First dates are famously fraught – there’s a reason they’re the subject of many a movie scene (and group text freak-outs). If they go well, maybe they’ll be mentioned in wedding toasts and reminiscences with doting grandchildren. After all, we’ve always heard that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
And so when a list of places that women supposedly find unacceptable locations for these oh-so-important events went viral last week, people had strong feelings about it. The 30-bullet list, which was first posted to Facebook by 40-year-old truck driver Jeremy Fike, included a number of chain restaurants as well as more generic destinations such as church or “somewhere that requires a long drive.”
Of those alleged taboos, none seemed to elicit more attention than No. 1, the Cheesecake Factory. The California-born chain known for its “War and Peace”-length menu, avocado egg rolls, and gleefully over-the-top decor of Egyptian-style columns and faux-Victorian woodwork, had previously come under scrutiny by would-be daters. Last month, a woman posted a TikTok video in which she refused to exit the car at a location of the restaurant when her date pulled up to it.
“Who takes someone that looks like this to a chain restaurant?” the woman, Monique Santos, asked in the (possibly staged) video, which has been viewed 8.3 million times. “Look at me – I cannot go in a Cheesecake Factory. I will die.”
So it seems the Cheesecake Factory has been placed on the official do-not-fly list for dates, at least according to some on social media. But should it be?
Ask Brandon Armstrong. The “Dancing with the Stars” pro says the Cheesecake Factory did a pretty solid job of launching his relationship with his now-wife Brylee Ivers. It wasn’t their first choice, but the restaurant that they had picked was closed, he recalled in an email to the Washington Post. She ordered the skinny steak medallions, which was her go-to order. “Out of nerves, I said, ‘I’ll order the same thing,’ and that’s when I knew she had great taste because it was delicious.”
The pair talked for hours.
Armstrong says he and Ivers both recommend it as a date spot – the menu is so big, there’s something for even picky eaters, he notes. And the price point – “not super cheap but not too spendy,” hits the right mark. “I don’t get the hate,” Armstrong says of the online diss. “That restaurant is a restaurant for the people – you could try a new item every visit and it wouldn’t disappoint, and that’s why it’s perfect for a first date.”
Cheesecake Factory stans fans are legion. “Why you got to fight with me at Cheesecake?/ You know I love to go there,” Drake rapped in the 2016 video for “Childs Play” after his girlfriend, played by Tyra Banks, caught him cheating and left him at the table, his face covered in the restaurant’s signature dessert and some red wine for good measure. Numerous NBA players have long been obsessed with the chain’s Skinnylicious pastas and brown bread.
Another believer in the restaurant’s romantic potential is Nicholas Kraft, a Hollywood producer who co-founded with actor B.J. Novak the pop-up dining series Chain, in which Michelin-starred chef and partner Tim Hollingsworth re-creates beloved dishes from mass-market restaurants. “They’re easy to dunk on because people like to dunk on things that are popular,” he said of the online beef people have with the Cheesecake Factory.
“Everyone is trying to front on a first date – trying to seem cooler and more interesting than they are, which is why we feel like we have to do bespoke things,” he says. But the arms race of coming up with some fun, novel experience to impress dates might be futile. “What you really want,” Kraft says, “is consistency.”
Some point out that the Cheesecake Factory’s kooky decor, endless menu and lively scene are good fodder for developing the kind of easy rapport that can be challenging to get flowing at first.
Damona Hoffman, a relationship coach and author of the upcoming book “F the Fairytale,” generally cautions against dinner dates for initial get-to-know you sessions, favoring activities such as going to an arcade or a museum. But, she says, at least the popular venue offers some shared experience in the form of people- and scene-watching. “The Cheesecake Factory has a whole lot going on,” she notes. “The length of the menu and cheesecake case alone would give you tons of conversation starters.”
Kraft offers a deeper reason it might be the right place to make a love connection: Chain restaurants such as the Cheesecake Factory are often a shared experience that people who grew up in different parts of the country or with different backgrounds might share: “I could talk about how I wound up at one after junior prom, and you could tell me about a birthday you had there – that’s not going to happen if we go to whatever restaurant Eater is recommending.”
Relationship and dating coach Jonathon Aslay takes offense at the very idea of a list of destinations that men should never take a woman – no matter what is on it. “What’s the judgment that makes it a bad choice?” he asks. “In my opinion, that’s just snobbery.”
That might not have been the initial impetus for the list. Fike, the guy who created the post that kicked off the online debate, said he based his list on conversations with women in his life who said that they didn’t just want to go to a restaurant on a date, they wanted something different or unique to do. “They want some activities, they wanna be fun,” he said in an interview with GQ.
Hoffman chalks up the debate on social media over dealbreaker dates to a shift in dating habits. The long-engrained idea that a man will pick an expensive restaurant as a sign that he is trying to impress you and will take care of you is being challenged as many daters look for more meaningful clues about their potential compatibility. Dating apps that allow you to quickly swipe through your options, though, mean that people can view their choices without deeper reflection. “If you know you can have three more dates lined up by next weekend, you’re going to be quick to dismiss someone for anything that doesn’t line up with your standards,” she says.
Both Aslay and Hoffman warn that screening your potential romantic interests based on the restaurant they pick in the first place might mean you’re passing up on a good thing. “The sad part is that instead of being in a state of gratitude and openness, you’re judging a person for a choice, and in doing that, you could be bypassing someone with a warm heart who could be a great partner,” Aslay says. Besides, he notes, plenty of guys could book a table at some pricier joint, like a Mastro’s Steakhouse – but in the end, they might be really lousy boyfriends.
Hoffman has similar fears: “I think a lot of these predictable Cheesecake Factory fellas are going to get passed up when really they may make the best relationship material.”