BY JARED BREY
A couple weeks ago, when the Republican Party was holding its retreat at the Loews Hotel on East Market Street, I went downtown to hang around and take some pictures of the protest that had sprung up around the site.
It was a cold day but not too cold, and when I arrived, the sun hadn’t gone down yet. Hundreds of people were huddled in the middle of Market Street, carrying signs and chanting. Because there were garbage trucks and police blockades preventing anyone from getting too close to the hotel, the nucleus of the demonstration kept moving back and forth. It went from 11th and Market to 10th and Market, down to Walnut, back up to 11th, north to Sansom, where there was another police line, then back to Walnut, and so on and so on. Most everybody was moving back and forth pretty slowly, following an unseen leader, but there were 10 or 12 black bloc people who would occasionally break into a sprint, as though they were being chased, which, from what I could tell, they weren’t.
The whole event was pretty frenetic, and it felt even moreso because that part of Center City appears only partially built at the moment. There are big projects half-constructed on Market East, and next to Fergie’s Pub, and everywhere we turned, the city looked to be pregnant with the possibility of something genuinely new.
And then, on Monday, we learned that the big East Market project will be home to an Iron Hill Brewery. Have you been to an Iron Hill Brewery? There are eleven of them in the suburbs, and one in Chestnut Hill. I am determined not to be the type of person who fetishizes some fuzzy idea of authenticity, so I will say only that it’s an OK place. Sometimes I meet my mom at the one in Chestnut Hill. Once, before the fall, I saw former Congressman Chaka Fattah dining there with his family.
So when my associate Juliana and I began the nightly ritual of discussing how to feed ourselves Monday night, I offered that we could go to the Iron Hill in Chestnut Hill. She was immediately amenable to the idea, which was a rare hit on the first swing. Once we began talking over the logistics, and griping about the prospect of a bus ride and a train ride each way, the plan fell apart. But the whole genre of the meal had been quietly agreed to, which is how we ended up at the Cheesecake Factory.
Iron Hill Brewery is distinguished from Applebee’s, TGI Fridays, and Ruby Tuesday only by virtue of being a brewery, in the same way that the Cheesecake Factory is distinguished from those places by having a lot of cheesecake. The food and the atmosphere are otherwise very similar.
I myself hadn’t been to a Cheesecake Factory in probably more than a decade, and I had never set foot in the newish location on Walnut Street, and I will admit to feeling a small thrill when we walked into the lobby and saw the two-story escalator rising up to the dining room. The hostess asked me my name when we walked in, and by the time we reached the top, a waitress said, “Jared?,” and led us to a table. The place was not very crowded, so we were seated in a large booth next to the window on Walnut Street, which appeared to me to be the best table in the house.
I had remarked earlier in the evening that the menu at Iron Hill Brewery is so large, diverse, and unedited that it often creates a rush of panic when it comes time to order. But the menu at the Cheesecake Factory is larger than any menu I have ever seen. If it were an audiobook, it might be enough for five or six hours at the gym. I initially approached it with a feeling of helpless indecision, but then I remembered that the first time I had ever gone to a Cheesecake Factory was 14 or 15 years ago in the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, so when I saw the Pit Beef Dip at the bottom of the list of Glamburgers® & Sandwiches, I knew what I had to do. Juliana had no such luck, and frantically paged through the various menus for longer than she would have liked, asking the waiter for “one more minute” three or four times. Ultimately she decided on the Veggie Melt. One could argue that, with a sandwich consisting of avocado, artichoke, roasted peppers, tomato and kale with goat, Mozzarella, Fontina and Parmesan cheeses, she simply hedged her bets.
Ultimately I am happy that Philadelphia can support a Cheesecake Factory, a Fridays, two Tuesdays, three Applebee’s, and two Iron Hill Breweries. These places have a special allure, and for a weary out-of-towner who’s not trying to think too hard, they can be a godsend. But they are not new. Their overwhelming menus are designed to serve every major dining preference and diet without appealing particularly to any. Iron Hill Brewery, which is in the midst of a private-equity-backed expansion, told Billy Penn that the Market East location will be a test case for its urban model.
One worries whether this is really the story of the whole Market East makeover. Eateries like this have very little to say about what kind of place Philadelphia specifically is, or could be, other than that as a major metropolitan center it can reliably siphon money away from hungry tourists and business travelers, and it seems like maybe Market East is just going to become another Inner Harbor-style corporate playground, which a lot of people are definitely going to read as revitalization or renewal and which, given how strange and underused that stretch has been for so long, they won’t be totally wrong about. But they won’t be right, either, in any way that feels very good.