71 Isham Road
West Hartford, CT 06107
West Hartford, CT 06107
The Cheesecake Factory should call itself The Money Factory. In the past couple of years, I've twice considered trying to eat there, only to be driven away by the long waits. I remember a couple years ago, my now ex-girlfriend and I showed up with two of her friends only to be told that the wait was going to be two hours. Two hours! For a chain?!? Since then, naturally, I've been dying to return to find out what all the hub-bub was, bub, and my salvation came in the form of my ol' college buddy, Seth.
Not long ago, West Hartford, Connecticut, an upscale suburb of Hartford, expanded its "downtown" with West Hartford Center, an urban-in-the-suburbs mini-city complete with wine bars, a Crate & Barrel, a New York Sports Club, trendy restaurants, a new movie theater, a boutique or two, expensive apartments, and a Cheesecake Factory. Seth and I gave our names to the hostess and waited outside by the fountain for our table. I can safely say that I will never feel compelled to go back.
Cheesecake Factory is unlike any other chain restaurant I've ever been to. It covers every single possible niche that a restaurant can cover without putting in amusement park rides, though it does have a gift shop (what classy restaurant doesn't?). The menu, which is made out of plastic for easy 409ing, comes complete with ads for Coke and jeans and Carnival Cruise Lines. Sure, it's tacky, but Cheesecake Factory is, don't forget, a food theme park. It has no real focus, except that it tries to cover every mass-market American taste as inoffensively as possible.
To put it another way, Cheesecake Factory's menu is geared to appeal to people who are scared of food; scared of trying anything too new or too different. Great for little kids, picky eater, grandparents who stick to whatever the diner has and small town uncles visiting from the midwest or the south. It's comfort food on a grand, grand scale. Egg rolls and spring rolls share a page with quesadilla and calamari. Hummus is next to Greek salad is above mozzarella sticks is next to corn dogs is above pizza. You can pick from a variety of a dozen burgers or choose the "Weight Management Grilled Chicken". Shepherd's pie, fish and chips, salmon. All of these foods have existed in the American lexicon for decades, ensuring that you won't find anything here you couldn't find anywhere. In fact, if my experience at Cheesecake Factory is any indication, you could even find these foods at the supermarket. Yes, they tasted like the kind of stuff you toss into the microwave for eight minutes and then peel the plastic sheet off the top of. At least the Famous Factory Meatloaf admits that it was made by a robot.
All this said, we didn't actually eat any bad food. But we did eat generic, forgettable food. What drives this insane popularity will forever escape me. Hey, I get comfort food, believe me. But a two hour wait for it? Uh, no.
Anyway, we ordered two appetizers. First, Chicken Samosas, Cheesecake Factory's experiment into Indian food. The samosas had a bit of a bite, which was nice, but they needed more. Still, there was a considerable amount of actual flavor and Seth and I agreed that the only thing that was required was some added heat to give the food some balls. The cilantro dipping sauce it came with was also quite good. The other appetizer we tried were the Tex Mex Eggrolls. These, also decent, were far more bland than they should have been. "More black bean would be appreciated, and more flavor wouldn't hurt either" was the way Seth put it. I have to agree. The overall concept was a good one, but if you're going to transfer an Asian food into a small chicken taco, do something more than deep fry it with MSG. We didn't regret ordering them, we just wish that they had a soul.
I decided that the Asian or Mexican themed comfort food was bound to be dumbed down versions of the real thing designed for people who still call cuisines from other countries "ethnic". I chose some down-home American comfort food figuring that it would be more honest. My dinner was therefore the Chicken and Biscuits. Chicken, served with some veggies over mashed potatoes with a shortcake biscuit on the side and then coated in a hearty country gravy. To better picture it, imagine a pot pie turned inside out. And that's exactly what it was. And it was good. It was also heavy, probably weighed seven pounds, and there's no way anyone wearing pants smaller than a 42 waist could possibly finish it. I had maybe ten bites, then packed the remaining 75% of it away to take home. Seth ordered the Fresh Grilled Salmon. He wanted fish, though I did try to warn him off chain restaurant fish. I was less than impressed, having stolen a few bites. The mashed potatoes had the consistency of caulk or thick glue. The asparagus was fine, but the fish was overcooked and had about as much flavor as you'd get from eating a Pink Pearl.
All in all, the meal wasn't terribly expensive and we had a good time. Still, I feel like dinner (especially when you wait so long for it) needs to be more than it was. More than what amounted to a microwave dinner served in a giant dining hall with a wine list.
Of course, this being the Cheesecake Factory, I had to try their cheesecake. They have over 30 varieties and since I love cheesecake, it was hard not to order all of them. Instead, I decided to try their Original Cheesecake. After all, if you can't get the plain one right, then why waste anyone's time with the fancier versions? Well, they got it right! It was very good. Better than Juniors?, we NYers must ask. Uh, let's not go crazy. But it was mighty fine cheesecake. Maybe I will come back, sit at the bar (which was much less crowded) and work my way through the other 30-odd flavors...
Four beers, two appetizers, two entrees, and a slice of cheesecake, plus tax and tip was $82.