Philadelphia, We Needed the Cheesecake Factory

The chain's hulking new Center City outpost is strange, not entirely welcome, and probably in poor taste. It suits us perfectly.
Photo | Brian Howard

Photo | Brian Howard

Everyone has their safe space.

Maybe you like to take a time-out at Rittenhouse Square when the office feels like it’s closing in. Or perhaps you find peace in your garden at the end of a long day. Yoga studios are popular, as are churches, temples, synagogues, mosques and other buildings where vampires aren’t welcome (or aren’t usually welcome — it all depends which season of Supernatural you’re watching).

My personal sanctuary — that little nook of the world where time seems to stop and breathing comes easy — is The Cheesecake Factory.

Reality as I understand it ceases to exist once those big glass doors open. The smell of simple carbs and non-threatening cheeses quickly lulls me into a cozy – if not slightly numb – sense of security. Once that Bible-sized menu hits the table, I know everything is going to be just fine because Justin will be taking care of me tonight, and Justin cheerfully delivers pasta in bowls the size of swimming pools. He’ll be right back with a basket of warm bread and a vaguely butter-like spread, because Justin is one of the good guys.

And so I am, obviously, elated that The Cheesecake Factory finally decided to add a Philadelphia ZIP code to its roster. But plenty of people aren’t thrilled that the national chain set up shop in a hulking three-story building at 15th and Walnut, and that’s perfectly understandable. We fear what we don’t know, and new, towering places of worship have a history of causing anxiety in Center City Philadelphia.

As the restaurant’s (very) unofficial and (completely) self-appointed ambassador to the city, allow me to justify its existence — and maybe even open your heart to the glory and power that is The Cheesecake Factory.

First, we need to let go of the idea that this stretch of the city is hallowed ground. There are some local gems along 15th Street, sure, but it’s also home to Applebee’s, Howl at the Moon, Fox and the Hound, Fado and – God, why have you forsaken us? – Max Brenner. While I certainly don’t want Philadelphia to look like a suburban mall, it’s worth noting that this particular corridor is already a mash-up of lesser chains, just one Cold Stone Creamery away from the ledge.

Next, we have to accept that chain restaurants, while not for everyone, provide a very real and very valuable service to the city: Keeping herds of tourists happy, placated, and nowhere near my favorite nook of Jose Pistola’s.

Yes, it would be nice if everyone passing through Philadelphia took the time to try out some great local places and get a feel for the real flavors of the city. But have you ever been in an unfamiliar town with a pack of tired, hungry children? I have, and if their mother wasn’t looking I would have traded one of their innocent little souls for a booth at The Cheesecake Factory. A gigantic, cushy booth full of booster seats and crayons and familiar beige foods. I’ve never asked for a sippie cup of apple juice at Good Dog because I value my life, but you’re welcome to try and let me know how that plays out.

What I’m most reluctant to admit is that — despite knowing better after living in the city all my life — I don’t actually mind the food at The Cheesecake Factory. I primarily visit for a trip down the rabbit hole, yes, but I can’t deny that their “Skinnylicious” menu is, in fact, ‘licious (the jury’s still out on skinny). No one has ever accused me of having good taste, but I’ll still vouch for the avocado fries. I have ordered the veggie “Glamburger,” and lo, it was good. The place isn’t Laurel, by any means, but it also doesn’t set you back three hours and $200.

Some things should stay in the suburbs. Movie Tavern, cul de sacs, and Scentsy demonstrations simply have no business around these parts. I’ll be damned if The Container Store tries to cross the bridge. But as for The Cheesecake Factory? If there’s anywhere that a place as weird and wonderful as The Cheesecake Factory belongs, it’s right here.

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