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Everybody loves the Cheesecake Factory—but why?

THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY

700 Pike, 652-5400 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 11 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Fri.-Sat.; 10 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sun. all major credit cards / full bar LOOKING TO FORGET the current bleak state of affairs? Head over to the corner of Seventh and Pine, where the crowds are happening and happy—it's still 1999 at the Cheesecake Factory. To all appearances, it remains the best of times for this Seattle outpost of the California chain. It opened in July, and three separate Monday night visits still required waits, despite the restaurant's cavernous space. You fight your way through the masses on the sidewalk, approach the host station (which looks as if it were sent over from the Galaxy Quest set complete with humanoids in communication headgear), and are handed a pager that vibrates when your table is ready. Why is this place doing so well when fine restaurants around the city are struggling? The prices aren't all that reasonable (entr饳 range from $10 to $20). The often lackadaisical service is less than alluring. It's clearly not all tourists, not these days. But it is wildly popular for birthdays; during one two-hour stint I heard "Happy Birthday to You" sung no less than seven times. "You only get a scoop of ice cream," one waiter told me. "I don't understand it." This frankness is one of the Cheesecake Factory's charms. Waiters, if neglectful otherwise, are amazingly blunt about what's good and what isn't; I had one guy shake his head when I tried to order something he didn't approve of, the way my mother might frown at too-outlandish boots. Another unexpected charm of the Cheesecake Factory is that it may be the most diverse place in Seattle. Here you realize anew that the crowds at most area restaurants, bars, and clubs are as pale as the all-white nurselike uniform of the Factory staff. But everyone loves cheesecake, or at least cheesiness; African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and whites dine here, together and separately. The menu is equally diverse, offering practically every type of food (it's 36 pages long!), all seemingly overcooked in the homogenizing American melting pot. Adding insult to the injury of a single menu that lists Tex-Mex egg rolls, Thai noodles, and chicken and biscuits, the Cheesecake Factory's also contains 17 pages of ads. We've grown accustomed to advertisements showing up in formerly pristine places: bathroom stalls, the sides of passenger cars. But let's take a moment to rage against being forced to look at full-page advertisements for Furla, Bebe, and Hertz (among many others) as we order our dinners. NOW BACK TO the food—though there's something about the food that feels irrelevant. The Factory (as those in the know call it) is such a happening that what you eat doesn't matter nearly as much as how much of it there is and how much fun your table is having. And the table is having fun. Despite the hopeless faux-fresco mall atmosphere, the cloning approach to ambiance and food, and the vacuousness of the staff, the customers are enjoying themselves—a lot. It's sad, incredibly so, but true. Maybe it's the drinks. They serve a wide range of perfectly fine "fun" cocktails, from a minty Mojito to an intense, salty "well-mannered" dirty martini with blue cheese-stuffed olives. Or maybe it's the sheer breadth of possibility that people find so thrilling: The menu lists nine pizzas, 26 specialties, and 13 pastas, and fish and seafood, chops and steaks, sandwiches, entr饠salads, eggs, and brunch all get lengthy sections. At what other restaurant can you choose from shepherd's pie, chicken piccata, and Thai bang-bang chicken and shrimp? From the ridiculously diverse appetizers, the Thai lettuce wraps ($8.95) were the best option. An enormous trough is packed with mounds of chicken satay strips, carrot slivers, bean sprouts, and noodles. All these tasty bits are to be stuffed into lettuce leaves and dunked in one of three flavorful sauces: peanut, sweet red chili, and tamarind-cashew. A chicken quesadilla ($6.95) was hubcap-sized but tasty with a fresh salsa. The real loser is the giant (you understand that EVERYTHING is giant) sweet corn tamale cakes ($7.95), which are too sweet even for dessert. Easily the worst dish was "Our most popular dish!", Cajun jambalaya pasta ($15.95). My waiter practically insisted I have it with rice instead ("It's much better that way," he said, leaving me wondering what on earth it's like with pasta). Despite the serving size bordering on the insane, it was mostly grit-covered rice with a few overwhelmed shrimp here and there. A much better spicy choice was the Caribbean steak ($15.95), another giant mound of rice surrounded by a ring of kicked-up skirt steak, topped with delicious grilled onions and vivid red tomatoes like cherries atop some gargantuan sundae. On the poultry front, the chicken Madeira ($14.95) was notable mainly for the excellent mashed potatoes, made with a bit of the skins; the chicken, topped with asparagus and melted cheese and an undistinguished brown sauce, may remind you of one of the finer meals you've enjoyed on a 747. Baja chicken tacos ($11.95) are stuffed to bursting with chicken, cheese, and avocado cream, as well as sweet caramelized onions that pretty much ruin the whole thing. Salads are frankly unbelievable, in size if nothing else. The Java ($10.95) features wide wafers of chicken over a pillow of noodles, green onions, and lettuce with a spicy peanut dressing. You'll eat steadily for 15 minutes without making much of a dent. Finally, there's the cheesecake, all 32 flavors of it. Oddly, at $5.75 to $6.95 a piece, the cheesecake is one thing that hasn't been supersized—nor is it even all that good. Dense and more dry than creamy, it coats your mouth like baking soda, leaving a strange film. The mixed-up flavors like white chocolate-chunk macadamia nut and chocolate peanut butter-cookie dough do much to disguise the dullness of the plain cheesecake, but it's not anything to wait in line for. Which brings us back to the original question: Why is this place so incredibly popular? Is it proof that brand-name culture has won, that people perceive the food to be good just because it's at the bizarrely vaunted Cheesecake Factory? Are countless families unable to decide whether to have Mexican or Chinese tonight? Are thousands of people out there obsessed with cheesecake? Some advertising and marketing genius clearly knows. Whatever it is, it seems to be what America wants. avanbuskirk@seattleweekly.com

 
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