 9607 Dayton Pike in Soddy-Daisy. Our server told us about a former location on Signal Mountain that is now closed. It also seems as if the "Rafael's" name is synonymous with "fast Italian," as I'm sure I've been to other Rafael's (or similar) in other cities.
Monica and I were hungry but not feeling the two-for-one pizza deal (available anytime) and instead opted for some of the deeper cuts on the extensive menu. We arrived to an empty parking lot at 7 p.m., and the restaurant remained unoccupied with dine-in patrons throughout our visit. However, several carryout orders were picked up, and we also saw a Dinner Delivered driver pick up an order during our visit.
Our first impression? Rafael's is Fazoli's meets Cook Out meets City Café—and it was exactly the type of food we were in the mood for at the time.
It's hard not to notice the flashing, colorful signs from Hixson Pike. The neon lights advertise the aforementioned two-for-one pizza deal, which is not a bad deal at all. The first thing you notice inside are the decorations. I appreciated how the room actually felt like the food they served. I've never been to Italy, but I imagine every restaurant looks exactly like Rafael's. Food is ordered at the counter underneath enormous lighted menus.
One thing we noticed is that almost all items are à la carte, even down to a cup of water, which costs 29 cents. Any sauces that don't come with your order are extra. And, like Cook Out, dine-in customers are required to get their own drinks, napkins and utensils. The only interaction with a server takes place at the counter and when they deliver your food. Rafael's is not fancy, in other words. Luckily, I'm not a big fan of frills—and we found the food was actually pretty good.
"Big Bang Theory" was playing on a TV during our meal. It was the episode where Sheldon sings the "soft kitty" song. I don't know why I'm telling you this. I'm not sure if the show was on for us or if the employees just needed something to watch in their downtime. We didn't mind. Monica and I usually watch something while we eat dinner. Most recently, we've enjoyed "Barefoot Contessa."
Anyway, we ordered a bunch of food and then sat down in a booth.
Rafael's has almost anything you could want in the realm of Italian/Greek food. A short list includes pizza, calzones, subs, pasta, salads, pitas, gyros and more. It gets even weirder when you add burgers, tilapia, Tex-Mex stir-fries, cheese sticks, tuna melts and that old Italian/Greek standby the Cuban sandwich.
The full menu is here.
Like City Café, the choices can be overwhelming. It's not "Choose from one of these 10 pizza varieties," but instead it's "Here is every food item in the world. Make your decision quickly." My quick decision led to a Greek salad (to split), a cheesesteak calzone and an order of fried mushrooms thrown in at the end, because why not?
Studies have shown that "an overload of options may actually paralyze people or push them into decisions that are against their own best interest." I'm not saying we made a bad decision here—because we didn't—but that chances are good that we will over the long run. I'm very good at making bad decisions.
Our food arrived to the table. We started with the Greek salad. It had everything you'd want in a salad—feta, olives, peppers—but the "house" dressing wasn't Greek or house. The most normal thing Monica could find to put on her salad was balsamic vinaigrette. But this Italian restaurant also serves quesadillas, so I don't know what to expect from anything anymore.
The fried mushrooms were good. We dipped them in marinara sauce, and the portion size was plenty for both of us to snack on and still have a few to take home. The calzone was really tasty. The cheese was the highlight, with the steak and onions mixed well. This was a flatter calzone than, say, Lupi's Pizza Pies or elsewhere, but I ate half and still had plenty to take home for lunch the next day. It reheated well.
Would we go back?
Cheap Italian is hard to beat, especially if you're feeding a large group. Rafael's was fine. I didn't expect to be blown away and I wasn't, but I would consider another visit. I want to eventually try the pizza deal. You could feed a bunch of people for cheap, and it seemed there were several people taking advantage of the offer. Rafael's is a good choice if you're hungry and want a lot of options. That's not a bad thing at all.
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