Just the other day, a friend of mine was commenting on the strange disappearance of "Old People Restaurants" like Lyon's and Denny's. I still see Denny's now and then, but the Lyon's chain must've been built upon an adjustable rate mortgage or something, because the skeletal remains of its Mike Brady–designed dining rooms are all that remain. It is quite possible that its largest customer base, the cottage-cheese-and-hamburger-patty over-90 crowd, all died, finally reaching the dregs of that bottomless cup of coffee we call life.
Chain restaurants are like a girl's hair in high school. Basically, most women still wear their hair in some variation of what they had when they were a teenager. S.F. is more cosmopolitan, but I guarantee it that if you go to your high school reunion in Chippewa Falls, Wis., you will see chicks with the exact same hair they had 20 years ago. It's the same with places like Lyon's, that at one time were swingin' diners for the Fonzie set, who then remained loyal customers for life.
This means that restaurants like Applebee's, which generally cater to the middle-aged, working-class set, will be associated with "grandma" when their current customer base grows old and starts to drag the grandkids there. The geriatric torch is slowly being handed to them; just give it some time.
As you can see, I have spent far too much time thinking about this stuff, but my current focus is on the fate of fancier chains, like P.F. Chang's, Elephant Bar, and the Cheesecake Factory. They all have a certain appeal – usually it's a menu so big that it can be used as a pup tent. They also have bars attached, something that Denny's still hasn't figured out. (Although it must be said: The joint is still always full of drunken people, especially the 24-hour ones.) These places appeal to younger families, who don't see them as staid, played-out corpse cafeterias. But their day will come, O very young one. Oh yes, some day the Cheesecake Factory will be as dated as a John Hughes film.
Our Cheesecake Factory is on Geary, atop the Macy's building. You might never have even noticed it; I hadn't until I saw it behind a rabbi on TV who was lighting a gargantuan menorah in Union Square to counteract the giant Christmas tree. It was almost as if the Cheesecake Factory was sponsoring the event, since its sign seemed to encase his whole head.
I have since gone to the bar there on a few occasions, especially when I want to get away from San Francisco without going very far. Once inside, you will find yourself transported into any cheesecake factory, anywhere. ... It's that magical. For one thing, there is absolutely no one inside who lives in San Francisco, save the staff. It's all tourists. Go ahead, close your eyes and imagine that you are in Boise. Also, the place is exactly the same as the one I have been to in Marin and the one I have been to in Anaheim. The layouts may vary a tiny bit, but in general they all have the same characteristics. Everything is big, bold, vaulted, gilded. The staff wears all white and is encouraged to suggestively sell their way into the largest tab possible.
The bar at this location is inviting, decadent, and opulent, in a, well, cheesecake kind of way. There is a veritable wall of booze, and a surprisingly good selection of beers. Like most chains, they push the RazzleDazzleSnazzle–type drinks, which are generally variations on the mojito, margarita, and martini. "Let's go with this pomegranate thing," says some guy in corporate, and the next thing you know, every Jamie and Jordan from here to Louisville is shaking jiggers of jejune joy for wide-eyed imbibers.
I can't tell you how soothing I find all of this. I realize that it is other people's idea of sheer hell, but for me, I find the generic familiarity of it all to be quite fetching. I can even deal with the crowds at this place because I can usually find some open seat at the bar, and I also love being squished between out-of-towners. One time I found myself listening to a family who was pleasantly shocked that San Francisco had 7-Eleven stores. This last time, I was huddled amid Spaniards and an American couple who were silently staring out at everyone else. Either they had had a long day of flirtatious debate and discussion and were taking a break, or they fucking hated one another.
My bartender was a shining example of the corporate ideal – genuine, precise, just chatty enough to engender a folksy charm. This place is indeed a factory of cheese. I cannot wait to bring my grandchildren here.
When I got home, I jotted down some notes for this column, and I checked the Cheesecake Factory website for more info. I highly recommend you scoot your browser to it immediately. On the home page you will find yourself face to face with a pretty blond woman, who will welcome you to the restaurant and invite you to look around in the bar and the bakery. After her spiel she stands there, rocking from foot to foot, her eyes smiling and then looking down and then up, then more rocking. It is an awkward silence, but the video continues with it – forever. You can keep her there, locked in a moment with you alone, for all eternity. It's the same in the bar and the bakery – a young buck invites you to sit down and have a mojito, then he shuts up and just stands there, waiting, moving slightly, holding his smile, looking away and then back. A girl in front of a case of cheesecake clasps and unclasps her hands, explaining the pleasures of dessert, and then remains, smiling, casually clasping and unclasping. I left the room and refilled my coffee, then came back and she was still standing there, staring at the camera, patiently perky and at the ready, her smile waxing and waning. She would always be there to escape to, predictable and friendly, just like the Cheesecake Factory itself.