When you think of Washington “power restaurants,” Cheesecake Factory probably doesn’t come to mind. But what is a power spot if not simply a spot where powerful people like to gather? As it turns out, the chain is pretty darn popular with members of the White House press corps. So when a new location opened yesterday just a block from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, it was the talk of the Blue Checkmarks.
“You think we can force this briefing to be at the Cheesecake Factory? it’s just down the block,” tweeted Yahoo! News White House correspondent and self-proclaimed “Cheesecake Factory influencer” Brittany Shepherd on opening day. When I caught up with Shepherd—who’s a friend and former Washingtonian colleague—she told me fellow political reporters started coming out of the woodwork as fans when she tweeted she might be lunching there solo. The meal was ultimately derailed by meetings, but she’s already planning at least two or three visits in the next couple weeks with fellow correspondents.
“Folks [who cover the White House] who I don’t talk to on a regular basis were so hyped. Folks from NBC and CBS and CNN,” Shepherd says. And it’s not just the press corps: “A White House staffer saw me in the hallway and said, ‘I saw your Cheesecake Factory tweet. We’ve gotta go. I love that place.’ I would not be surprised if starting Friday you saw a bunch of White House staffers take their happy hours there, because they’re going to need it.”
Liz Landers, chief political correspondent at Vice, tweeted out a photo of the comically huge menu yesterday, garnering nearly 900 likes and more than 200 retweets. Later, she says a number of political sources texted her to say they were sending it around to their friend groups. “I noticed there were some Biden people tagging each other in the responses to the tweet,” she adds. “One person wrote, in jest, that she was going to be camping out there like it was a Black Friday sale.”
Many of the political hangouts in the immediate vicinity of the White House—Joe’s, Rare Steakhouse, Off the Record—tend to have a more buttoned-up vibe. Cheesecake Factory is about as unpretentious as it gets. (Plus, it’s one of the few places with a spacious patio.) Among the sophisticated foodies who frequent the trendier corners of DC’s dining scene, the restaurant tends to be a punchline for its caloric dishes and never-ending menu. But it’s also a place that a lot of people grew up with no matter what part of the country they came from. (The company operates more than 200 locations across the US, including outposts in Friendship Heights and Clarendon.)
“I’m from California where the Cheesecake Factory originated, so growing up it was always a place where we would go for really special occasions,” says CBS News White House reporter Katie Watson says, who’s been tracking—and updating her social media followers—on the progress of the new downtown location. “TODAY’S THE FREAKING DAY,” she tweeted at the big debut.
At least a couple reporters I talked to said they were nostalgic for chains like Cheesecake from their days on the campaign trail. After a long town hall in Iowa or Pennsylvania, it’s the kind of place where journalists might gather to unwind over avocado egg rolls—a tradition curtailed because of the pandemic. Cheesecake Factory and its ilk were usually affordable enough to fit within their per diems. And perhaps most importantly, “you can get appropriately tipsy to whatever news cycle you had to endure,” Shepherd says.
Landers says there was a Cheesecake Factory near former President Trump’s Bedminster golf club that was particularly popular with the press corps. “I remember going there for dinner once in between live shots,” she says. Washington Post White House Bureau Chief—and former Cheesecake Factory employee—Ashley Parker was another fan of that location: “I disliked Bedminster duty less than most people because I was like, well, if nothing else I’ll get a few good Cheesecake Factory meals.”
Parker waited tables at the Friendship Heights location during college, including one summer where she doubled as an unpaid intern at the Gaithersburg Gazette. (Full disclosure: Parker and I know each other from our college days.)
“It gave me the confidence to try to be a journalist because I always felt like if worst came to worst, I could get a job waiting tables and freelance,” Parker says.
Another perk: her training involved sampling as much of the menu as she could stomach. “The second time I worked there, I still had to go through training, and I was so happy to get the week of free meals again,” Parker says. At one point, she had a favorite dish from every section of the menu, down to a favorite type of berry lemonade. She’s still a fan of the Jamaican black pepper shrimp and the portobello mushroom burger, but surprisingly, Cheesecake Factory is also the place where she learned to love salads.
“I used to hate salads because I thought they were boring healthy vegetables, but the Cheesecake Factory taught me that a salad could actually contain an entire crumbled hamburger and ranch and tortilla chips,” Parker says.
These days, Cheesecake Factory is too much a caloric salt bomb for her. She’d rather visit nearby Sushi Gakyu. That said, another colleague on the Post‘s White House team has already suggested they go there when they’re all vaccinated.
“If a source or a colleague wanted go,” Parker says, “I would be such a happy participant.”