Growing Up at The Cheesecake Factory, Where Everything Stays the Same

cheesecake factory

I’ve discovered the perfect party trick and it involves cheesecake. Like cilantro, the restaurant’s signature garnish, bringing up The Cheesecake Factory in conversation inspires just the right kind of exchange—it’s a topic that’s polarizing enough to cause impassioned debate but is still suitably low-stakes enough to discuss amongst acquaintances. Nothing about this temple to the “palate of the common man” is subtle; hence its ability to evoke such strong points of view.

That said, nothing about it is unexpected either—to look around the restaurant and say, “This is a nice one,” as Drake does in his 2016 music video for “Child’s Play,” is part of the joke. The place is uncannily consistent. And as the legend goes, once an item is added to the menu, it never comes off.

It’s precisely The Cheesecake Factory’s consistency that has given me such an emotional tie to this casual dining chain. Even as I’ve grown up and changed, The Cheesecake Factory has always stayed the same. Much like the restaurant’s design, an exercise in layering motifs from different cultures and time periods, the place is, to use my favorite ten dollar word, a palimpsest for my own experience. Each time I enter into its orange glow and settle into one of its big booths, I dine with each of my earlier selves.

When The Cheesecake Factory opened at the fancy mall in my Boston suburb in 1996, I was ten years old. At that time, make your own taco nights, kid-friendly joints, and the occasional Lean Cuisine were the extent of my culinary adventures. But on my inaugural visit to the Cheesecake Factory with my family, I entered into a new landscape, one filled with Egyptian columns with lotus tops and trompe-l’oeil fractures, six-foot-tall palm trees. The buzzer we received upon check-in seemed a harbinger of our tech-driven future. While we waited for our table, my older sister and I ogled the main event—the cheesecake display, with its enormous hunks of dessert in neat array, nineties-style chocolate swirls, topped with letter-perfect whipped cream pipettes, up-lit and down-lit as though on exhibition in a museum.

In those same big booths, I experienced all the fizzy excitement and despair of adolescence.

Once at our table, my sister and I balanced spoons on our noses and took pictures giving one another bunny ears. Full glasses of Diet Coke were delivered to our table before our current glasses were even half-empty. This, in particular, struck me as the height of decadence. I had entered the world of real adult dining—an eternal spring of soda refills, Chicken Teriyaki, Roadside sliders, and, yes, definitely, Snickers Bar Chunks Cheesecake—and it seemed like, for once, the adults really understood how kids wanted to party.

In those same big booths, I experienced all the fizzy excitement and despair of adolescence. In middle school, this meant test-driving the mode of independence that comes with delivering one’s salad order amongst friends while being set loose at the mall. A 21-page menu, two hundred and fifty items, and each girl landed on a singular identity: “Chinese chicken salad no cilantro no wontons dressing on the side extra brown bread.”

In high school, the most heavily programmed time of my life, The Cheesecake Factory provided some semblance of family routine.

So many after-school lunches we’d sit together, celebrating real birthdays… and fake ones. A slice of fluffy cheesecake, fudgy insides fully exposed, would sail alight towards the table. As went the custom, one friend would smudge out the birthday girl’s name, rendered in chocolate icing across the plate, then swipe the icing across the girl of the hour’s nose. There would be an echo of laughter, which if you listened carefully, sounded slightly caustic.

In high school, the most heavily programmed time of my life, The Cheesecake Factory provided some semblance of family routine. The complicated schedules of my sister and my extracurriculars alongside my parents’ full work week encroached on our ability to gather and eat together around the table for a home-made meal. This same period marked a specific type of cultural reverence for doing just that. News reports suggested that families who ate dinner together could ensure a certain type of social harmony that starts at home. A failure to sit down together represented an existential threat.

Eventually, I left for college and began the accumulation of firsts: first flight of wine at a tapas restaurant; first time someone gently corrected my pronunciation of “prix fixe.” The same institution that so figured into my coming-of-age suddenly struck me as outwardly ridiculous (I was fancy! I had seen things!).

When Drake name-dropped the restaurant chain in 2016 (“Why you gotta fight with me at Cheesecake? You know I love to go there”) the internet immediately responded, and the cultural ricochet made clear that the The Cheesecake Factory had been a consistent background for more lives than my own. This fixture of American casual dining became a centerpiece of gonzo Vice reporting and Eater oral histories, of NBA player sightings, of ironic cool-girl Instagram stories. Millennials began to reference it with a semi-ironic tone that seemed to fit to the latter part of any trend life cycle. First something was edgy, then cool, then ridiculous. Finally, years later, a tongue and cheek revival was in order.

What makes it mockable is what makes it marketable, and The Cheesecake Factory is in on the joke.

For all my earnest talk about my love of this place and its role in my childhood, was that all a cover-up for what I am really saying: That I have outgrown the place, and like other millennial, now have an arsenal of ironic language to say so?

In a sense, The Cheesecake Factory has always been easy to mock. The depth and breadth of its menu, its biblical portions, its “fully-immersive postmodern design hellscape.” And yet, the chain has now effortlessly capitalized on this parody in a way that no other casual dining chains seem to have quite captured. What makes it mockable is what makes it marketable, and The Cheesecake Factory is in on the joke. When Drake, “the first rap megastar fully of the Internet era” enacted his own music video break-up there of all places, he knew exactly what he was doing, too.

Particularly as we grow up, what we appreciate most, I think, is authenticity, things that are true to themselves. Even if The Cheesecake Factory isn’t “authentic” in the broader context, it’s authentic to itself. That it’s a little weird and nonsensical is also the point. Because, so are we. And perhaps, when it comes down to it, we always find a way to seek out what we know to be delicious.

On a recent night, in the spirit of research, I decided to pay The Cheesecake Factory another visit with my husband Ben. It was not the location I grew up with, but the restaurant at the Glendale Americana, a large-scale outdoor shopping center in Southern California (which incidentally has its own fan-generated meme account). Once seated, we revelled in the possibilities as though it were the first time, before finally landing on Miso Salmon and Thai Lettuce Wraps. Going splitskies at the Cheesecake Factory is a love language, too.

Perhaps it was the focus afforded by our bi-annual Diet Coke binge or perhaps it was the security of our booth, the table bolted satisfyingly to the ground. Whatever it was, after dinner, we paid our check, and sat there talking in the soothing glow of the orange light, for what seemed like hours. Eventually, by way of a cheerful, semi-scripted check-in, our waiter stopped by to ask: “Are you two still happy over here?” We nodded gratefully.

Feature graphic by Dasha Faires.                                                

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