789 W. Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego
“You’ll just have time,” says Carla. “You can make it!”
Lord. I’m tempted. I called Carla to see if she wants me to bring a snack back to the ranch. It’s around quarter of six.
“Where are you?” she asks.
“Gaslamp trolley stop.”
There’s a pause.
“You calling me ‘Cheesecake’?”
“No. The new Cheesecake Factory. Two stops up, right? Get us some cheesecake. Bring it back! I’ve eaten. But you have something. Eva and I went there. Five-dollar happy hour. Ends at six. Hurry!”
“Depends on the trolley, Molly.”
Two minutes later, up rolls one of the new Green Line trolleys. Gets me up to Seaport Village by 5:55. Jump out, race to the lights, hit the button. Harbor Drive is a racetrack right now.
It’s a minute before the magic hour by the time I puff in through the doors of this ginormous new Cheesecake Factory. It’s on the corner of the Old Spanish Police HQ, what they call “the Headquarters” since the big spruce-up last year.
This is a Monday night, but guess what? The place is crowded. Tons of people in the flame-heater-warmed patio, and inside, a way-big space, divided up into different areas, is filled with people, too. It’s all golden and warm, with swirling ceilings and abstract murals and lamps everywhere.
“Anywhere on the black marble,” says this waiter, when I ask where the happy hour is. I see two rows of tables on a long, black marble floor with a long black marble bar on the left. So I zip straight up to the last free bar seat.
“Yes, of course you can,” says one of the two lady barkeeps, Heather (the other’s Nadine, and they look like sisters), when I ask if I can still get their happy-hour deals. Which is nice, because you know the witching hour has passed by at least a couple of minutes already. She lays out a paper tablemat, brings heavy silverware in a cloth napkin, and leaves a happy-hour menu.
Wow. Nothing skimpy about this menu. Sixteen items, five bucks each. “Roadside” sliders, hot spinach and cheese dip, avocado eggrolls, sweet corn tamale cakes, southern fried chicken sliders, Tex-Mex eggrolls, fire-roasted fresh artichoke, crispy crab wontons, Vietnamese shrimp summer rolls…and on and on.
“We had the Factory Nachos,” says Nigel, my neighbor. Aussie. “They’re a meal! You’d never get this in Australia. Appetizers? Most likely chips, mate. Free, but that’s it. And five bucks for a plate like this? Unheard of in Yarrawonga.”
“Where we’re from. Yarrawonga. Name’s Aborigine. ‘Cormorants’ nesting place.’ Up the Murray River from Melbourne. Wine country.”
Here comes Heather. I go for the Factory Nachos, “tortilla chips covered with melted cheeses, guacamole, sour cream, jalapeños, and salsa.” Standard enough, but I have always loved that big mess.
And then, what the heck, I ask for the Southern Fried Chicken Sliders (“Crispy fried chicken breast on mini-buns, with lettuce, tomato, pickles”). I know. Should ask for a salad, stick with the program. I see in the regular Small Plates menu they have a “Santorini Farro Salad” for $5.95. Farro’s a kind of crunchy wheat combo. The salad’s a “fresh light combination of farro, cucumbers, tomatoes, beets, red onion, feta cheese and tzatziki, tossed with vinaigrette.” But no. Heather says sliders’ll fill the belly a lot more.
(Trivia question: Why are sliders called “sliders”? Seems the name came from the Navy. At sea, when the chefs were cooking them and the ship was rocking and rolling, these miniburgers would slide about the hot grill.)
I could get a local beer for $4 or wine for $5, but gotta work tonight. So coffee it is ($2.95).
Ten minutes later, when the two plates arrive, ten bucks’ worth, I realize how crazy over the top I went. The nachos come on this big oval entrée plate gloopy with melted cheese, and with ice cream scoops of guac and sour cream separated by salsa. The sliders? Four of the suckers. And no way small. With a bowl of mayo on one side and 1000 Island dressing on the other, these really are a total meal in themselves. Even for me.
“Basically the happy-hour items are the regular dishes, but with half off the price. We don’t downsize the food,” Nadine says. “Not skimping is one of our things.”
Turns out the founders were Oscar and Evelyn Overton. Evelyn started baking her cheesecakes back in the ’40s in Detroit. In 1972 they moved to L.A. In ’75 they started delivering to San Diego. Now their successors have — get this — 170 Cheesecake restaurants around the country.
“We just wouldn’t get this sort of five-dollar deal back home,” says Nigel. He’s here for an education convention. His buddy James works with ESPN. “I used to have a pub, back in Yarrawonga. We had to provide snacks by law, just to line all our customers’ stomachs. But this kind of ‘small’ plates, for five bucks? No way.”
When you consider, their regular burgers go for about $12, and, say, filet mignon comes in at $30, this is a bar-gain. You gain, long as you’re at the bar, heh heh.
I can’t finish. And here’s the other nice thing: other places make a rule that with happy-hour dishes there’s no take-out. Here: no problem! I haul half the nachos and most of the sliders out in a bag. That’s gonna mean two meals for ten buckeroos.
I arrive home loaded. Conquering hero, right?
“Uh, the cheesecake?” asks Carla. “Where’s the cheesecake? You haven’t forgotten the cheesecake? The whole…point…Aaargh!”
I swear. From Hero to Zero in one. Women. They should marry elephants.
- Prices: Five-dollar happy hour items include “Roadside” sliders, hot spinach and cheese dip, avocado eggrolls, sweet corn tamale cakes, southern fried chicken sliders, Tex-Mex eggrolls, fire-roasted fresh artichoke, crispy crab wontons, Vietnamese shrimp summer rolls; regular items include Santorini farro salad with beets, feta, tzatziki, $5.95; burgers, about $12; filet mignon entrée, $30
- Hours: 11:00 a.m. – 11:00 p.m. daily (till 12:30am Friday, Saturday; open 10:00 a.m. Sunday); happy hour 4:00-6:00 p.m.
- Buses: All downtown
- Nearest Bus Stops: Broadway and Kettner
- Trolley: Green Line (Best option)
- Nearest trolley stop: Seaport Village