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Mass Production 

Desserts are the draw

The Great Hall of the Temple of Karnac in Aswan, Egypt, is a wondrous place filled with rows of mammoth columns which stretch toward a roof no longer there. That hall was one of the splendors of the ancient world. Even in ruins, the massive size of these columns and the enormity of the site inspires awe. Inside The Cheesecake Factory, one is struck by the majestic, massive, faux finished columns, opulent lighting, and whimsical paintings. The interior is large and vertically spacious, similar to what the ancient architects hoped to achieve.The Cheesecake Factory, which opened in December in the renovated entrance of SouthPark Mall, is part of a large, wildly successful national chain. The Cheesecake Factory Inc. (NASDAQ: CAKE), headquartered in California, is celebrating their 25th anniversary. The Charlotte store is projected to have sales of $11 million annually. According to the annual report, each restaurant averages annual sales of $10.8 million which breaks down to $34,300 per seat, or $1,004 per square foot. The company plans to open 14 new restaurants in 2003 and have 200 restaurants nationwide.

The Cheesecake Factory makes no pretense to be a spot for gourmands nor to be upscale. After all, factory is part of the name. Instead the store promotes itself as "casual" with "large portions at good value." The 200-item menu is spiral bound, laminated, and lengthy. Customers flip through page after page of offerings interspersed with shameless full page, color ads from credit card companies, department stores, and such.

But before you get to the menu, you have to wait for a table. Reservations are not taken. After submitting your name to the "front desk coordinator," you are relegated to the central holding area for patrons. Buzzers are provided, but unfortunately these are "not guaranteed to work" outside the restaurant. So if you were planning to shop in the mall until beeped, forget it. The bar area, which is also the designated smoking area, tends to be crowded with people waiting for dining area tables. People with children should be forewarned of this.

After your beeper alerts you, there may be another wait as the table is readied. If you bought a drink at the bar, you, not a server, will be responsible for taking the drink or wine bottle to your table. People squeezed into this secondary holding area work to avoid having drinks jostled.

If patience is not one of your attributes, The Cheesecake Factory may not be a good place for you. The front desk coordinator told me that sometimes the wait can be as long as two hours. I have a hard time understanding why people wait two hours for anything less than a dinner prepared by Thomas Keller. But then you don't have to wait at his restaurant, The French Laundry, since they take reservations.

The wine list at The Cheesecake Factory is quite small and primarily Californian. The prices of the many bar drinks are not listed on the menu. Flipping though the laminated menu pages, you will find a round up of American standards: pizzas, buffalo wings, hamburgers, sandwiches, pastas, and salads. Others are Americanized versions of global dishes, such as "Chinolatina" chicken, Asian stir-fry, Thai lettuce wrap, Burrito Grande, chicken tacos. All items are made according to strict corporate recipes.

Appetizers are served in huge portions on large platters. Yellow corn tamale cakes have a faint beckoning sweetness under large slices of avocado and diced tomatoes. Equally attack-worthy are the crispy pan-fried chicken potstickers, a table favorite. The fried Avocado Egg Rolls get goosed with a blast of sweet tamarind cashew sauce.

Salads are immense. The "herb crusted" salmon turned out to be "coated" with fresh herbs rather than crusted, but was served with an engaging mix of fresh greens, Belgian endive, cucumbers, asparagus, and tomatoes tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette. The Pad Thai, on the other hand, was extremely greasy and bore only the slightest resemblance to its legendary namesake.

With such large portions, squeezing in dessert is challenging, but the finale is what made the place famous in the first place. Thirty varieties of dangerously good cheesecake, made off site in a manufacturing plant and shipped in, tempt you. Among these are Southern Pecan, Key Lime Pie, Vanilla Bean, Chocolate Oreo Mudslide, Craig's Crazy Carrot Cake. The calorie/fat count of these dishes is impressive, too.

While the cheesecake is exemplary, instead of waiting an hour or two, I could drive to Costco and buy a whole, 12-serving The Cheesecake Factory cheesecake for 10 bucks. The Cheesecake Factory says they have "something for everyone" and their success is awe-inspiring. However, I don't think I'll be back in their "holding area" anytime soon. Besides, given the fact that one seat in their restaurant makes more in a year than a starting teacher in CMS schools, my guess is they won't miss me.

Eaters' Digest

Sayonara to Restaurant Tokyo, the Carolinas' oldest Japanese restaurant, a frequent winner of the Loaf's Best Of awards and a place where I regularly took an omakase tasting tour of the sushi menu. Last week I received emails from dismayed folks who found the place closed. Yoshi Shioda opened Restaurant Tokyo in the same building as a motel on Independence Boulevard in 1984, then moved the restaurant into a large facility on South Boulevard. In 1998 Shioda founded ARGO Century, Inc., which manufactures the TONTON sauces available at area stores. Two years ago he sold the business, but not the South Boulevard property, to a Japanese couple. I caught up with Shioda's business partner Mayumi Burnham at ARGO. "We understand that the couple has returned to Japan," she said. "But Yoshi does not have plans to return to the restaurant business."

Do you have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? You can fax this information, at least 12 days in advance of event date, to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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