DETROIT — On Sept. 27, a strange 30-second film appeared on Eminem’s YouTube channel: not a music video teaser, or the first few verses of a new rap single, but a quick-moving advertisement.
In the video, cartons brimming with marinara sauce spin hypnotically on checkered tablecloths. A voice-over rattles off vaguely Italian dishes: spaghetti, spaghetti and meatballs, and a “‘sghetti sandwich” — a scoop of pasta squeezed between two pieces of buttery white bread. Eminem, dressed in a thin gold chain and an eggplant-colored flight jacket, holds up what the viewer can only assume are two middle fingers, their message censored by twin takeout containers bearing the phrase “Mom’s Spaghetti.”
Marshall Mathers, the man who brought white working-class angst to the top of the charts, was opening a restaurant.
Mom’s Spaghetti is named for the famed first verse of “Lose Yourself,” a single written for the movie “8 Mile” that sold more than 10 million copies and earned Eminem a pair of Grammys in 2004. The lyrics are imbued with nauseating, do-or-die dread: Our protagonist is locked in a bathroom, drenched with sweat, washing off a regurgitated wad of pasta clinging to his hoodie. “Knees weak, arms are heavy, there’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti.” It was only a matter of time before the lyric became a meme.
Nearly two decades later, the restaurant appears to be Eminem’s way of embracing — or one-upping — the joke.
On a visit to Mom’s Spaghetti in December, three months after the initial fanfare, the place did not immediately register as a shrine to a rapper’s career. Instead, I found myself at a small counter-service restaurant, tucked in an alley next to the Little Caesars World Headquarters. (Yes, the pizza chain.) I perused the abbreviated menu and placed my order at an outdoor cashier. Almost as soon as my credit card cleared, a steaming, carb-laden paper bag was handed to me through the window.
Afterward, I was escorted inside a gastropub called Union Assembly, where all of the food served at Mom’s Spaghetti is prepared, to a tiny suite of tables and bar stools where customers can eat.
Here is where the Slim Shady aesthetic becomes apparent: Most of the “E’s” on the menu and packaging have been turned backward, and the kitchen is made to look like a street corner bodega. I tucked into a booth, already overwhelmed, preparing for a long night in the afterlife of Eminem’s cultural empire.
Curt Catallo, 54, is the owner of Union Joints, which operates several restaurants around Detroit, including this one. He described Mom’s Spaghetti as a “true joint venture” between his business and Eminem. The restaurant first appeared as a pop-up shop in 2017 and has been a fixture at the rapper’s various festival performances since. (During the pandemic, Union Joints and Eminem’s Shady Records delivered the pasta to frontline medical workers.)
Mr. Catallo said the restaurant’s busiest periods occur “postgame and pregame,” where the staff harvests customers from the foot traffic pouring through Detroit’s pro sports district. Spaghetti is not typically deployed as a takeout food — noodles take a while to cook — but Mr. Catallo’s staff makes all the pasta a day ahead, then reheats the product in a pair of woks. He believes that method blesses the spaghetti with a delectable down-home texture.
“Today’s spaghetti is better tomorrow,” Mr. Catallo said.
I’d ordered the spaghetti and meatballs, which was served in an oyster pail and covered with a snowy dusting of Parmesan, as well as a ‘sghetti sandwich. This is not Italian cooking, nor does it try to be. Instead, it might be best described as … well, downright motherly. The greasy slop of the pasta, the sugary tang of the red sauce; it’s the spaghetti that emerges from your pantry on the last night before a grocery trip. Mr. Catallo said the noodles possess an inscrutable leftover chemistry. He means that as an endorsement, and he should.
Eminem is not here, nor should he be expected anytime soon. Ian McManus, 22, who manages the Trailer — a merchandise shop above the dining area — told me the rapper has dropped by the restaurant a “handful” of times since it opened. “He only lets a few of us know when he’s coming,” Mr. McManus said. “And he only lets us know day-of. If he’s coming through, I’ll find out when I’m on my way downtown.”
A smattering of Eminem-themed pint glasses, T-shirts and sneakers filled the room, but the real pièce de résistance was at the back: the Robin costume from the music video for “Without Me,” encased in glass. The sound was the soundtrack to the year I turned 10; seeing a relic of it up close felt like being in the Louvre.
Eminem has been famous, and will remain famous, for a long time, but it has also been eight years since his last No. 1 hit. Perhaps that’s why he’s preserved himself in a mini-museum. The rapper is entering that vexing post-prime era that inevitably hunts down every enormously successful person. How should Eminem structure his third and fourth acts? Ideally with some humor and some grace. If Paul Newman could sell salad dressing and enjoy his golden years, maybe Marshall Mathers can do the same with spaghetti.
After all, the Eminem brand is still strong, even now. Misty Jesse, 49, and her 15-year-old son, Romeo Jesse, who were dining at Mom’s Spaghetti that December night, told me they grew up with Eminem, which sounds confusing but is honestly quite plausible if you do the math. “I saw him live at the old Detroit Tigers stadium,” said Ms. Jesse, who made the trip to the restaurant from the Dearborn Heights suburbs so that Romeo could shop for some Eminem gear. “It’s crazy how it all circles back around.”
“She was surprised that he was one of the first people I started listening to,” Romeo said. “She’s happy that we could bond over his music and sing along to it in the car.”
The Jesses are locals, which makes them outliers here. Almost everyone else inside the restaurant, save for the employees, was visiting Detroit for business, pleasure, or a combination of both. A trio of auditors from Atlanta crowded around a table glazed with spaghetti sauce; they were only in town for a few days, and they’d arrived at Mom’s Spaghetti out of passive curiosity — the same gravitational force that pulls New York City sightseers into the Times Square Madame Tussauds.
Morgan Martin, 28, said that Eminem’s 2010 album “Recovery” got stuck in her car’s CD player when she was in high school. For 10 years, she exclusively listened to that record as she drove around Georgia. Her friends claim that the experience endowed her with the ability to rap with a near-perfect Eminem cadence.
“I’ve since gotten a new car that connects to Bluetooth,” Ms. Martin said, “so now I’m learning more of his work.”
For her, Mom’s Spaghetti was a destination. “When I learned we were coming to Detroit, I knew where we were eating,” she said.
Her friend and dinner date, Caylen Hemme, 27, was not apprised of that plan. “I didn’t know this was Eminem’s restaurant,” she said from across the table. “I just saw that they had vegan meatballs.”
John Farran, a 32-year old service engineer from Orlando, had dined at a high-end Italian restaurant the previous night. The experience, he said, paled in comparison what Mom’s Spaghetti had to offer. “Their sauce was like a soup,” Mr. Farran said, “plus they didn’t give you bread.” He then gestured toward the caramelized chunk of starch half-submerged in the noodles. “It made the whole trip for us, pretty much,” he said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have had anything to look forward to.”
“No offense to Detroit,” Mr. Farran said. “Great city.”
Mr. Catallo, the restaurant operator, said Mom’s Spaghetti is planning on expanding its menu. Soon there will be Bolognese sauce, from a recipe Mr. Mathers has taste tested. I imagined the rapper, whose career was once defined by rage and controversy, letting a meat sauce linger on his palate for a moment before giving it his stamp of approval. Could Eminem become a latter-day Jimmy Buffett, bringing Mom’s Spaghetti to tourist districts around the country? He declined to be interviewed for this article, so I can’t say for sure.
But I can tell you with certainty that on a cold night in Detroit, after scarfing down a pound of pasta, I felt changed. Knees weak, arms heavy.