If you go
› Where: The Cheesecake Factory, 2084 Hamilton Place Blvd.
› Hours: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-midnight Friday; 10 a.m.-midnight Saturday with brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday with brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
› Prices: $5.95 small plates to $29.95 entree
› Alcohol: Full bar
› Phone: 423-499-4447
The Cheesecake Factory is part of my heaven. Trying to get into the new location near Hamilton Place is like being stuck in purgatory.
Opened on Dec. 4, it marks the brand's entry to Chattanooga, which has a lot to do with those lengthy wait times, I suspect. That first week, I heard from a co-worker that friends committed to the quoted 90-minute weekday evening wait only to return from their mall wanderings to wait an additional hour.
When my boyfriend Jon's birthday was on a Friday, we thought we could skirt the issue by showing up at 4:30 p.m. There was already an hour wait.
Dismayed but undeterred, I decided to take a day off in order to dine there. We went at 2:45 p.m. on a Tuesday. There was a 30-minute wait.
The interior looks like other Cheesecake Factory locations I've visited around the Southeast. To me, it invokes Las Vegas and a European cafe, somehow managing to feel both garish and refined. Decorative pillars and opulent light fixtures mix with black-and-white tile floors and white wicker bucket chairs. And then there's the pastel patterned wallpaper, reminiscent of a '90s budget pizza parlor. It all combines for an aesthetic that I'd call delightfully tacky. Just walking in the door always makes me happy.
The Chattanooga facility seats 200 inside and 72 on the covered patio, though despite the unseasonably warm afternoon temperatures and abundance of overhead heaters, the latter served only as a glorified waiting room. Still, while the restaurant was apparently at capacity, it didn't feel crowded.
The signature menu is the most expansive I've ever seen. Between small plates, appetizers, salads, "super" foods, "glamburgers," sandwiches, pizza, specialties, pasta, steaks and chops, fish and seafood, "SkinnyLicious" offerings, Saturday and Sunday brunch selections and desserts, there are more than 250 items.
You can get everything from a fire-roasted fresh artichoke ($12.95) to chicken samosas ($6.95) to fried macaroni and cheese ($12.50) to sweet corn tamale cakes ($11.95) — and that's just the starters. A recent article in Business Insider says each of the chain's 200 locations has 85 different chicken dishes.
But what about the cheesecake, you ask? There are more than 30 varieties ranging from classics, like fresh strawberry, to the inventive, like Cinnabon Cinnamon Swirl featuring layers of Cinnabon cinnamon cheesecake and vanilla crunch cake topped with cream cheese frosting and caramel. Seasonal selections include pumpkin pecan, and there is the downright decadent, like Oreo Dream Extreme, which combines layers of fudge cake and cheesecake with baked-in Oreos, topped with Oreo cookie mousse and milk- chocolate icing. Most can be bought either as a slice or whole in various sizes.
On visits to other locations, it took me at least 30 minutes to even narrow down my choices, so I decided that I would treat this visit like a trip to NYC: Pick a borough to explore and stick to it. I chose "specialties," where most of the chicken dishes live.
Just like the rest of the menu, this section offers the chance to go exotic (Thai Coconut Lime Chicken: grilled chicken, snow peas, shiitake mushrooms, onions and garlic in a Thai coconut-curry sauce with cashews and mango, served with white rice, $13.95), classic (Parmesan Herb Crusted Chicken: sauteed chicken breasts coated with Parmesan-garlic breadcrumbs and herbs and served with mashed potatoes and green beans, $17.95), lowbrow (Chicken and Biscuits: sauteed chicken breasts covered with pan gravy and served with mashed potatoes, mushrooms, vegetables and buttermilk biscuits, $17.95) or highbrow (Chicken Bellagio: crispy coated chicken breast over basil pasta and Parmesan cream sauce, topped with prosciutto and arugula salad, $16.95).
I settled on two options that seemed basically the same save for the finishing of the chicken: Truffle Honey Chicken, a fried chicken breast with truffle honey ($16.95); or the Crispy Chicken Costoletta, breaded sauteed chicken breasts served with lemon sauce ($17.95). Both come with mashed potatoes and asparagus. Our server was able to explain the subtle differences and recommend one over the other. Chicken Costoletta it was.
Serving sizes are large enough that I made three meals out of it — which is good, because nearly everything on the menu borders humans' maximum recommended daily caloric intake.
It appeared as if at least two chicken breasts had been split, then butterflied and perfectly browned, giving the meat a delicate crisp as opposed to the heavier-handed fried chicken approach of Truffle Honey Chicken.
The chicken was good on its own, tender and juicy enough that Jon proclaimed it "the best chicken [he'd] ever tasted." The lemon sauce took it to an entirely different level, offering a velvety texture and a subtle citrus kick. The mashed potatoes weren't overly creamy, but they had the flavor that comes from the (heavy) addition of butter and cream, and the asparagus was perfectly cooked, flushing its green and retaining its crisp.
Similar ooohs and ahhhs were muttered by everyone around the table, whether for Thai chicken lettuce wraps ($14.95), pork belly sliders ($11.95) or the fish tacos ($15.95).
Our visit fell on the restaurant's two-week mark, so I'm not sure whether trainers were still guiding things or not, but despite being newly open, there were no kinks in the experience once we were able to get in. (Our server told us that the only time they'd been off a wait since opening day was roughly 30 minutes before closing time.)
Even with a packed restaurant, everything came out correctly and within a reasonable time frame, and our server didn't seem rushed or harried, which is perhaps another reason for those long wait times.
Whoever said "do one thing and do it well" has never been to The Cheesecake Factory. I don't know how they do it, but they manage to do everything well. I'm not sure I'll ever make it through the menu, but I plan to try. Though I'll wait until my vacation days are replenished in the new year.
Contact Jennifer Bardoner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6579.