Inside the heavy glass doors of Mayfair Mall’s super-chain The Cheesecake Factory, diners awaiting seats form a long, tangled thread. They shush children and clutch buzzers that vibrate when their table is ready. New arrivals hack through the muddled line to reach the hostess station. The wait feels interminable — in reality, it could be […]

Inside the heavy glass doors of Mayfair Mall’s super-chain The Cheesecake Factory, diners awaiting seats form a long, tangled thread. They shush children and clutch buzzers that vibrate when their table is ready. New arrivals hack through the muddled line to reach the hostess station. The wait feels interminable — in reality, it could be an hour or more. And the reward for one’s patience is a meatloaf sandwich, chicken tacos, four-cheese pasta or a slice of cheesecake.

It’s hard to understand the wonder of this close-to-30-state empire if you’ve never experienced it (neighboring Maggiano’s and P.F. Chang’s — chain restaurants that, like The Cheesecake Factory, are known for experienced waitstaff, lively atmosphere and quality food — are still seeing ample waits after a year-plus). The second week after its opening in late October, CF servers told us about lines that snaked around the side of the building before the doors were even unlocked for lunch.

Now that I’ve had several meals here, I could do a thesis on deconstructing the allure of The Cheesecake Factory. It’s actually kind of fascinating to watch the place operate under pressure. I didn’t see any signs of it cracking (not even the tops of cheesecakes), although with 250 employees — dishwashers to servers — you’d hope that some folks loitering at the entrance wouldn’t throw the staff into chaos.

But let’s get something straight here. If I weren’t reviewing this place, I wouldn’t be one of those folks in the queue. You can go to other restaurants and find the same kinds of dishes, although probably not as many. CF’s menu lists 31 appetizers and more than 60 “specialties” — burgers, pasta, steaks, chicken and seafood. This doesn’t include entrée-size salads, pizzas, eggs (served all day) and desserts (30-some cheesecakes and 13 others, like strawberry shortcake). It’s heaven for people who love options, but that doesn’t explain the hype. I suspect part of it is plain old curiosity and the kick of being part of a “scene.”

The chain is said to have its seeds in a small Detroit cheesecake shop back in the 1940s. The dessert counter is strategically placed just steps from the entrance. You can buy a whole cheesecake to bring home — and a CF sweatshirt and baseball cap to go with it. And somebody hopes you’ll buy some diamonds and furs, maybe a new car, after your meal. Page through this portly menu and opposite the culinary selections are full-page ads for local businesses — cheesecake in other forms. Interesting.

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The menu is clearly directed at a heterogeneous audience, but it is overwhelming. The authenticity of Japanese (miso salmon), Asian and Latin! (Chino-Latino steak), Thai (pad thai), Cajun (jambalaya pasta) and other “ethnic” creations isn’t the point. If it tastes good and you have enough for tomorrow’s lunch, everyone walks away happy. Portion sizes are hefty. The meatloaf sandwich, for example, is an open-face tower (“a mile high,” the menu says) of meat topped with mashed potatoes and fried onions. You’re paying for the two servings you get on your plate ($10.95 for the meatloaf sandwich, $13.95-$16.95 average for entrées).

The restaurant’s earliest days in business were also my research days. One night, not wanting to wait in line, I went for seating in the bar, the only area where you’re free to seize a table if one miraculously opens up. But the trade-off is less comfort (drinkers tend to crowd the tables) and more noise. You won’t get privacy in The Cheesecake Factory, though there’s less of a din in the booths. Wait, what am I saying? This 270-seat locale is almost always full.

Wherever you sit, you can look around and gaze at ethereal figures painted on the walls and ceiling. Why ethereal figures? Beats me. With the rattan-like chairs, etched glass panels, marble tables and tile floors, it’s not easy to classify the restaurant’s interior design. It may have hunger-inducing properties. One thing for sure: It doesn’t make you anxious to give up the table you’ve waited so long to get.

Honestly, though, I haven’t had a bad meal here. Dishes arrived hot, each item thoughtfully positioned on the plate. They have a dandy orange chicken entrée similar to Chinese sweet-and-sour dishes. Hunks of breast meat are battered and deep-fried and dunked in a sweet-spicy citrus sauce (with peapods and carrots on a mountain of white rice, $13.95). The chicken has a crunchy crust but stays moist.

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They butterfly a breast and pound it thin for chicken Madeira, sautéed and topped with mozzarella, lightly steamed asparagus and smoky Madeira mushroom sauce. It sounds like a brick, but it’s more of a pillow — surprisingly tender and light ($15.95). When you get mashed potatoes, as with the Madeira, they’re served up in soup ladle-size plops, which is no insult. They’re good, thick, garlicky, skin-in spuds.

If I fought the crowds again, I’d take on the fish tacos ($13.95) — firm, flaky mahi mahi spooned into soft corn tortillas and drizzled with avocado cream. You build three tacos, with pico de gallo and black beans here, rice and guacamole there.

Before tasting it, Jamaican black pepper shrimp belonged in the category of “folly,” meaning folly to attempt and folly to order. It wasn’t folly to eat, the dozen small shrimp soaking up the heat of a thick brown sauce seasoned with hot peppers prized on the Caribbean island ($16.95). There were firm caramelized plantains for sweetness, plain rice for filler and chunky mango salsa for coolness and crunch.

I don’t begrudge the feed-the-world concept here. Really, I’m in awe of an enterprise that, despite its name, has built a vast realm of businesses that stretch beyond cheesecake (and they bake yummy cheesecakes [$5.95-$7.50] in flavors like white chocolate raspberry truffle — rich, creamy, soft — and coffee Heath Bar crunch — ultra-dense and roasty-flavored). It’s bigger than all of us.

The Cheesecake Factory
Mayfair Mall, 2350 N. Mayfair Rd.
257-2300

Hours: Mon-Thurs 11:30 a.m. 11 p.m.; Fri-Sat 11:30-12:30 a.m.; Sun 10 a.m.-11 p.m. (Sun brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m.)
Prices: appetizers $5.95 $10.95 (plus a combo serving four, $25.95); salads/sandwiches/pizzas $6.95-$13.95; entrées $8.95-$26.95; brunch $5.95-$11.95; desserts $3.95-$7.50
Service: knowledgeable about the menu, shows “can do” attitude
Dress: jeans to dresses and suits
Nonsmoking section: yes
Handicap access: yes
Credit cards: M V A DS D
Reservations: not accepted

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