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Review of Cheesecake Factory & PF Changs … Chains take Stoneridge by storm

This SF Bay Area review of these restaurants talks about why these places are so popular that people will wait 90 minutes to get in. The reviewer says his dinner for two at Cheesecake Factory for $100 was ‘reasonably good’
http://ae.contracostatimes.com/entert...

He writes:

“There's something reflexive for me, however, about rooting for chef-owned or family-run restaurants. Like independent bookstores, they seem worth supporting even when cost and convenience might not be in their favor.”

Then goes on to give these restaurants newsprint for those people who might not be aware they exist or what to order.

You know, I’ve enjoyed dinners at places like that, but the more I read Chowhound and try some great suggestions, the less interesting Cheesecake Factory & PF Changs become. Despite my odes to McDonalds foods, I eat there less and less.

No snob appeal. There’s just better stuff out there if you look.

It just reminded me of something I re-read on this site the other day …

“.... the very point of this site is to never give up. Somewhere out there somebody is doing it and doing it well. And that person quite probably thinks nobody cares, since the place ain't likely to be written up in newspapers, etc, and drawing foodie crowds unless the owner's smart and slick enough to send out a lot of clever press releases (or, more likely, rich enough to hire a publicist). And that person may be doomed by neglect to switch to, like, air conditioning and refrigerator maintanence and be lost to us forever.

We need to find people like that before they find themselves withering on the vine (proving to myriad onlookers that quality DOESN'T PAY), and connect them with people like us before we find ourselves fatalistically embracing the easy, convenient, soulless mass market alternative.”

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  1. I saw the article this morning also. Chains do fill a need and some have pretty good food. But I could not believe they would review 2 chains, when so many stand out places are ignored. I just couldn't believe the food critic of a major paper wasted the week's reviews on chains.

    9 Replies
    1. re: Janet

      I agree Janet, if the food critic in the Chicago Sun Times(which I read everyday, but look forward to Fridays paper for the resaurant reviews), would have wasted his, and my time reviewing PF Changs, or Cheesecake factory Id bet he would be fired., and I doubt I would ever read his column again. I cant believe this reviewer couldn't find a decent spot to review in the San Francisco area, one of the top dining areas in the country. Let alone reviewing these two below average dining options.

      shame on him.

      1. re: swsidejim

        I guess I didn't really want to get into critic bashing as much as making the point of how unique and rare and necessary Chowhound has been ... to diners ... to restaurants.

        In this critic's defense, the area he is covering is in the suburbs of the Bay Area and the farther out you get the more the suburb mentality to dining is. I worked in that area for about a year and people had families ... after working all week, they didn't want to take a chance that the restaurant the kids might hate or anything that wasn't easy and familiar. So in a sense he is meeting the needs of his audiance.

        That's why, to me, Chowhound attracts the numbers it does. The is a crying need for this information that no one critic can possibly eat at and ferret out all the great eats in an area. If you don't have a critic whose tastes matches yours ... well, you are screwed.

        It not only attracts the everyday people but also the press ... there are too many reviews in our local papers that came from Chowhound posts ... including the Contra Costa Times. Which is great because otherwise some great places would be unlikely to be covered in the press.

        Anyway, that was the direction and reason for the link.

        1. re: rworange

          great link, and I understand some of the things you mentioned. A food critic reviewing a chain is kind of odd, I also agree with yor point about the role Chowhound plays.

          However, I think most folks know what cheesecake factory, and PF Changs are all about through word of mouth, or reputation.

          1. re: swsidejim

            Critics that review McDonald's and Olive Gardens just don't understand their roles. They may say that they're helping (or pandering to) the needs of the masses - but the masses don't need a review of chains. The products are marketed to the masses as evident - they are not unique products that need qualification.

            A critic reviewing corporate mass-producers is just plain redundant. These places use modern mass marketing techniques to insure that they hit their desired audience with the precisely chosen product. What's the critic doing? Helping the corporate marketing engine fine tune their process? They need no help for that.

            Rather than telling us what Wal Mart carries, they should tell us what the mom and pops carry and what they'll do for us that's outside the corporate standard - there's the real surprise.

            The true free enterprise marketplace engine isn't about a few giants getting bigger, selling cheaper and more standard, common denominator product. It's about many individuals and groups trying to sell their unique products. Some are good, some not so good - the ones that don't work go away and are replaced with others that are hopefully better. That's the critic's real role - to help us identify which ones are worth trying - to influence that cycle of inventiveness.

            1. re: applehome

              Yes and no. I agree that the primary role of critics to to shed light on places that might otherwise be overlooked, and chains don't fall into that category. On the other hand, all the marketing in the world can't tell me what I need to know: objectively, how's the food?

              I've never been to the Cheesecake Factory, but I do know it's popular and people wait for hours. How I do know whether or not I would like it? I can assume that I wouldn't because it's a chain, but that's rather close-minded and snobbish. How do I defend my negative position if a group of friends suggests we eat there? I've never been there but I know I hate it? How reasonable is that?Maybe if I lose that argument, a review will help me make the best, most palatable choices.

              Movie critics often pan blockbusters that go on to gross hundreds of millions of dollars based on marketing and word of mouth. Should they not review them at all? Or should they acknowledge the fact that these movies(restaurants) exist, that millions of people patronize them, and that therefore they should be critically evaluated.

              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                But if the food is being prepared to specifically be a product made for a target audience, what's there to know? Every one will be the same - not just every one in that chain, but every one across the board in that ever-growing marketplace. New dishes will have been focus grouped and market tested to insure a correlated success.

                Miso encrusted fish at Nobu in the 90's was great stuff. The safe-marketing version of the same dish at PFC is a distant relative. The question is - why would you want to have someone tell you that this is good or bad food? Why would it matter to you?

                Here. I'll review every single dish that you'll ever have at PFC or CCF: It's going to be safe. It's going to be good enough. It's never going to be the worst thing you ever had. It's never going to be the best thing you ever had. And you need a paid, well-informed critic to tell you this?

                1. re: applehome

                  Personally, I love CKF for the oriental chicken salad and a glass of Pinot Grigio. A nice lunch. Not fancy, usually too loud and service is what it is. Admittedly, I could make this salad 10x better at home. However, if I'm at the mall, or just in the area, to get something that is consistantly reliable that tastes good is....GOOD.

                  1. re: donna5657

                    I'm glad my review was spot on. But the point remains, was it really helpful in any way? If you read in a newspaper column that the oriental chicken salad was good at CCF - not great, or as good as you might make at home, but GOOD... is that a useful piece of knowledge? Wouldn't you have expected it to be just about precisely that level of good before you ever read about it? Since they thoroughly market test the product to hit your demographic (most probably), wouldn't you expect the product to be exactly as you described it?

                    If a PFC, CCF, OG, Outback, Longhorn... all were next to each other and they all offerred an oriental chicken salad, how much difference, how much uniqueness, would you expect between them? If their stated purpose is to maximize profits selling food, then their product will be made to maximize sales for minimum cost. So if one of these has deviated from the most profit making recipe, it will be a mistake which they will correct. There is, of course, some room in the corporate product evolution scheme for creativity. But it's not a creativity based on developing depths of flavors and investigating unusual combinations of flavors and textures. It's primarily a marketing effort - change the lighting, waitron uniforms, perhaps some level of food presentation. And if a change works in one, it will only be a matter of days until its in the others - that's the meaning of maximizing profits.

      2. re: Janet

        re "Chains do fill a need..." They fill a need by enriching creator(s) of the "concept," because beaucoup bucks can be made from franchising and then, possibly, taking the company public if the "concept" catches on. Chains fill a need by creating jobs, not just for people directly employed by the the individual restaurants but also by an entire corporate hierarchy that continues selling franchises and marketing and promoting the "concept,"plus the office and executive corps to sustain all that. Chains fill the need of commercial property owners to lease office space for headquarters and sometimes regional offices. Chains fill the need of ad agencies, commercial producers and art directors, actors, musicians, etc. that big companies can afford but independent restaurants cannot, all in order to convince a gullible and unsophisticated public that the "concept" prepares and serves food worth eating.

      3. I also read this review this morning and totally agree with you. Not that you can't enjoy a meal in these types of places but it's getting to the point that you don't know where in the country you are because all of these chain restaurants are the same in every city. I think for a lot of people who don't eat out all that often like to know what they are getting in terms of quality before they get there. Consistency is one thing that most of the better chains get right.

        Personally, I'd rather be more adventurous and take the good with the bad but enjoy the journey of trying new places.

        1 Reply
        1. re: baseballfan

          "it's getting to the point that you don't know where in the country you are because all of these chain restaurants are the same in every city"

          It's interesting that you say that because the Stoneridge Mall in Pleasanton, CA is identical to the Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, Virginia--same mall design. And, they have many of the same stores in the same location. The Cheesecake Factory just opened up at Fair Oaks Mall, too. Todai is another smaller chain restaurant common to both. Oddly, due to a merger here, they both have two Macy's, too. You can't tell what coast you're on.

        2. If you mix a PF Chang's with a Cheesecake Factory you get a Claimjumper. None of these restaurants are about food. They are about corporate development and marketing. (Just read the franchise restaurant industries' annual report. It's fascinating how they look at people and market to their lowest common denominator.) The only benefit these franchise restaurants provide is they keep the people that don't care about food out of the way of those of us that do.

          1. It's really sad, when you consider you could have dinner at a really good restaurant for $100 for two. I think someone just posted his three-course meal at Chez Panisse Cafe was $96 for two.

            It's one thing when people argue for chains as filling a need for decent, inexpensive food, but Cheesecake factory isn't cheap!

            1. Im struggling with the $100 bucks on 2 people at Cheesecake Factory? HUH? Five people, maybe. Two? As if!

              2 Replies
              1. re: chelleyd01

                I thought the same thing initially, but if they had a couple of appetizers, two entrees, wine/cocktails, and dessert I can see how it would be easy to spend that much. Having the ability to eat that much is another issue entirely.

                1. re: ArikaDawn

                  It'd be a big to-go box, for sure - $100 buys a lot of food at Cheesecake Factory.

              2. I have no problem with turning a critical eye on chains. The article was even interesting, and that's what a writer should be doing. That said, I will never understand why people stand in line for these places. I was stuck in Tulsa once and the only place nearby that was open late was Outback. I have no idea why people go there...the food was awful.

                I had an appetizer at Cheesecake once, and it was OK. At those prices, I'd never eat there. As for PF Chang's, it's awful.

                The only real chain (as opposed to mini-chains like Chicago's Rosebud) that I ever actually liked is Macaroni Grill. Cheap, good, simple and unpretentious.

                But, as many here have noted, the job of a critic is to discover and illuminate the new, the offbeat, and the excellent. There's a so-called paper here in Chicago called RedEye that essentially reviews bar food for 20-somethings. It mainly reviews how large and cheap the drinks are. That's where food writing will go if the lowest common denominator becomes the guiding rule.