Say cheesy

The Cheesecake Factory aims to please everybody. Blah.

Years back, I was in a country western/rock band that toured the nation's mid-section. This momentous opportunity came after long months in a dark, leaky basement attempting to replicate the lush orchestrations of Frank Zappa's "Easy Meat" with a power trio, filling any melodic, contrapuntal deficiencies with generous helpings of wattage.

I heard that this guy needed a guitar player for his band ASAP. His name was Oakly. The band was called Sunbelt. He played country music because John Travolta made a movie with a mechanical bull and Travolta was leading-edge. Oakly paid $250 a week plus expenses. He was ready to hit the road. So I packed up my Ibanez semi-hollow-body and Polytone Mini-Brute amp and loaded them into his Dodge van.

We were bad. And not in an antonymous way, either. Oakly had a decent voice and was a snap at music theory. But he had the rhythmic accuracy of the Vatican's favorite birth-control method. Upbeats became downbeats for no reason. Songs in 4/4 time suddenly had measures of 5/4 and 3/8 randomly inserted at the refrain, or when he couldn't squeeze in all the lyrics in a musical phrase because he had breathlessly lingered over words like "baby" for too many beats. He'd muff an intro, stop after four measures, practice the blown line on his guitar, and then say into the mike: "We screwed up that one, so we're gonna start over."

Yet Sunbelt left me with a host of memories celebrating the resourcefulness of the human spirit. Our drummer, a nonpracticing Jew, had a hard time absorbing the whole cowboy thing. So he ingeniously resolved this dilemma by crafting an elaborate headdress and adopting the stage name "Chief Sitting Shiva." In Quincy, Illinois, we met a leggy call girl who kept a goals and objectives ledger in her appointment book, carefully marking nightly financial progress toward her primary personal goal: getting her front teeth straightened and capped.

And then there was Oakly himself, a virtual self-help slogan depository. There was "90 percent of makin' it is just showin' up" and "take care of business"--or simply "TCB, buddy." "You can do anything you put your mind to," and "there's no stopping a man with a mission" were favorites. He once guaranteed us he'd play Carnegie Hall, though in his more sober moments, he'd admit he really didn't want to be as big as Elvis. A Neil Diamond level of fame would suit him just fine.

Oakly was our own Tony Robbins, fire-walking us through seedy bars with bad western clothes and bad meter. But his favorite man to quote was Sammy Davis Jr. He'd say things like "I'm a variety artist, that's what I am," even though if he ever tried tap dancing he'd end up in traction. Then he'd say "Like Sammy says, 'If you please everybody, you please nobody.'"

Anyway, the memory of Oakly and his Sammy shtick was what struck me after a few moments browsing The Cheesecake Factory's menu. This restaurant is living proof that Sammy was full of cheesecake: You can please everybody by attempting to please everybody. (Well, almost everybody. I didn't like the place at all.) The menu is an encyclopedic blur of virtually every interesting dish ever mainstreamed through a corporate grinder: pizzas, Asian dishes, tacos and burritos, seafood and steaks, salads, sandwiches, burgers, omelets, and so on. Plus shepherd's pie. Did I mention meatloaf? And lest you think the moniker was an afterthought, the Factory offers some 40 different cheesecakes.

"Our flexible kitchen capabilities enable us to have the capability to offer almost any menu item that consumers want to eat," boasts the Cheesecake Factory Inc.'s 1997 annual report. "We update our menu offerings twice a year to keep up with America's changing tastes, which keeps them interested in us."

And interested they are. Lines loop around its Lincoln Park slot at 11 a.m. for lunch. At dinner, you're assigned a vibrating pager with blinking red lights that go off when your table is ready. It's the only way the house can get your attention. The place is so loud, sign-language instruction should be a suggested menu item.

But it isn't as if The Cheesecake Factory doesn't try--stridently--to get your attention. It's a Vegas-like merchandising mecca. Art deco motifs mix with Tuscan touches in a room saturated in amber. Coiled cobras serve as sconces along the booths and in the bar. Those vibrating pagers have plastic sleeves with little ad inserts urging you to stop by the bakery counter for gift certificates or to give whole cheesecakes a FedEx fling. Virtually every other plastic-coated page in the spiral-bound menu is a full-page ad: Park Place car dealerships; Sheers Bodywear Bar; Elizabeth Arden Red Door Salon. There's even a plug for Cheesecake Factory clothing and souvenirs "available now in this restaurant at the bakery counter."

By now you've probably noticed I haven't said much about the food. What's to say? Sammy was a talented entertainer. He could sing, dance, act, and do impersonations night after night in front of hundreds of slot clods in Vegas. Sammy was a common-denominator, high-volume guy: Please as many as you can with as wide a swath as you can carve and shrug off the rest. Bores me to tearful dormancy. The Cheesecake Factory is talented too. You have to marvel at a place that can spit out such a wide range of dishes at such a clip.

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