This Saturday, I met a group for a late lunch at the Cheesecake Factory. It was my first time there, and it was a very strange experience.
First, there are no reservations, so it was necessary to wait half an hour for a table, even though it was mid-afternoon. The place was packed when we got there and it was packed when we left. Lots of people were standing around waiting for tables, so it was difficult to move around. Even the bar was full with people eating.
The decor reminded me of a warehouse on a film studio lot. It was an eclectic mix of giant fiberglass comic book-style Egyptian columns and vaguely Italian murals and fake-aged plaster with palm trees that would hit you in the face if you didn't duck. The entrances were framed by generic classical columns and pediments. The music in the bathroom was so loud that it hurt my ears. The acoustics in the dining area were horrible. I think the kitchen was open to the dining area.
We were seated at a booth that was deep enough to easily accommodate three people on each side or even four in a pinch. That meant that the waitress could really serve only the two people on the end. The rest of the food and beverages had to be passed by the person on the end down the row. So there was no real service, with the waitress only taking the orders and bringing the food to the table. There was no attempt to get the food to the right person or even the right side of the table and we had to figure out where each dish went on our own and then get it there.
Each diner got two menus, one humongous one with probably 150 dishes and a large one with comparatively low-calorie food. The calorie counts were very high on everything. By very high, I mean many of the main courses had more calories than most people need for the entire day. The menu reflected the decor and had no single theme. It also had advertisements for other businesses in it, like you would see on the placemat of a small-town diner.
The portions were huge. I had the chicken Madeira with mashed potatoes. There were two normal portions of chicken and two generous portions of potatoes served on an oval plate, with lots of mushroom and sauce, but only four stalks of asparagus. The prices were a bit high for a chain, but it would be very reasonable for most people to share a meal.
The food was filling and tasty enough, but definitely nothing special. The only item we had that was truly substandard was the undercooked French fries. The food did not seem oversalted, but everyone was very thirsty later.
The coffee was bad. Ginger ale was served in a small bottle that looked like 8 oz. The cups and mugs were plastic.
Several of the tables near us were there for birthday parties so the staff sang Happy Birthday over and over again. Halfway through the meal, a group was seated next to us and someone in it reeked of cheap-smelling cologne, which was disturbing. There were children running around the whole time.
Despite the very minimal service, the check had generous pre-calculated suggested tips on the total amount, including the tax.
Thinking about it, the strangest thing is that the place was so packed. I can't believe that all of those people had never been there before but if they had been there before, I don't understand why they would go back.