On June 23, Philadelphia’s first Cheesecake Factory opens at the corner of 15th and Walnut (here’s our breakdown of the menu). Billy Penn was invited for a preview meal, and discovered something kind of unnerving.
The food is actually pretty good.
Yes, the portions are gigantic. And no, it’s not a good choice if you’re looking to avoid over-the-top temptations. But unlike with Olive Garden, Applebee’s or TGIFriday’s, for example, Americans’ obsession with the Cheesecake Factory does not support indictment of U.S. food culture (or lack thereof).
Salmon was silky and flavorful. Chicken was crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside. The mojito lived up to its outsize online reputation. The cheesecake was nearly impossible to stop eating, even after all of the above. Most impressively, the majority of dishes we tried looked almost exactly like (or better than) their slickly styled marketing images.
As anyone who’s ordered from a McDonald’s knows, this is rarely the case.
Yeah, that was expected. In contrast, check out the investigative Cheesecake Factory photo comparisons below.
Fried Macaroni and Cheese
Although the official photo is way redder than the dish ever could be — that sauce is not marinara, it’s vodka sauce — the rest of the appetizer looks on point. Inside the breadcrumb coating were soft elbows of pasta, covered in cheese that left satisfying strings as you pulled forkfuls out ($9.95). The mac also comes served on its own in a crock, or on top of a burger.
Why does an American restaurant’s cocktail menu have a special section with four varieties of this Cuban classic? Why not, especially when it’s this good. Not overly sweet, with plenty of fresh mint and a healthy spike of citrus rum, this is a great summer drink pick ($11.50).
Spicy Crispy Chicken Sandwich
Here’s a case where the marketing image doesn’t really do the dish justice, especially considering it’s found in a section of the menu titled “Glamburgers® & Sandwiches.” While the chicken was perfectly done, the sandwich as a whole was the least favorite dish of the day — boring cheese, bland chipotle mayo — but still entirely passable. Fries on the side were solid, BTW, especially when they were piping hot ($11.95).
Herb Crusted Filet of Salmon
OK, not the same angle, but check out how this dish looks exactly like a facehugger from Alien! Get over the Sigourney Weaver-empathetic fear, though, because the fish, while nowhere near as pink as the one in the marketing photo, was one of the best pieces of salmon around. The lemon cream sauce was tangy, the asparagus was only slightly overcooked, and the mashed potatoes were chunky and lightly herbed. Top notch entree ($19.95).
Toasted Marshmallow S’mores Galore™
Choosing from 37 kinds of cheesecake is not easy, but it’s doubtful any of them would disappoint. Aside from sloppier whipped cream swirls, the dessert looks very similar to its glamour version, with just slightly less finesse on the brulée on the marshmallow draped over the chocolate top. Make sure you share this with a friend, or you’ll hate yourself when licking the plate clean ($7.95).
When you walk in, you’re greeted by a host stand and a gleaming rendition of the corporate logo, floating in foot-high letters on a background that looks like the river from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was frozen and bronzed.
The dining room is accessed via a towering escalator that shoots up from the building’s ground floor. It’s divided into a bar with high-tops in a lounge and a regular seating area, with cherry wood booths and tables over imported marble floors. Details on the walls are painted by hand, and glowing orange chandeliers hang in geometric sworls from the 17.5-ft. high ceilings. The idea, per public relations director Alethea Rowe, is for the design to start traditional, but get more fantastical from the waist up.
Best seat in the house is on the corner patio, which is enclosed in huge glass windows, several of which lift up to open the space to the outside. Wicker seats surround gloss-top tables on a travertine tile floor. It’s like Palm Beach got an Airbnb in Philadelphia and decided to make itself at home.
With all the great independent restaurants in Philly, there’s no real need for anyone to dine here. But there’s no reason to worry about bad food if you’re invited to partake in a Cheesecake Factory meal, for some reason. And the bakery counter at front is a solid option if you want to indulge in a quick dessert to go.
Non-marketing photos by Danya Henninger