The Cheesecake Factory Holds Lessons for Us All

You don’t have to be a tourist to love the Factory.

Not surprisingly, there's a wait.It's noon on a Sunday, and a friend and I are standing in the lobby of the Cheesecake Factory, waiting for a piece of the action. Five minutes, we've been told, but a late-morning session at the Convention Center has just let out, and we brace ourselves against the cheesecake case as a herd of Dockers and twin sets stampedes around us. Five minutes turns into 15 before one of the five hosts finally calls our name, then leads us through a 280-customer-capacity room to our designated spot, next to a couple in their 60s eating brunch and three young women taking pictures of their cheesecakes. There are more people here in the middle of the day than you'll find in any restaurant in Seattle on a Saturday night.Generally, I don't review chain restaurants. But I pass by the Cheesecake Factory to and from work every day. I'm fascinated that in a year that has seen the opening of remarkable restaurants specializing in everything from sheep-brain agnolotti to wild-boar sloppy joes, as well as dozens of articles in national publications praising our chefs and restaurants, this chain outpost continues to be one of Seattle's most popular restaurants, perhaps its busiest. The company won't give me specific figures for the downtown Seattle location, but in its most recent annual report, the corporation stated that individual restaurants averaged $10.8 million in revenues in 2006. Just for comparison, according to the Washington Restaurant Association, only 3.4 percent of Seattle's restaurants report more than $2.5 million a year in gross sales.The Cheesecake Factory didn't always have a 200-item menu. It started out in 1978 in Beverly Hills, when David Overton opened a restaurant that showcased the products of his parents' successful cheesecake bakery. Now the chain has 139 restaurants across the nation. Most are in malls or close to them: Seattle's is near Pacific Place; there's also one in Bellevue Square and another in Southcenter.Seattle's food snobs don't even deign to pooh-pooh the place at this point—they're too busy turning down their noses at populist hometown successes like Anthony's or even Etta's. Even the nonfoodie Seattleites I've talked to about the Factory assume it's tourist central. It's certainly Seattle's only full-service restaurant to be name-checked by Outkast, who in "We Luv Deez Hoez" complain, "I told y'all niggaz/About goddamn takin' them hoez to the Cheesecake Factory/Lettin' them hoez order strawberry lemonade and popcorn shrimps." (I did try the lemonade, by the way, and it was so sweet that I could feel the sugar electroplate my molars.)Though the Cheesecake Factory says it offers "upscale casual dining," it's not much cheaper than a midpriced bistro like La Medusa or Crow. The corporation reports that its average check size is $17 (which suggests that many customers are coming just for dessert), but I spent $29 a person for lunch and $45 a person for dinner, splitting an appetizer and a cheesecake slice each time. Clearly diners aren't coming here for a bargain.Do they simply not know about the culinary riches available to them mere blocks away? I don't think so. The Cheesecake Factory's customers are after a very different experience, and the Factory gives it to them.What the restaurant does particularly well is provide the grand atmosphere of a big-city restaurant, but in an unthreatening manner that avoids any trappings of exclusivity. The check prices seem to be warranted by the decor, which is almost opulent, with a two-story ceiling supported by large, marbleized columns, walls sponged with Mediterranean browns, artisanal glass lights over the tables, and murals on the ceilings.While the service misses some of the polite flourishes that food geeks expect to find in bistros, such as making sure the plates and silverware from one course are cleared before delivering the next, the waiters were efficient, smiley, and thoughtful on my visits. On one Monday night, a salad arrived within five minutes, barely as much time as it took for the waiter to tap out the order into her computer and then walk all the way to the kitchen and back. Our Sunday noon waiter checked in after each course arrived (though, granted, his feet barely stopped moving as he spoke), and he swept by with a second pint glass of Diet Coke just as my tablemate was sucking the last tablespoon of her first.There's no question that more waitstaff translates into better service. The team that hit our table included a waiter, a couple of food runners, a busser, and a once-over from a managerial type. The only restaurants where I've seen the same density of white shirts and black aprons are top-of-the-spectrum places like the Dahlia Lounge. One former employee told me that staff training is a four-day affair involving slide-show ID quizzes on all menu items and lessons on every ingredient in every dish. That's a depth of information that many smaller bistros should be able to pass on to their employees in a day but don't seem to.When it comes to the food, some of the common wisdom about the chain's success seems to be true. A Cheesecake Factory is always a Cheesecake Factory, and that consistency has got to appeal not just to a lanyard-wearing dental technician from Tulsa but to a shopper from Shoreline whose sister raves about the Cheesecake Factory in Tampa. And portions are as huge as I've always heard, which is important for prospective diners afraid their money will go to waste. My "small" salad, served in a bowl that could double as a wash basin, overwhelmed my friend and me. So did a chicken Madeira entrée, which included a piece of chicken pounded out to a foot in width, two cups of smashed red potatoes, and a platter designed for a Thanksgiving turkey.Many of the 200 items on the menu seemed to be dishes that connote dining out, such as wasabi-crusted ahi tuna or steak Diane. The spiral-bound booklet contained echoes of every faded restaurant trend since the 1950s, ones that people had heard about so long that their resistance to trying them had faded, too. More important, the menu was free of all the status markers that a food geek like me scans for. I didn't see anything like Tilth's "Pete Knutson's sockeye salmon with thumbelina carrot, hedgehog mushroom, and vermouth" (note the named fish, the rare varieties of common vegetables) or How to Cook a Wolf's "white anchovy salad with fingerling potatoes and celery leaves" (anchovies and celery? tell me more).All the flavors were simple and straightforward, with an emphasis on the fried, the meaty, and especially the sweet. It wasn't just the wine sauce on my chicken Madeira. From the soy steak sauce on the hibachi steak and the pomegranate vinaigrette on our vegetable chopped salad to, weirdly enough, the smashed mashed potatoes, every bite left a fleeting hint of sugar on my tongue. Even when the food is spicy—as in the buffalo sauce on my crispy chicken sandwich—it's not strong-flavored in the sense of pungent, astringent, or bitter. The cheesecakes have a smooth fluffiness that blends into their cream toppings, and it's not hard to find yourself having swallowed the entire wedge.Most distinctively, the Cheesecake Factory never tries to hide its identity as a chain restaurant. The menu contains full-page advertisements, and a third of the desserts are cobranded or trademarked. While all those markers of corporate ownership are the thing that most turns me off to the place, I suspect they make many customers feel welcome. What to me reads as crass may signify familiarity to diners sensitive to hints of derision in every unfamiliar ingredient and every remark uttered by the waiters. Just as there's no use pretending Quinn's wild-boar sloppy joe is populist, the Factory's Oreo© cheesecake has a snob factor of zero. Though it is garnished with a photogenic whipped-cream pouf.Price Check

  Vegetable chop salad    $8.95

  Chicken sandwich     $9.95

  Strawberry lemonade    $4.50       Chicken Madeira    $15.95

  Hibachi steak    $19.95

  Vanilla bean cheesecake    $6.95 jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

 
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