Cons: no kids menu, long lines, mediocre food at best, uncomfortable seats
The Cheesecake Factory is billed as a casual, upscale dining experience. To me, the word "casual" evokes feelings of comfort. The Cheesecake Factory is anything but a comfortable place. In fact, it seems as if the staff goes out of their way to make you uncomfortable. As far as upscale is concerned, the only two things that say "upscale" to me are the snooty attitudes of the employees working the host stand and the prices which are so inflated for the value of the food you get it's ridiculous.
I've been dragged along to various branches of this chain by friends, family and co-workers for almost a decade now. While my first meal there was not bad, the rest have been sub-par experiences that have been frustrating at best and so bad in the worst case that we ended up going elsewhere to eat after our group meal had ended.
The Cheesecake Factory Experience
I want to discuss the overall experience before I delve into the particulars of the menu. These restaurants are insanely popular for reasons I've yet to ascertain. The Cheesecake Factory does not take reservations. They do not have "call ahead" seating. This includes large parties that are scheduled weeks in advance.
Once, my office decided to have a Christmas Luncheon at one of the Cheesecake Factory locations that advertises on the corporate website that the restaurant accommodates parties of up to 40 guests. Our luncheon included about 30 employees. I was told upon calling over a month in advance to attempt to arrange for this party that no reservations or special accommodations could be made, even though the restaurant supposedly had a private dining room specifically for parties of this size. We would all have to show up and wait in line for a table to become available. The group could not be seated until all 30 people had arrived. Because the boss still wanted to go to the Cheesecake Factory, we ended up scheduling our party for 3 pm on a Tuesday two weeks before Christmas in order to lessen the wait. When you're dealing with a group of that size, no matter when you show up you can expect to wait. We had to wait over an hour to be seated. The boss was furious and asked to speak to the manager. It took the manager half an hour to show his face to the boss. The manager simply shrugged his shoulders as far as I could tell. It wasn't a pleasant way to start our holiday party.
Even if you aren't with a large group, expect to wait. On a Saturday night, that wait can be over two hours. The bar tends to be somewhat small and there isn't room for everyone waiting. If you're lucky, the Cheesecake Factory location you wish to dine at will be located in a shopping center so you can occupy yourself as you wait. If you're not lucky, it's in a stand-alone location and you can hang out in the parking lot. That's right. The parking lot. That's because there really isn't a waiting area inside and there's no other place to go.
The employees at the host stand always seem particularly bored with life and hand over the pager to you with a limp wrist and a sigh. They are not pleased if you return to check where you are on the list. They are particularly not pleased when they are reminded that you were given a wait time of 45 minutes and it's now been double that.
Wait staff ranges from good to horrendous. I've been to restaurants where you simply cannot get a drink refill at all. I've never had excellent service at the Cheesecake Factory, probably because the place is so jam packed with customers that the staff can't even catch their breath.
Seating arrangements are quite uncomfortable. You either are at a tiny table with uncomfortable chairs or you're seated at a very long booth with a bench on one side and those miserable chairs on the other. You're seated right next to strangers and close enough to knock elbows. That's literally happened to me when I was seated next to a woman who was left handed. Staff response to both of us: "Oh well." If you're lucky, there are a few booths that have benches on both sides and are regular sized. There are also a couple of tiny tables tucked away in semi-private nooks and crannies. Noise tends to be loud and the lighting is dimmed. If you wear a hearing aid or have visual problems, you might want to rethink a visit here.
The Cheesecake Factory Menu
This is a restaurant that tries to be something to everyone yet seems to satisfy no one or at least no one I've ever dined with. The restaurants are insanely popular so I'll assume that there's some common denominator out there who enjoys the cuisine.
The menu itself is a wire-bound spiral notebook filled with glossy pages. There are over 200 items on this menu. In addition to the food offerings, the menu is filled with advertisements from local businesses. When I visited one of these restaurants with my brother, he said that it looked like a public version soft-porn to him with every ad consisting of a woman dressed quite scantily in a swimsuit or a sarong. Most of the ads were for liposuction, cosmetic dentistry and other forms of plastic surgery. I guess if you actually eat your entire meal, you'll be needing that liposuction.
The Cheesecake Factory offers a full-service bar. Not only can you get a straight Jack & Coke, you can get the trendiest cocktails, martinis, margaritas, frozen drinks, ice cream drinks and coffee drinks. There's a good selection of wine, beer, cognac and other spirits. It's not the most extensive bar in the world but there's enough variety to satisfy most people who simply want a drink. If you want something without alcohol, there's a wide variety of espressos, Coke products and smoothies. I do not recommend the "Paradise Flavored Iced Tea" as it really doesn't taste as if it's flavored with anything. It's just a milder version of regular iced tea.
On to the food! Portions are tremendously large. Keep in mind, that just because something is super-sized, it doesn't mean that it tastes good, simply that there's more of it. Everything I've ever tried at the Cheesecake Factory, I can get better elsewhere for less money. It may be a smaller portion but at least I'll eat it.
I've been to these restaurants enough times to have tried about a quarter to a third of the menu. Considering the size of the menu, that's a fairly large sample. You can get just about any type of cuisine you want including basic American, Asian, Californian, Cajun, Italian or Mexican. Mostly it's a blend of different styles that sometimes work but most of the time, they don't.
What you won't find on the menu are children's meals. They claim to have menu items that appeal to young children but I did not find them appropriate. The Cajun Chicken "Littles" are heavily spiced and my daughter refused to touch them. Most of the other meals come with mushrooms or eggplant or basically, the things kids won't eat. Supposedly, children in highchairs are provided with a complimentary "Baby Plate" which has some bread and some pieces of fruit on it. When we took my daughter to two different Cheesecake Factory locations when she was the appropriate age for such a plate, it was never offered and when I asked, I was told that not only did they not do such a thing but they have never done such a thing.
On the appetizer menu, I've had the Buffalo Wings, the Fried Calamari, the Tex Mex Egg rolls and the Factory Nachos. All of the items were piled high on big platters and there's definitely enough to share for a table of 4 or more. The Buffalo Wings are the best of the four appetizers I've tried. There was a good mix between the meaty and the bony wing sections. All were fried and were coated with a very generous amount of hot sauce. The sauce was spicy, but not hot enough to make you beg for a glass of milk which is the best thing to drink when eating spicy foods. The wings came with plenty of bleu cheese dressing for dipping and an oversized handful of celery sticks. I've ordered these as an entrée and I still ended up taking more than half of them home. The calamari was extremely greasy and I found myself blotting at it with my napkin. It was very hot, yet strangely a bit undercooked. It was served with small portions of a garlic dip and cocktail sauce. We were never able to get refills of these. The Tex Mex Egg rolls are a strange combination of chicken, green peppers, onions, black beans, corn and cheese. These were light on the chicken and heavy on the peppers, onions and beans. Supposedly this was supposed to come with a side of "avocado cream" but all ours came with was some mildish salsa. Finally, the Factory Nachos are your basic tortilla chips with melted cheese, guacamole, sour cream and salsa. What I didn't like about these is that the chips ended up as a sodden mass instead of crisp and crunchy.
Salads are huge but be warned, they are mostly lettuce. Either an appetizer salad or half of an entrée salad should fill most people fairly well. Be aware that half sizes are only available until 5 in the evening. The Caesar Salad was comprised of a large amount of romaine lettuce, a fair sprinkling of Parmesan cheese, some croutons and way too much dressing. The dressing was obviously from a bottle and was heavy on the garlic, light on the lemon and there was no discernable anchovy taste to it. The other salads I've had all featured big pieces of grilled chicken, assorted veggies, a cloying dressing and a lot of lettuce. The only features that make these distinctive are the choice of vegetables to go along with the lettuce and the salad dressing. Otherwise, they are completely interchangeable.
My husband often ordered the Barbeque Chicken Pizza because he figures it's something that's hard to mess up. It's a thin crust pizza with chicken in barbecue sauce along with smoked gouda and mozzarella cheese, red onions and cilantro. Each time he's ordered it, he's asked them to hold the onion and each time it's come out with onions. The last time, the chicken looked a little raw. He hasn't ordered it since.
You'd think that hamburgers wouldn't be that hard to make. Unfortunately, attempts to order a simple Classic Burger have all failed. I've seen this come out from the kitchen cold. I've seen it dried out and hard like a hockey puck. I've seen it seeping all over a soggy bun when it was ordered medium well. Maybe the problem is that the kitchen can't time different entrées well. I don't know but burgers are not usually something we order at the Cheesecake Factory after these experiences. These came with a heap of lukewarm fries.
We ordered the Cajun Chicken "Littles" once for our daughter who took one bite and spit it out, refusing to eat any more. They're white meat chicken pieces that are spiced, breaded and fried. They were pretty spicy and not children's fare. This meal came with mashed potatoes and a mini corn on the cob "cobbette". My husband has ordered the Orange Chicken which is fried chicken breast coated in a sickeningly sweet orange sauce. It comes on top of a gigantic mound of rice and it was garnished with carrots. I've had the Crusted Chicken Romano, the Chicken Piccata and the Chicken Marsala and Mushrooms. The Crusted Chicken Romano is a chicken breast covered with Romano and Parmesan cheeses, then fried. It's served over gummy angel hair pasta with a tomato sauce. This is completely unremarkable and not very flavorful. The chicken I had was dry. Once, dining with my parents, my father ordered this and had to wait over an hour while everyone else received their meals. His meal never came. The manager half-heartedly apologized, comped my father a piece of cheesecake and we ended up going elsewhere to get him a meal. As for the Chicken Piccata, I think it's one of the better items on the menu with a sautéed chicken breast over the same gummy pasta as the Crusted Chicken Romano. It's served with a lemon sauce, wedges of lemon, mushrooms and capers. If you can overlook the pasta, the chicken isn't bad. The Chicken Marsala and Mushrooms, on the other hand, is a definite miss. Whatever wine they were using in the sauce was a bit off because the entire dish smelled musty, like a really old pair of socks that you've forgotten in your gym locker for a couple of months. I'm not going to say that it tasted like socks because I've never eaten socks but it smelled awful and I simply asked the waiter to remove it. It was not taken off the bill and the waiter did not offer me the option of ordering something else. I sat there while everyone else ate and then it was my turn to go elsewhere after dinner to get a meal!
I made the mistake once of ordering the Angel Hair Pasta which is your basic Capellini Pomodoro. It's pasta which is supposedly tossed with fresh tomatoes, basil and garlic. The pasta was a gummy mess and the whole thing tasted metallic. The tomatoes were straight from a can and the whole thing was lukewarm. There are a variety of other pasta dishes on the menu but after that one experience, I haven't ventured into that part of the menu again.
The sandwiches are quite large and overstuffed. This is an area of the menu where I feel you're most likely to get your money's worth in that it's hard to mess up a sandwich. My usual sandwich order is Renee's Special. I don't know who Renee is but she likes half a turkey sandwich, a cup of soup and a small salad, sometimes a Green salad and sometimes a Caesar salad. I wish that you could get a sandwich other than turkey with this meal. Unfortunately, turkey is your only option. You do get to choose which of the soups of the day you'd like with the sandwich. I've had the New England Clam Chowder and the Tomato Florentine. The New England Clam was a little thin and a little shy on clams. The Tomato Florentine was a bit heavy on the salt. Otherwise, they aren't bad. If you order this, the soup, sandwich and salad all are delivered together. Most of the sandwiches are served with fries. If you don't like fries, that's too bad. I was told that I could not make any substitutions for the fries the one time I asked.
Should you care for eggs or an omelet, those are also on the menu. About the only thing that isn't on the menu is road kill but give them time and I'm sure it'll make an appearance.
If you've managed to make it this far, you're just in time for dessert. Cheesecake is the specialty of the house, even though they aren't baked in house. All of the cheesecakes are prepared in Calabasas Hills, California and then shipped to the individual restaurants. For your information, this plant also makes the cheesecakes you see in the freezer section at Costco and the cheesecakes on the menu at the Olive Garden.
I'm going to list the varieties I've sampled: Original, Fresh Strawberry, White Chocolate Raspberry Truffle, Fresh Banana Cream, Dulce De Leche Caramel, Vanilla Bean, Oreo, Key Lime, Lemon Raspberry Cream, Southern Pecan, Cherry and Blueberry. Basically, you name the type of cheesecake you want and it's probably on the menu. The slices vary in size depending upon the flavor you order. For example, the original (as well as Cherry, Blueberry and Strawberry which are just the original with a topping) are large pieces about 5 inches long, 3 inches high and 2 and a half inches wide measured at the back of the slice. A flavor like Key Lime is about 3 and a half inches long, 2 inches high and 2 inches wide measured at the back of the slice. Key Lime is much richer than the other flavors so you wouldn't want such a big piece unless you are a virtual sugar addict. All slices come with a gigantic mound of whipped cream which is placed separately on the plate. Perhaps this is to fill the plate, perhaps not. The cheesecakes are good but not great. I love a creamy cheese cake where each bite melts on your tongue. These don't do that. They're thicker in consistency and sometimes over baked.
Should you want something other than cheesecake, there are other cakes and ice cream desserts available. I've always been tempted by the Fresh Apple Dumplings sitting in the display case which are entire baked apples with raisins baked in pastry. When push comes to shove, I've always chosen the cheesecake instead. Honestly, of all the items on the menu, the cheesecake is the best bet. It's not cheap, averaging about $5.50 a slice but it's better than the rest of the offerings.
Our average bill is about $25 a person for dinner which includes a drink and dessert but not tax and tip.
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