I can think of two – no, three – reasons to go to Bistro 233 in Yarmouth: the booths, the wait staff, and the Muzak. Just don’t go for the food. This tavern on Route 1, which promises “great and affordable (cuisine) for everyone in the family,” has some of the least flavorful and most overwrought food I’ve tried in recent months. And that’s saying something.

Located south of town on Route 1, the “bistro” (an aspirational name for what’s essentially a roadhouse serving traditional American restaurant fare) is an unobtrusive business with unmet ambitions. It also has an unusual aesthetic. When was the last time you saw an acoustical tile ceiling that was stained – deliberately? (The ceiling, decorated by previous owners when this was called Grill 233, is darkened with a free-form swirling pattern that reminded me of the fake wooden panels on my father’s 1968 Kingswood Estate wagon. Like his Chevy, the surfaces at 233 could use a good scrubbing.)

We settled into a booth and were chatting with the personable waitress when Petula Clark started crooning over the sound system, trying to coax us “downtown.” I wish we’d listened. Petula’s last note was a cue for the parade of disappointments to follow.

Grilled shrimp skewers ($13) turned out to be a trio of charred, flattened bamboo skewers threaded through 15 small shrimp that spent too much time on ice and on top of the grill. The shrimp was overcooked, rubbery and bland. The tastiest thing on the plate was the container of Sriracha cocktail sauce – fiery on its own, even better spread onto a warm slice of garlic bread. (The bread is prepared at a bakery in Massachusetts and “finished” in the ovens here.)

Artichoke hearts ($9) were no better. Quartered, heavily battered, deep-fried and tossed in what the menu promised was a blend of “herb sea salt” and “truffle oil,” the artichokes were overly embellished, profoundly leaden letdowns. As for the truffle oil? I picked up not a trace of the characteristically pungent compound. Perhaps it was lost in the pool of grease spreading over the brown paper that lined the plate? Even a small container of warm marinara sauce designed for dipping couldn’t help. Dunked or not dunked, the artichokes were an ominous opener.

The Chicken Sambuca Carbonara ($20) was only marginally better. Each pan-seared breast was moist, and the meat was flavorful – which is more than could be said for the “sautéed prosciutto, tomatoes, baby spinach & olives in a Romano cheese sambuca cream sauce” underneath. Sambuca, the Italian liqueur, has a light anise flavor and a subtle sweetness that can pair beautifully with chicken, but the version at 233 proved too much of a good thing: too much cream, too much sweetness, too much salt, too much cheese. The breasts were much better moved onto a separate bread plate and enjoyed solo.

A taste of my friend’s salmon ($24) confirmed that the kitchen can grill competently; her fish was simple and tasty. (And creamy polenta cakes on the plate were excellent.) But “can” doesn’t mean “will.” Another friend’s grilled rib-eye steak ($27) was undercooked, chewy and fatty (not marbled) and the accompanying mashed potatoes were forgettable. It’s hard to mangle a dish that blends spuds, dairy, salt and pepper, but the kitchen at Bistro 233 succeeded. The potatoes were watery and thin and – remarkably – possessed no taste. I closed my eyes and tried to identify a hint of … something. Milk? Cream? Butter? Pepper? What did I come up with? Starch.

Eager for a sweet that could save the evening, we followed the waitress’ advice and tried a slice of carrot cake ($6) and, to our surprise, it was delicious. Moist and flavorful and filled with a tangy layer of cream cheese frosting. “Do you make this here?” I asked hopefully. “Currently, we do not,” she said. (The restaurant sources this dessert from its distributor, NorthCenter.)

I looked around the other tables at 233. Most were filled with families trying burgers, salads and a few orders of pasta. Had we mis-ordered? Was simpler simply better? Or had I failed to appreciate “Yarmouth’s favorite family restaurant” because I’d come without the recommended prerequisite: a kid?

Two days later I was back at 233 for lunch with Zach, a 13-year-old neighbor with an enviable appetite and an extraordinary metabolism. Encouraged by his mother and me to be honest and order whatever he liked, Zach went the healthy route and tried a Classic Caesar Salad with grilled chicken ($12). His mom ordered the Asian Salad, also with chicken ($13). I asked for a burger with bacon and Swiss ($12) and a mound of fries.

Different meal. Different day. Different music (Marvin Gaye). Same disappointing results.

Zach picked at his salad, then looked up from the plate: “The chicken is a little burned … I don’t like the blackened stuff,” he said. “And there’s too much dressing.” His mother speared a slice of orange on her salad, nibbled the edges and put her fork down. “Canned,” she winced. What about that dressing, I wondered? “Heavy,” she concluded. My burger was actually pretty good, and the bacon on top nicely crisped, but Zach declined a bite, reaching for fries instead. I asked what he thought: “They’re not that greasy,” he said hesitantly. “On a scale of 1 to 10 I’d probably give them a 7.5.”

In a metropolitan area filled with good restaurants, in a state where farmers and bakers and butchers increasingly provide the finest quality products, you don’t have to go out and pay restaurant prices for second-rate food – even if you do like the booths and the music and the waitresses.

On our way to the car I asked Zach how he’d rate the restaurant if he were charged with awarding stars: “2.5,” he said. I thought that was overly generous.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.