Battle of the Middlebrow Chains

Our chef pits Cheesecake Factory against Outback Steakhouse against Olive Garden.

Seven years ago, I worked across street from the Brentwood, Calif., branch of the Cheesecake Factory. My co-workers and I would lovelessly dole out the occasional lunch hour to the brass ‘n’ fern holdover. Little did I know it, but as I jawed through monotonous salads and sipped passion fruit iced tea, I was tasting the future.

When a branch of the restaurant landed in downtown Seattle last year, I assumed it would draw the same glum business clientele. But the Factory has drawn lines of expectant diners that would impress Steve Rubell—not only in terms of how many people wait, but how dressed up they get for dinner at the restaurant. These diners aren’t looking for a cheap pit stop: After all, a pasta dish can run $15.95, which is the same price you’d pay in any number of well-respected independent restaurants in Seattle.

And Seattle’s not the only city to catch Cheesecake fever. According to the online Zagat guide, the chain ranks No. 9 in popularity in Los Angeles, No. 3 in Miami, and No. 1 in Orange County, Calif. (Where nine of the top 10 are chains.) This may say more about Zagat’s populism than the quality of these restaurants, but it’s still startling to see the Los Angeles Cheesecake Factories listed alongside such local culinary landmarks as Campanile and Matsuhisa.

These days, chains have more of a shot at competing with “real” restaurants than you might think. Freshness is the big buzzword. Waiters at Chevy’s swear oaths of freshness before serving new diners (nothing from a can, salsas made every hour, hot tortillas every 53 seconds). Each Olive Garden makes soups and sauces from scratch every day. The menus are sophisticated: Cheesecake Factory offers a dish like Miso Salmon without explaining what miso is. P.F. Chang’s boasts of its menu collaboration with Barbara Tropp, the late Chinese food scholar. Olive Garden sends its chefs and wine managers to Tuscany.

Clearly, these chains are defining fast food way upward. But is the food keeping pace with its ambition and the popularity? To find out, I gathered together my dinner companions (two to three per meal), unbuckled my belt, and set off on a tasting tour of the following restaurants:

Outback Steakhouse, North Seattle
Concept: Steak, Crocodile Dundee-style
Gimmick: Bloomin’ Onion
Motto: No rules, just right
Prices: Strawberry ‘Rita, $5.25; Bloomin’ Onion, $5.99; Canberra Chicken, $13.99; Rockhampton Rib Eye Steak, $17.99; Pacific Rim Salmon, $17.49

A couple of Ned Kelly paintings and boomerangs hang on the wall, but Outback’s Australian theme is mostly played out in the eye-rolling names on its party-hearty menu, starting with fried “Aussie-tizers.” Outback does fry things well, from its massive, greasy whole fried onion to coconut-crusted shrimp. Unfortunately, it was at Outback that I developed my theory of anti-eponymy; in other words, don’t order a dish if it’s in the name of the restaurant. The rib eye steak seemed baked, not seared or grilled, and was devoid of the salty crust that makes steak so delicious. The “Pacific Rim” salmon, much recommended by our server, featured the first of many sweet, soy-flavored sauces served at the chains to exterminate any lingering flavor in their bland farmed salmon. It’s a dismaying trend and, at $17.49, an expensive one.

Cheesecake Factory, Downtown Seattle
Concept: Something-for-everyone American
Gimmick: Enormous menu, enormous portions, plus cheesecake
Motto: No one goes home hungry from the Cheesecake Factory
Prices: Thai Lettuce Wraps, $9.50; Cajun Jambalaya Pasta, $15.95; Coffee Heath Bar Crunch Cheesecake, $6.25

Cheesecake Factory radiates Vegas grandeur: Faux-marble walls climb two stories up; spiral-bound menus run ads for diamonds and leather goods; huge plates are dressed up with colored sauces and toupees of fried noodles. With over 200 choices on the menu, CF serves as a repository for all other corporate-restaurant concepts. There’s Americana (tiny hamburgers), Southeast Asian (Thai-style lettuce wraps), and absurd Sino-Latino fusion (Tex-Mex egg rolls). Everything was cooked competently, but way too many dishes were coated in syrupy sauces (including the Miso Salmon at $16.95—sweet salmon No. 2). The most scandalous thing about CF, and the clincher for the anti-eponymy theory, was the cheesecakes. In order to accommodate flavors from Coffee Heath Bar to Craig’s Crazy Carrot Cake Cheesecake, all cheesiness has been removed from the cakes, leaving just sweet, bland fluff. Careful analysis revealed that the cheesecakes at Outback Steakhouse, the Olive Garden, and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro were better.

P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Downtown Bellevue, Wash.
Concept: Contemporary Chinese
Gimmick: Tableside sauce mixing
Motto: Too classy for a motto
Prices: Mojito, $8; Northern Style Short Ribs, $6.25; Orange Peel Chicken, $10.95; Singapore Noodles, $8.95

P.F. Chang’s is free of China kitsch: There are no gilded dragons or red lacquer. And there’s a similar “classiness” in the extensive wine list and a menu that nods to China’s regional cuisines. The Northern-style spare ribs, with their deep anise flavor, were the best bite of the night. In general, the food was oddly dour, as if the Chang’s people were so worried about avoiding the clichés of bad Chinese food that they feared making things oily or spicy enough. The meal was also perilously short on vegetable matter: The steamed fish, Orange Peel Chicken, and Singapore Noodles were all drab and nearly green-free.

Wolfgang Puck Café, Downtown Seattle
Concept: Trickledown Spago
Gimmick: Wood-fired pizza
Motto: Live, love, eat!
Prices: Mini Salmon Pizzas, $9.95; Rosemary Chicken, $13.95; Pumpkin Ravioli, $12.95; Filet Mignon, $23.95

Wolfgang Puck is the celeb chef whose L.A. restaurants attract a constant stream of stars. (This is true: I worked there briefly and saw Tony Curtis several times.) Puck’s fine-dining restaurants are supposed to serve as R & D for his capitalist … err, populist efforts, including canned soup, airport kiosks, and cafes. With bright lighting, primary-colored mosaics, and patchwork linoleum tables, Seattle’s WPC reads more preschool than grown-up restaurant. All the merriment is in the décor and the menu combinations, not the stilted service. A steak was misfired and arrived 10 minutes after the other entrees. The smoked-salmon pizza for which Puck is justly famous (it comes with caviar in Beverly Hills) arrived cold and dried out—another disappointing signature dish. But the rest of the meal—the Pumpkin Ravioli, a crispy roast chicken, and the belated filet—were a notch above other chains. Most important, WPC avoided the sugar-sweet trap; if anything was overused at WPC, it was butter, and that’s hard to complain about. The trio of crème brûlées, sent to us by way of apology for the steak, is a cliché these days in upscale restaurants, but not at the chains. It was a delicious break from cheesecake.

Chevy’s Fresh Mex, Lynnwood, Wash. The concept: Tex-Mex Gimmick: El Machino tortilla machine (Note: La maquina is actually the Spanish word for machine.) Motto: Hey! It doesn’t get any fresher than this. Prices: Fresh Watermelon Margarita, $4.95; Sampler appetizer plate, $11.99; Fish Tacos (add guacamole), $10.98; Sweet Jalapeno Steak Fajitas $12.99

Our servers at Chevy’s were stars: modifying our tacos and quesadillas with aplomb, treating the 18-month-old at our table with speedy service and a free ice cream cone. The food was conventional but vibrant: The roasted-tomato salsa, guacamole, and the warm tortillas felt newly made, and the entrees came loaded with vegetables. Unfortunately, Chevy’s is headed into dangerously sweet territory with items like the Napa Valley quesadilla with brie and apples, the glazed flank steak, and the candied salmon special (No. 3!). Portions are out of control, with fajitas arriving not on plates but 2-foot-wide consoles. Lest they look small in comparison, the yummy margaritas are massive, too.

Olive Garden, Lynnwood, Wash.
The concept: Italian
The gimmick: Heavy wine promotions, lots of grated cheese
The motto: When you’re here, you’re family
Prices: Glass G. Rocca Chianti Classico, $7.50; Bruschetta, $5.25; Spaghetti della Rocca, $8.95; Swordfish Piccata, $15.25; Lobster Spaghetti $17.95

The Tuscan boondoggle for Olive Garden’s managers seems to pay off. The wine list is arranged by flavor intensity and features some tasty Chiantis and Pinot Grigios. Our waiter was comfortable talking about wine and brought out a couple of Chianti tasters for comparison. The Italian tradition of a carefully paced, multi-course meal is not in effect at OG, where abundance is a virtue. But at least two of my companions at the table cleaned their plates—a first. The pasta was cooked al dente; the fresh sauces were well-executed and tossed, Italian-style, throughout the pasta rather than simply being ladled on top. Even the Lobster Spaghetti that’s been advertised on television all summer was decent. And the Swordfish Piccata was fresh and cooked right, even if the sauce was almost caper-free. (OG’s owned by same company as Red Lobster; the mass buying power helps get some good seafood options on the menu.) Only the minestrone fell flat: If the salty soup didn’t come straight from a can, the beans in it did.

So what did I learn on my odyssey? Middlebrow cuisine lets you know when a style of food has stopped being trendy and started being American: ‘80s Tex-Mex, early-’90s Tuscan, and later-’90s Asian fusion have achieved regular-stuff status. The freshness mantras and in-house preparations mimic the “market” menus and “house-made” ingredients served by high-end restaurants. The chains haven’t quite hit their marks yet: The step away from frying and canned sauces is a tough one, and sugar has swept in as a new crutch. But even if this sort of cuisine is only a pale imitation of what’s served in more high-end joints, its ambition is impressive.

I spent too much time in Berkeley to believe anything prepared en masse can compete with lovingly raised ingredients cooked to order. And I don’t think the majority of diners visit corporate restaurants for the meal of a lifetime (even those who voted the Cheesecake Factory the No. 1 most popular restaurant in Orange County). Casual dining restaurants serve a very specific function in American dining. In general, you don’t take a date to one, unless you are on the way to the prom. What chain restaurants do splendidly is feed awkward groups of people—extended families, business associates, high-school basketball teams, etc. With big tables, efficient service, splittable checks, and plenty of sharable appetizers and booze for camaraderie, corporate restaurants know how to serve the herds. Timid eaters can always find something plain, restless eaters will find something new, and unrepentant food snobs can always find potent, fruity drinks.