While dining tonight at the Cheesecake Factory, it occurred to me that if the America of my lifetime and my experience had to be described as a restaurant, the Cheesecake Factory would be it.
Though no two locations are identical, most are housed in structures adjacent to malls or as standalone buildings within mall complexes. The facades differ, but each is showy in its own way, with enormous signage that appears to exist purely out of pride because it can only be seen when you've already arrived at the mall and have in fact found your way to the Cheesecake Factory. The sizes of the locations vary, but the commonality is that each is exactly as large as it possibly can be without devouring the rest of its surroundings.
The colors inside are warm, muted golds and tans designed to calm the patron, giving the entire environment a glow. Lamps and fixtures are deeper, richer versions of this color scheme in a style that seems like a fuzzy mixture of art deco and modern, avoiding the harsher aspects of both styles. The ceilings are at least a story higher than they have any reason to be, suggesting a spaciousness that makes you forget that the next table is thirty-two inches from your thigh. The entire space is carefully orchestrated to give you the comfort of familiarity oddly by creating an unreal environment. "I am at the Cheesecake Factory," it makes you say to yourself. And where is that? Merely in a fantasy. Nowhere, really.
Everything is clean. Everything is shiny, or would be, if it weren't for the soft haze about the place. Everything is new. Of course, it is new, quite literally, by most standards. I don't know how long these locations have existed, but I have yet to see a dated, dilapidated one. There is no sense of history. It was built now, for now. No looking backward. There wood paneling is very dark, giving the place a tone of class and a touch of seriousness. This is most evident in the seating stand, which more resembles a hotel check-in counter. Youngish people in headsets busy themselves tending to new arrivals, checking availability, handing out pagers for customers to wait on a vast but mostly filled array of benches for their turn to be called. It's an impressive operation that feels upscale, despite the fact that you're in a chain restaurant at a mall filled with doughy patrons in shorts who spent the day looking at Kenmore appliances. It flatters the patron -- all these many people, bustling around, with such technology, just so that I can eat! -- but the underlying purpose is really to move as many people through as efficiently as possible. And it is efficient.
When you are seated, you're given a spiral bound menu
slightly larger than a TV Guide. Appetizers? Gets two pages. Salads? Gets a page. Appetizer salads (distinct from full-meal salads)? Yet another page. Pastas, Sandwiches, steaks, pizza and eggs each get their own page. Desserts? Two pages. I think the Cheesecake Factory may have more dishes than any other place I've ever been to. The selection is wide enough to make your head swim.
Foods of an array of ethnicities and styles are thrown together. Take the avocado eggrolls, which seem to be the result of a game of telegraph between Chinese, American, and Mexican players: Chunks of Fresh Avocado, Sun-Dried Tomato, Red Onion and Cilantro Deep Fried in a Crisp Chinese Wrapper. Served with a Tamarind-Cashew Dipping Sauce.
They're presented in the fiendishly novel method of having been cut diagonally lengthwise, making them both less messy to eat and easier to dip in the sauce.
"Fusion" seems to be a popular term among restaurants these days, and while The Cheesecake Factory is nothing like any fusion place I've ever been to -- it has none of the forced incongruity for the sake of pretentious novelty to its dishes -- it truly achieves what I think of the true concept of fusion. The many styles and flavors blend and become one. Everything is different, yet everything is the same. It's all buttery, crunchy, fried, overloaded, high calorie, high flavor. It's comfort food in every sense of the word. Strange but always familiar, in portions that would feed Third World families for months. Much of the joy comes simply from the fact that there is too much of everything.
Waitstaff are always hovering within line of sight, always tending to the cattle grazing within. Not for a moment will you want for anything, not a moment will be wasted. This is not a three sitting restaurant. This is not a place for lounging back, into the night, babbling about philosophy while nursing your wine. There's a single-minded determination of purpose to the experience. You are here to eat. There will be eating, and more eating, and dishes will be brought in steady succession. You will eat until you cannot eat anymore, and then you will pay and leave. Of course, no one is rude about it, and you never feel rushed: you are too hazed by your carbohydrate coma. But the prompting is there, always moving you to the next step. Drinks. Appetizers. Entree. Dessert. Bill. Your status is monitored by waitstaff as part of a maddeningly zealous error-checking regime to ensure that no snags have been hit at any stage of the process. Are you ready for the next round? Do you need more beverage? Do you have everything you need? Is the food to your liking? Is there anything holding you up? Is there anything at all that your heart desires? We will bring it to you, anything, just to keep you people moving through our restaurant.
It is this fundamental disparity that fascinates me about the place, and it's that disparity, above and beyond the more superficial similarities such as scale, excess, and cultural blend, which makes me think of my native homeland. The Cheesecake Factory caters to you, feeds you, nourishes you, comforts you. It pours calories into that void inside each of us, that niggling little black hole that wants more comfort, more peace, less worry, less stress, more acceptance. Or, more fundamentally, that void which is our unquenchable desire for love. The Cheesecake Factory provides a love-substitute in rich foods and enormous portions. It's the dining out equivalent of sucking from a nipple. And yet our complete gratification is being tended by friendly but dispassionate strangers motivated only by profit and expediency. It is simply a lie, all of it, a cushy, extravagant made-up fantasy to keep us docile and move us to payment as expeditiously as possible.
And to me, that's America, my America, the quintessential America of today. America is the soft, comforting lie of false fulfillment, that absurd promise that happiness is on sale -- half-price, this week only -- at the nearest commercial complex. A chicken in every pot, two cars in every garage, a house, a picket fence, a new washer and dryer, children, a college education for each. None of these items are in service of the American dream, they are in fact its very root: things will make me happy. America is that lie whispered in our ears like a mantra by those whose only relationship with us involves the swift swipe of our credit card. But it's still the most delicious lie I've ever tasted.