A rangy server with shoulder-length hair named Chad was bringing our cheesecake. But the mood had already shifted. What began as an excited orgy of indulgence at the Cheesecake Factory in Marina del Rey — oohing and aahing over the nearby beach, tittering at the faux-frescoed walls and ceiling paintings that looked like they were lifted from the airbrushed hood of a Honda Civic, and plate after giant plate of heavy food — had become subdued. Faces had fallen; the aftermath had begun.
In the 1986 seminal work “The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Birthday,” the bears are planning Sister’s sixth birthday party. Papa, Brother and Sister want a blow-out bash with rides, games and a long guest list. Mama suggests a small, manageable party, warning that there’s such a thing as “too much birthday.” The party gets too big, Sister winds up in tears, and everyone learns a lesson. Anyway, the Cheesecake Factory is too much birthday.
But the Cheesecake Factory is also America, with all its promise and flaws. It is Manifest Destiny in restaurant form. It is the idea that a menu with 250 items is not only desirable but also inevitable. It is both a declaration of hope and a testament to terrible excess.
The Cheesecake Factory opened its ornate, Baroque — or is it High Renaissance? — doors in Beverly Hills in 1978, and now has more than 200 locations in this country, with an additional 20 or so worldwide. It came of age during the Reagan years, and in some ways still reflects the ideals of that time. You can have anything you want, murmurs a husky, seductive voice coming from one of the ubiquitous Eye of Sauron-orange light fixtures that adorn the interiors. Not only can you have it but you also deserve it. And you don’t have to be sorry about any of it. You can have that cheeseburger AND those spring rolls, it says. In fact, we’ll wrap up that cheeseburger and turn it INTO a spring roll. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?
Here’s the tricky part: While it’s easy to poke fun at the Cheesecake Factory, the food is fresh and much of it is well-executed. As far as restaurants go, it genuinely seems like a good place to work (it’s the only restaurant on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list). Its consistency and efficiency, famously celebrated in a 2012 essay by Atul Gawande, is borderline profound. I kind of like the Cheesecake Factory. I might even love the Cheesecake Factory.
But my love for the Cheesecake Factory is much like my love for Las Vegas: irrational and possibly pathological. There’s a menacing allure to both: a promise of a good time to all who dare enter, with ramifications for those who overdo it.
In Vegas, you can travel practically anywhere, albeit in a manufactured, historically questionable manner: Egypt (Luxor), Rome (Caesars Palace) or medieval England (Excalibur). You can eat your way around the world at the Cheesecake Factory in a similarly incoherent way: chicken samosas, Jamaican black pepper shrimp and Nashville hot chicken nuggets. The Louisiana chicken pasta is about as Cajun as the ersatz Eiffel Tower in front of the Paris Hotel and Casino is French.
A snowball rolling down the culinary hill of time, the restaurant has picked up every fad, trend and multicultural vagary that has blown through American restaurants in the last 40 years. Cuban sandwich? Yes. Steak Diane? Check. Avocado toast? You’d better believe it.
The menu is modern dining’s Rosetta Stone. Run your fingers along its spiral binding. Flip through its many laminated pages. Feel its heft. And begin looking at the different categories, from appetizers to pastas to Glamburgers (hamburgers) to SkinnyLicious. The menu has ads interspersed through the pages — for Coca-Cola and for the Cheesecake Factory itself. If you want to do a little planning ahead, check out the menu online (which has a search tool) and play a game I call Factorywhack, a take on Googlewhack, in which players try to search terms that return exactly one Google result. (On the Cheesecake Factory online menu, “peppermint” yields one result. “Chicken” yields 86.)
Appetizers, when firing on all cylinders, are exceptional. Tex-Mex egg rolls, essentially a chicken fajita stuffed into a crunchy fried shell, are a stroke of genius. A mountain of sticky, scorching-hot Korean fried cauliflower pieces, served with limes and ranch dressing, didn’t strike me as overly Korean per se (it tasted like a slight gochujang breeze had kissed the pieces, but I also could have imagined it), but had a masterful balance of tang and sweetness.
Thai Lettuce Wraps, which came on a platter so large, and with so many big, concave cabbage leaves that I wondered if I’d wandered onto the set of an Anne Geddes shoot, featured crisp, well-prepared vegetables and a satisfying satay-ish peanut grilled chicken.
Pastas are largely underseasoned — strange, given that they’re often whelmed with some kind of creamy sauce. A rib-eye is served with grill marks so perfect they might have been put on with painter’s tape. The meat is worryingly tender but simply and properly seasoned.
The Pasta Napoletana is a fleshy bacchanal that tastes like someone scraped the top of a Meat Lover’s pizza onto a plate of spaghetti. It’s delicious. The Chicken Bellagio — a fried chicken cutlet, prosciutto and arugula sitting on a bed of pasta in a basil-cream sauce — doesn’t exactly make me think of Lake Como, but the prosciutto gave the nicely al dente pasta a much-needed shot of salt, and the arugula was a peppery respite from the heavy sauce.
Drinks are so sweet that it’s sometimes difficult to tell which have alcohol and which don’t. A mai tai caused my face to pucker up tighter than a fitted sheet at basic training. A blood orange martini was somehow even sweeter, stinging my tongue. Both were barely distinguishable from a nonalcoholic orange coconut cream soda.
And then there’s the cheesecake. It’s the primary thing (aside from the highly craveable brown bread that arrives to restaurants parbaked) not made on-site in Cheesecake Factory restaurants. Maybe it shows? Of the flavors I tried, many — the pineapple upside down, Cinnabon, Oreo Dream Extreme — were over-the-top cloying. One piece arrived that was nearly frozen solid. But if you’ve somehow made it to the end of your meal and your taste buds still work, it makes sense to order cheesecake. Go with the modest, creamy and slightly tart original. If you prefer a three-ring circus, the Toasted Marshmallow S’mores Galore was the clear winner of the remaining cakes — torched marshmallow is a fun touch, and graham cracker provides a nutty counterweight to the sweetness.
A Cheesecake Factory dining room exhibits the influences of a thousand pilfered cultures, like a Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad: Egyptian columns, French-ish rattan chairs, Italian “marble” and light fixtures that look like Dale Chihuly and Thomas Kinkade had a very terrible, very fruitful partnership.
But where else in the world could you sit in such ignoble opulence, enjoying a meal Benetton ad execs wouldn’t dare claim: a Chinese chicken salad, a frozen Aperol spritz and Louisiana chicken pasta? Plates the size of aircraft carriers land at my table, and the food runner looks down approvingly. “That’s good,” he says. “That means you’re hungry.”
In the booth to my left sits a group of high school-age girls; in front of me, a young couple with a stroller; to my right, I can hear my server recommending the Tex-Mex egg rolls to two women on a lunch date: “No ma’am,” he says. “There’s no egg in it.”
I take a bite of salad. The juice of Mandarin orange segments bathes my tongue, and crispy strands of rice noodle crunch gently between my teeth. I’m excited and overwhelmed and, for now, ecstatically happy. But there’s a cloud on the horizon. The tears are welling up; I know what’s coming. It kinda feels like my birthday.
The Cheesecake Factory
More than 200 locations nationwide. The original restaurant is at 364 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 278-7270, thecheesecakefactory.com
Appetizers $7.50-$16.50; pastas $14.95-$22.50; seafood and steaks $17.50-$32.50
Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Wheelchair accessible.
Tex Mex egg rolls; Korean fried cauliflower; Chicken Bellagio; Pasta Napoletana