The most exciting arrival in years on the DC dining scene is coinciding with the end of the pandemic. Not since the launch of the DC Michelin guide has the buzz been as strong. Nestled adjacent to the Old Ebbitt Grill, it’s sure to be a welcome addition to the Power Lunch scene among the Jos A. Bank-clad downtown crowd. Yes, the Cheesecake Factory has opened their new location just a few blocks from the White House.
Truth be told, DC being a city full of cynical people who think they live in a West Wing episode and that the height of dining is Cafe Milano, it’s not actually clear to me that DC deserves a Cheesecake Factory. But it brings a level of class, sophistication and culture to the nation’s capital that we haven’t had since Billy Carter.
Talk to any DC resident and they’ll swear up and down that the food scene is vastly improved over, say, 10 years ago and that a Cheesecake Factory is the last thing it needs. But a 100 percent improvement over zero is a tough baseline to measure. Most of it is mediocrity masquerading as magnificence, catering to people who think they’re Anthony Bourdain because they really love Szechuan noodles. Yes, DC has a Michelin Guide, usually the mark of a city with a thriving food scene. But the most humiliating part of it is the admission by Michelin bigwigs that they only publish here because of the proximity to power.
For the uninitiated, the Cheesecake Factory is what a fashionable French writer would create in a novel if he needed a restaurant to embody American food excesses. Fried food, giant portions, cuisine borrowed from the major cultural food groups, weird amalgamations that could only be invented in the good ole USA. It truly is the melting pot of American (not to be confused with The Melting Pot, which DC could probably also use).
Walking into Cheesecake Factory on a Thursday night is much like you’d expect. Low-lit, with a vaguely Asian flair. There’s the giant kitchen needed to turn out the food from the novel-sized menu. If reading isn’t your thing, there are TVs on the wall that show a rotation of the appetizers and desserts on offer.
They tried to serve us bread and butter which looks delicious but at a place like this it’s a sucker’s move. I’m not sure why they offer it other than to show their commitment to gluttony. Save your calories.
We start with drinks and immediately gravitate to the frozen cocktails section. If you’re going to indulge then you should do it properly and order something with an umbrella in it. I had the Georgia Peach, which is a fruity concoction full of vodka and liqueurs that will make you think you’re poolside in Miami. Drinks 2, 3, 4 and 5 were the same and they tasted just as good each time.
Diving into a menu at the Cheesecake Factory may be a chore, but it’s a chore that evokes the zeal of an Amish barn raising. One section of the menu offers small plates. Another offers appetizers. What’s the difference? Unclear, aside from perhaps how sophisticated you want to feel while ordering. We opt for the Dynamite Shrimp to start — deep-fried shrimp served with a slightly spicy mayo. As we ate it I decided this is no different than what would be served to me in a high-end restaurant, meant to be consumed with chopsticks. As we couldn’t decide on which egg roll platter we wanted, we called for the egg roll sampler, quite convenient, containing the following versions: avocado, Tex Mex, cheeseburger spring roll, and chicken taquito. All were divine of course, and the southwestern egg roll made me feel like I was rustling cattle somewhere in New Mexico.
Next are the Buffalo Blasts, which we ordered simply because we loved the name. They’re chicken, cheese and Buffalo sauce, wrapped in a breading and deep fried, served with blue cheese dressing.
As we wait for our entrées, we bask in the music, some sort of playlist of the best of Disney radio, family friendly hits of the 90s and 2000s. There’s a cover of Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’ by a folk singer I can’t place. If the Cheesecake Factory had live music, it would be played by the Gastric Band.
My entrée comes, the cheeseburger French dip. I love cheeseburgers. I love French dips. Why wouldn’t I love a cheeseburger French dip? Well, I did. It’s a flavor explosion. I’m not sure why it took the Cheesecake Factory to think of dipping a burger in au jus. Not since the advent of the McGriddle has such a masterpiece of combined foodthings been so successful. It’s unclear why burgers haven’t always been served this way.
We finish our meal the only way one can — with cheesecake. The Toasted Marshmallow S’Mores Galore™ catches our eyes — I’m a sucker for any menu item that’s trademarked. And since we hadn’t had any vegetables yet, we opt for a gigantic slice of carrot cake. Balance is important. While the cheesecake was a formidable contender, I’m sad to report that the carrot cake was one of the best things I ate that night.
As we pay our check, a very fashionable gay couple is sat next to us that wouldn’t look out of place at any of the hippest restaurants in town. While walking out, we pass a tall blond wearing a mask with the Texas flag on it. Truly the melting pot of America. Maybe DC gets the Cheesecake Factory after all?
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s July 2021 World edition.