“My partner and I are flying to Florida this weekend to do the dad visit. This means he’ll make endless attempts to convince us to go eat at the Cheesecake Factory—his favorite place. He likes the big portions (and the big calories, I think). I, on the other hand, frankly have not been a big fan of chain restaurants. So we’re both a challenge to you, I suppose!”
This was the start of a letter I sent to Seasons 52, the restaurant that a trustworthy, food-writing friend had recommended in Boca Raton – which we both jokingly agreed is a culinary wasteland. My Dad’s favorite restaurant really is the Cheesecake Factory. I don’t know why people wait upward of an hour or more to eat there; the word “factory” alone should be enough to dissuade any discerning diner. Then again, given the lack of choices in town (it’s replete with plenty of the usual chain restaurants, as well as overpriced joints serving bland food), the Factory might not be all that bad. Me? I’d rather join the earlybird crowd (listen closely, and you can hear: “the mustard’s too spicy,” “the mustard’s not spicy enough,” “the chairs are too uncomfortable,” “here’s a picture of my grandson…he’s a rich doctor”) for a mediocre meal at one of the many Jewish delis scattered about the Pepto Bismol-colored strip malls. Life in Del Boca Vista truly is like a Seinfeld episode.
Back to the letter. One of the managers was quick and kind in accepting the challenge, inviting us all in for lunch. Mind you, this was the day after our marvelous meal at Naoe, so it would be hard for anything to compare.
The big test was my dad. How would he like the food, and would it be enough, given the concept: “Fresh, seasonally inspired cooking with every item under 475 calories.” Would he insist on going to Cheesecake Factory for a megacaloric (I see a red line under that word; if Cheesecake Factory claims to make good food, I can make new words) dessert slice on the way home? And would I be right there with him? After all, we were all picturing dainty tea sandwiches, bites of food on utensils, and the like.
Wait a sec. Still contemplating the menu, out comes a plate of food on utensils. Our fears are coming true. But the chef quickly explains that he’s welcoming us with an amuse bouche of crab. Whew!
Turns out my dad wasn’t merely being polite when he said he enjoyed the food. Not much of a seafood eater, he ordered scallops and polished them off, and even approved of a taste of my trout. Granted, we got a bunch of dishes before the entrees – enough that the normally ravenous dessert eater was satisfied with his small sweet in a shooter glass that ended the meal. (He could eat with his eyes, enjoying the delicious display of all the dessert choices before choosing just one.)
Most interesting was his perceived value of the meal. My dad is good with money and numbers in general, so when I asked him what he thought the bill was (full disclosure, in case you didn’t pick this up by the word “inviting” above: we were comped the meal; I got an itemized bill, as always, for record-keeping and to calculate a tip), he was surprised to have guessed almost double the actual cost.
And most fun, he got to see the life of a restaurant reviewer*, predictably appreciating it while finding it a bit annoying. My dining companions quickly learn that table visits from chefs and managers feel VIP-like, but mean less privacy and lengthy meals. Waiting to eat while I take pictures is tiresome. And then there’s inevitable critiquing while dining – though I sometimes try to take brief notes under the table and then evaluate the experience after leaving the restaurant.
Speaking of which, I have to say that the meal wasn’t bad. I appreciate the concept, and while I still dislike chains (Seasons 52 is part of the Darden Group, which includes Olive Garden and Red Lobster – two restaurants I dislike almost as much as Cheesecake Factory), I wish this restaurant well, hoping it helps to further build a nation’s increasing interest in food, farming, nutrition, and general health. The menu offers good variety and the food is fresh and flavorful, albeit a bit underseasoned for my taste. I wondered if this was done deliberately for the sensitivities of the senior set, but I’m told the food is consistent throughout the chain.
Food fanatic that I am, I’d prefer to bail on Boca and drive south for a cheap Cuban sandwich or a special treat, kaiseki-style meal. But for others, Seasons 52 offers a welcome, healthy alternative to the heart-attack-on-a-plate portions of meatloaf followed by obligatory slices of cheesecake served at the nearby, Factory-like restaurants.
*A non-anonymous reviewer, in this case. There’s now a lot of discussion about the nature of reviewing, and I’ll likely add my thoughts sometime soon.