Playing It Safe

The Cheesecake Factory is the ultimate chain restaurant—and that means both good things and bad

I understand the attraction of The Cheesecake Factory. I really do.

The menu is so huge that even the pickiest eater can find something to like here: The glossy, spiral-bound menu is 22 pages big, offering salads and lunch specials and pizzas and steaks and breakfasts and burgers and pastas and etc. It's so big, in fact, that there are separate "appetizers" and "small plates and snacks" sections. Beyond the food, the atmosphere is pleasant, with an upscale, energetic vibe. The service is generally decent or better. And the namesake cheesecakes—more than 30 types—are pretty darned delicious. In many ways, The Cheesecake Factory is the ultimate upscale chain restaurant, and that means good things.

However, it also means bad things. You may have to wait—for quite a while—before you're seated. The food is tried and true—and therefore, safe and unadventurous. And there are advertisements in the menus.

Please indulge me as I go off on a brief rant: I am a big fan of advertising. A huge fan, in fact; ads have kept the lights on at Casa de Boegle during my entire adult life. However, there is a place and a time for ads, and a restaurant menu when I am hungry is not the place and time. If I just waited a half-hour for a cramped table, and I am willing to fork out $10.95 for a chicken-salad sandwich, I do not want to have to dodge ads for upscale cars and Carnival cruises while I peruse the appetizer options. So there.

Fortunately, on a recent weekday evening (before the post-Thanksgiving holiday-shopping madness set in), Garrett and I did not have to wait for a table. Unfortunately, the table we received kind of sucked: We were seated in a cramped end banquette/table up against a wall. We ordered cocktails to start—an "ultimate margarita" ($10) for me, and a "J.W.'s pink lemonade" ($8.95) for Garrett—along with the warm crab-and-artichoke dip ($5.95) and the guacamole made-to-order ($9.95). Our server also brought over sourdough and brown-oat breads, both of which were tasty.

Someone needs to tell the bartenders to calm the heck down with the sweet stuff; both of our cocktails were so sweet that they were almost undrinkable. (Being an editor, I managed to drink both mine and most of Garrett's, anyway. It's a tough job, really.) Our appetizers were delayed a bit—a surprising service glitch—but when they came, they were both enjoyable. The small dish of crab-and-artichoke dip was cheesy goodness (aside from one or two bites that tasted slightly fishy), while the guacamole was fresh and delightful with a pleasant kick, thanks to an ample amount of chiles, per our direction. (The guacamole also came with a decent amount of salsa, as well as sour cream and chips.)

Garrett picked the spicy crispy chicken sandwich ($10.95; includes fries or a green salad; sweet-potato fries are an extra $1) for his entrée, while I decided on the Cajun jambalaya pasta ("Our most popular pasta dish!" says the menu; $16.95).

Both main courses were just as you'd expect: fine. Just fine, nothing more, nothing less. The chicken breast on Garrett's sandwich was slightly overcooked, making the outside of the meat quite tough. The sandwich comes with a choice of spicy buffalo sauce or chipotle mayo, and Garrett requested both, on the side. Unfortunately, Garrett got the chipotle mayo on the side, but the buffalo sauce was included on the sandwich. The accompanying fries were typically ... fine.

My pasta suffered from a fate similar to that of Garrett's chicken: It was overcooked. The linguini was slightly gummy, and the shrimp and chicken atop the pasta were a wee bit tough. However, the tomatoes, onions, peppers and the "very spicy Cajun sauce" (which wasn't very spicy) added enough flavor to make the dish ... acceptable. You know, fine.

If anything would compel me to return to The Cheesecake Factory, it would be the cheesecake. Garrett decided to try the Reese's peanut butter chocolate cake cheesecake ($7.75, with a whopping quarter going to Feeding America), while I went with the original ($6.75). Both desserts were fantastic; the Reese's concoction was rich but irresistible, while the sour-cream topping on the original proved to be a perfect match with the creamy, sweet cheesecake and the delicious graham-cracker crust.

Regular readers know that I am not anti-chain; I've given deserving chains some rather positive ink/pixels in this space. However, as a general rule, I also believe it's better to frequent the right locally owned restaurants—not only because it's good to support local businesses, but because some local restaurants are better, period.

If you want to play it safe, and settle for pages upon pages of food options that are just fine, go to The Cheesecake Factory. If you really want to eat well, forgo The Cheesecake Factory, and head for a great locally owned joint instead.