The Pearl Street Mall is a pedestrian-only, four-block stretch of downtown Boulder, Colo., as popular with locals as it is with tourists, a pleasant and interesting way to spend an afternoon or evening. Shops and boutiques with a wide range of goods—from artisan jewelry and fine art to politically charged T-shirts and incense burners—line either side of Pearl from 11th to 15th streets. Attractive landscaping, ample shade, plenty of benches and a host of street performers encourage visitors to claim a seat and stay a while. Many of Boulder’s favorite restaurants are on or within a block of the mall, most of them locally owned.
In fact, given its fiercely independent, left-leaning, politically active, environmentally committed personality, not to mention its accolades as “Thinnest City in America” (Self magazine) and one of the country’s “Ten Fittest Cities” (Health), Boulder seems an unlikely choice for a chain restaurant that promotes uniformity, mindless indulgence and super-sized portions.
But there, at the corner of 14th and Pearl, is one of the 100-some Cheesecake Factories that have blanketed America since the first restaurant opened in Beverly Hills in 1978. Its presence on the Pearl Street Mall is surprising, even more so because it sneaks up on you, the understated brick exterior and signage apparently a compromise to the Pearl Street Mall’s design guidelines.
There’s no such modesty involved with Nashville’s version of The Cheesecake Factory. Ever since the restaurant’s advent was announced in October 2004, local mainstream media has done a bang-up job as company mouthpiece, “reporting” in breathless detail and on a regular basis the progress of construction. The Mall at Green Hills has also bent over, um, backwards to accommodate the newest and most highly anticipated member of Nashville’s chain gang. If visitors somehow miss the restaurant’s prominent and exclusive billing as they drive though the mall’s Hillsboro Road entry, once on campus, there is no escaping the gargantuan central building that looms over the newly expanded shopping center. The towering faux-red-tiled and needle-tipped dome conjures a playful Istanbul-via-Tunica glamour, while the Factory’s position among Restoration Hardware, Starbucks, Panera Bread and Carrabba’s Italian Grill provokes some locator confusion: am I in Atlanta? Houston? Cleveland? Kansas City?
No, Toto, we are still in Nashville, which has welcomed the 98th Cheesecake Factory with open arms, boundless enthusiasm, insatiable appetite and unlimited patience. (Two-hour waits at peak dining times are common.) Size doesn’t just matter at The Cheesecake Factory, it rules. The cavernous dining room, with 25-foot ceilings and trompe l’oeil marble columns as big around as ancient Sequoia trees, seats more than 300 in booths and along banquettes. (Tables on the patio add close to 100 more to that capacity.) The spiral-bound menu has 13 pages of food items, in addition to the sections devoted to cocktails, martinis, wine, beer and spirits. Prices are posted only for wine; if you have to ask, perhaps you really can’t afford a $10 martini.
Common to most chain restaurants these days, portions are so large that virtually no one waddles out without the next day’s dinner in a Cheesecake Factory bag, an inexpensive and increasingly ubiquitous marketing tool.
There are few places where advertising saturation is more blatant—and offensive—than on a Cheesecake Factory menu. Open the sturdy spiral notebook and read “The Cheesecake Factory Story” opposite a full-page glossy ad for a Hillsboro Pike jeweler featuring a diamond-encrusted engagement and wedding ring. Turn the page: daiquiris and margaritas on the right face a real estate firm on the left. On ensuing pages, martinis are coupled with more jewelry; wines with a clothing boutique; beers with an art gallery and appetizers with Global Motorsports, Off Broadway Shoe Warehouse and a spa. On and on it goes, through dental services, financial advisors and promos for Factory gift cards and website. The most inexplicable ad is for California Closets, which poses a buxom blonde in 4-inch heels, standing seductively in her closet, astride a metal chair. Her calves grip either side of the seat as she does what? Contemplates her collection of neatly organized dominatrix shoes? Prepares to attempt using a urinal? And why is she opposite the sandwich page?
Such product placement makes even more overwhelming a voluminous menu whose promise of “something for everybody” delivers the unintended consequence of choice paralysis. Could that be what accounted for the three elderly women at the table beside us, who—pondering 62 entrée specialties—ordered two orange chickens? Twenty-five appetizer specialties, six appetizer salads and eight personal pizzas precede the entrée specialties. A whole page is devoted to entrée salads, another to sandwiches, and the last—before desserts—to eggs and omelets, served all day, every day.
It’s enough to trigger a latent case of ADD, though the six high school sophomores at my table—whose collective attention span ranges from a three-minute song to three hours of IM’ing—made short work of the ordering process. They accomplished this by narrowing their choices to categories—three wanted pasta, one had an affection for soft tacos, another just wanted a sandwich, and the sixth craved seafood—and limiting their choices to the respective pages.
Another approach to winnowing might be by cuisine; the Cheesecake Factory menu spans the globe, offering Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Jamaican, French and American, which includes sub-categories of Creole and Cajun, Hawaiian, Southwest, California, New England and even Native American. Notably missing was a single dish of Middle Eastern origin, despite the fact that Iranian, Lebanese, Persian, Turkish and Greek foods are increasingly common on the American dining landscape and the Moorish profile of the restaurant roof dominates the landscape of the Mall at Green Hills.
This restaurant isn’t called a factory for nothing; one can only imagine the strictly regimented tasks that take place in the kitchen in order to execute hundreds and hundreds of covers a day. A vast section must surely be devoted to nothing but chopping, because almost every plate included either a fresh garnish or heaps of fresh vegetables. The cucumbers on the Thai lettuce wrap plate were delicately cut in a pretty shape, avocado slices on the Mexican dishes were artfully fanned, Roma tomatoes in the pasta bowls were diced in house, minced carrots were a surprising and pleasing addition to the very solid meatloaf. Given the volume of food being produced, the commitment to freshness is commendable.
And yet, while efficiently prepared and nicely presented, every dish we sampled—the oozing balls of deep-fried macaroni, the creamy sweet-corn tamale cakes, the Baja chicken tacos and fresh fish tacos, the crab cakes, the teriyaki chicken, the seared tuna tataki salad, the spicy Thai steak salad, the grilled chicken and avocado club, the Kobe burger, the Louisiana chicken pasta and the Jamaican black pepper shrimp, touted as “very spicy”—lacked distinguishing flavor, even to the relatively unsophisticated and unadventurous palates of 16-year-olds. The blandness and stingy application of spices and seasoning aren’t so much timid as market-savvy, allowing middle-of-the-road diners a safe and pleasant globally influenced dining experience in the comfort and security of Green Hills: Ethnic Lite, at three times the cost and one-third the taste of the real deals that populate Nashville’s more genuinely ethnic neighborhoods. The Cheesecake Factory is for folks who prefer their Italian not too Italian, their Mexican not too Mexican, their Vietnamese not too Vietnamese, delivered by English-speaking servers in pristine uniforms. As the website notes, “The Cheesecake Factory revises its menu twice a year to reflect what Americans want to eat, and to keep our menu new and exciting for all of our guests.”
As for the cheesecake? Six out of six sophomores agree it’s “awesome,” joining a voting block of millions who can’t get enough of the company’s signature dish, cut in 6-inch-high, 4-inch-wide portions. A slice of original, unadorned cheesecake, in the opinion of the two adults at the table, was quite unremarkable, lacked any tang and, no doubt, had to be retrieved from the back of the walk-in. (All cheesecakes are indeed made in a factory in Calabasas Hills, Calif., also home to corporate headquarters. From there, they are shipped across the country to company restaurants, mail-order customers and warehouse clubs.) But original probably isn’t the proper yardstick, as I can’t imagine anyone else actually passing up one of the 30-plus enhanced versions such as white chocolate-caramel-latte, tiramisu, Kahlua-cocoa-coffee, chocolate-peanut butter-cookie dough, chocolate-Oreo-mudslide or Toblerone-Swiss almond—each served with a large mound of whipped cream. After all, when it comes to sweets—and dining—in America, nothing succeeds like excess.