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March 05, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, March 05, 2004

Something for everyone? Something for everyone? (March 05, 2004)

Quantity trumps quality at Cheesecake Factory

by Dale F. Bentson

The buzz about The Cheesecake Factory is that it does not accept reservations. I have heard tales of people waiting upward of two hours to get in.

So what's the big deal? Maybe people are attracted to the fact that it's the Ringling Bros. circus, Disneyland and Super Bowl of food all rolled into one. Maybe it's the Alaska-sized portions, vast menu or waiters that sing "Happy Birthday." Surely, it is not the quality of the food.

The Cheesecake Factory opened in late December with the exterior resembling one of Saddam's abandoned palaces more so than a University Avenue restaurant. Inside, the restaurant is decorated with French limestone floors, hand-painted fabrics, contemporary lighting and an abundance of cherry wood fixtures. While the exterior conveys palatial grandeur, the interior is more reminiscent of an old converted church complete with faux marble columns, faux stained glass windows and padded booths replacing wooden pews. The restaurant seats nearly 300 in two sprawling dining rooms. It is a cavernous, overblown extravaganza.

The publicly traded company operates 75 restaurants in 20 states, with 12 more about to open. The average revenue is just under $12 million per unit. The Southern California-based company started with a family recipe in the 1940s and the rest, as they say, is sweet history.

Today, the corporate mantra is "to reflect what America loves to eat." To that end, the menu lists more than 200 choices: sandwiches, salads, pasta, pizza, stir-fry, seafood, burgers, chicken, steaks and chops, eggs and omelets, burritos and tortillas. For dessert, there are cakes, pies, ice cream and, oh yes, 50 flavors of cheesecake. In addition, the waiter will list a half-dozen daily specials if the menu proves too limiting.

The menu reminds me of a mammoth food court, offering nearly a dozen ethnic cuisines: Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Italian, French, Mexican, Tex-Mex, Cajun, American and Hawaiian, all under one, massive brand name. The Cheesecake Factory boasts of having something for everyone.

The laminated menu is spiral-bound and loaded with advertisements for automobiles, real estate, apparel, eye care and teddy bears. Every item is available at the take-out counter just inside the front door. While you are waiting for your order, you will have ample opportunity to select a Cheesecake Factory T-shirt, sweatshirt, baseball cap or stuffed animal. For $55 per month, you can get a 10" cheesecake delivered to your door.

The company's senior vice president of marketing, Howard R. Gordon, told me that all food is prepared fresh on the premises. Small kitchens can turn out surprising amounts, but it is hard to believe a kitchen that size can turn out so many ethnic cuisines without food coming in already prepped.

On a recent visit we started with the Tex-Mex egg rolls ($8.50), a half-dozen over-stuffed wrappers of chicken, corn, black beans, bell pepper, onions and melted cheese, with a glob of avocado sour cream and the most toothless salsa imaginable. There was little flavor to any of the ingredients. A couple of platters of these could easily serve the San Francisco 49ers.

The fire-roasted fresh artichoke ($7.95), tossed in a "spicy" (it wasn't) vinaigrette came with a surprisingly lively garlic dip. Sweet corn tamale cakes ($7.95), topped with a bucket of sour cream, insipid red and green salsa and flavorless avocado, possessed no character other than being messy.

The firecracker salmon rolls ($8.95) contained "spiced" salmon rolled in spinach and fried in a crisp won ton wrapper. The fish possessed no zing, yet the fresh flavors were vaguely engaging. The accompanying sweet-hot chili sauce was sweet, not hot. The menu uses the words "spicy" and "hot" frequently, but the taste-o-meter seemed permanently set on bland.

I had hoped the entrees would prove more lively. Evelyn's Favorite Pasta ($12.95) was a handsome deep dish of penne pasta tossed with broccoli, dried tomato, roasted eggplant, bell pepper, artichoke, olives, basil, garlic, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese. Alas, it had almost no dressing to pull it together. Even a splash of olive oil would have helped this dish, but it was nearly bone dry and a half-dozen forkfuls were plenty.

I love chicken and biscuits and looked forward to the Factory's rendition ($13.95). But the chicken was so flat, it had to have been run over by a steam roller. And the benign shortcake biscuits were more like Keebler crackers. The country gravy was nothing more than a flour-thickened white sauce blanketing mushrooms, peas and carrots. The shovel-full of red-skin mashed potatoes was the only redeeming victual on the plate.

A salver of fresh fish tacos ($13.95), delivered to a dining companion, was laden with boring black beans, rice and innocuous salsas and creams. The soft corn tortillas contained thick strips of meek white fish. Ho hum. After every course, the prompt and courteous waiters asked if we wanted to take the remains home in a doggie bag. We declined -- these leftovers would be even less appealing the next day. The amount of wasted food must be colossal.

"Spicy" crispy chicken sandwich with french fries ($8.95) was a flattened breast with a splotch of melted cheese served on a toasted bun. I had a choice of "spicy" buffalo sauce or Chipolte pepper mayo. My waiter suggested that the former was the spicier of the two, so I went with that one. But that sauce -- only marginally spicier -- gave the sandwich an off-putting taste, so I scrapped it and the tasteless cheese and ate just the chicken.

Grilled shrimp and bacon club sandwich ($10.95) should have been named too-big-to-get-your-mouth-around-no-matter-how-hard-you-try sandwich. The mile-high presentation featured a few nicely grilled large shrimp, bacon strips, lettuce, tomato and a "special sauce" piled between two very thick slices of egg bread. It actually registered a slight taste, but having to deconstruct the sandwich in order to eat it diminished the experience.

If you have made it this far why not order dessert? Blackout cake ($5.95) was a Boeing 747 wing-sized wedge of chocolate fudge cake replete with chocolate chips and chocolate icing spiked with chopped almonds. As if that were not enough, a milk chocolate wafer was imbedded into the cake. The moist and chocolatey cake was Duncan Hines quality. A hurricane-sized cloud of canned whip cream accompanied this and all the desserts, including the cheesecakes.

The original cheesecake ($5.95) reminded me of a slightly better version of Sara Lee complete with a Graham cracker crust. The cheese section of the cake was moderately dense to the fork and possessed non-offensive flavors. It was the sour cream topping that elevated my overall take to slightly better than store-bought. Kahlua cocoa coffee cheesecake ($6.25) was not as good. While there was evidence of coffee in the cheesecake, the crust was a mealy, chocolatey glob of indeterminate flavor.

We ordered several other cheesecakes, but, alas, the restaurant was out of them. Other flavors include: Godiva chocolate, Adam's peanut butter cup fudge ripple, key lime, lemon raspberry cream, Dutch apple caramel streusel and white chocolate raspberry truffle. I wonder if they taste much different from one another.

The Cheesecake Factory boasts a full bar and a reasonably priced run-of-the-mill wine list with all wines, happily, available by the glass. Additionally, they offer smoothies, coffees and espresso variations, teas and juices. Large print and Braille menus are available.

At Ringling Bros. you have a ticket and a start time. At The Cheesecake Factory, with their no-reservations policy, the wait can be long and drawn-out. The restaurant serves whopping portions of everything. However, quantity should never be mistaken for quality -- this is what to expect from a factory.
The Cheesecake Factory
Reservations: No Credit cards: Yes Parking: City lots or valet after 5 p.m. Alcohol: Full bar High chairs: Yes Outdoor dining: No Party and banquet facilities: No Take out: Yes Catering: No Noise level: Elevated Bathroom cleanliness: Excellent

The Cheesecake Factory: 375 University Ave., Palo Alto; (650) 473-9622;
Hours: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. -- 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. -- 12:30 a.m. Sunday 10 a.m. -- 11 p.m.

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