This Takes the Cake 

One fake birthday, four chain restaurants, three days.

Our waitress and two of her Olive Garden colleagues threaded their way to our booth bearing a lopsided chocolate cake dolled up with poofs of canned whipped cream and a single candle. She set the cake in front of me, and everyone -- the waiters, my friends, and the customers around us who weren't smirking -- launched into a round of "Happy Birthday." I slumped into the booth, blushing and exasperated. "Guys!" I said to my friends as they applauded. "The party's on Saturday!"

It's not as if I didn't know what to expect, though. The same ritual had transpired at the next booth over ten minutes earlier.

Last week, with the real date months off, I hit four midrange chain restaurants in three days to see what kind of fun they dole out for birthdays. B-days are big business for the hospitality industry: A customer survey commissioned by the National Restaurant Association in 2000 found that 55 percent of respondents had celebrated their birthday at a restaurant within the past year, and 30 percent of those who were married had dined out on their spouses' birthdays, too.

Some chains enroll clients in birthday clubs, where they receive a discount on the special day. Others are known for their parties. I'd chosen the Olive Garden in Hayward first because my sister and I both remember enduring a proprietary, clapping-intensive song, but maybe that's an Indiana thing. Olive Garden's birthday cake, a shareable confection available for only $3.50, also stood out as far as swag went. Of the chains I called, PF Chang's, Outback Steakhouse, and Fuddrucker's don't do anything for birthday boys and girls -- though the Fuddrucker's hostess sweetly volunteered to sing "Happy Birthday" if my friends and I came in right away. Old Spaghetti Factory, TGI Friday's, Sizzler, and (if you get the right waiter) Red Lobster will bring you a sundae and sing to your table. The Burger King crown remains a favorite for the young'uns.

The food at Olive Garden was fine. And, you know, those breadsticks. What delighted me was how good our waiter was. Her lashes heavy with mascara, she looked as if she'd had a lot of fun in her time and was still up for more. She had the kind of charm that didn't feel shellacked on, and when she had to launch into the upsell patter she cracked wise enough to let us know there was no pressure behind it. "Of course, there's our Garden Salad with Italian vinaigrette," she recited at one point. "Some people come in just for the dressing. [Singsong tone shifts.] I have no idea why, though. It's just a salad."

It sounds like the start of a bad joke: Two gay men and a lesbian walk into a Hooters. The afternoon preceding my trip to Dublin to see the Hooters girls was spent in terror, and not because I was taking two other queer folks to a place where pro wrestling is considered a pussy sport. When I'd called beforehand to find out how Hooters celebrated birthdays, the host cheerily told me, "We make the person get on a chair and we have everyone sing to him, and we try to embarrass him as much as we can."

"They make you dance," my boyfriend clarified after consulting with a friend from Jersey, where Hooters are legion. "On the table."

Hooters is quite the experience -- not exactly the experience the owners probably intended, but definitely something I won't forget without therapy. The surprisingly well-lit restaurant, which looks like a rehabilitated Denny's, is coated floor to ceiling in knotty pine paneling that looks like it was stripped from your uncle's basement. Branding messages battle cross-branding messages on every surface that can hold text. What shocked me most about Hooters wasn't the Hooters Girls' outfits, which include orange shorts pulled up so tight they have to wear a breechcloth-like belt in front for decency's sake. Nor was it the twelve-year-old boy sporting a "Titties and Beer" T-shirt. What had me agog were all the women-only tables.

Yes, folks really do come to Hooters for the wings.

Eh, they're fine. My recommendation would be to go for the "3 Mile Island" sauce, which would pass for "medium" anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon. My friend Kathy snuck out at one point to whisper about my birthday to the waitress -- who, by the way, was sweet and darn attentive -- and after she whisked off our plates of steamed shrimp and fried-chicken Cobb salad she began clapping to assemble the Hooters Girls, who quickly clustered, parading through the restaurant to surround my table, where they clapped some more and chanted an official Hooters birthday cheer. I made out phrases like "We hear you're getting older," and "Sound off, Hooters ..." but that was it. No table. No dance. Not much embarrassment to speak of.

We left with stomachaches and a severe case of the letdowns. "Most of them couldn't even smile while they were cheering," I whined in the car.

"Maybe they'd had all the self-respect sucked out of them," JP dished.

"Maybe they were focusing too hard on clapping in time with each other," Kathy added. Here are three reasons the Emeryville Chevy's rocks. Number one: vegetables, which are not only plentiful but sometimes even tasty. As my third chain-restaurant meal in three days, it was thrilling to eat something other than romaine lettuce sopped with salad dressing. Number two: our waitress, who brought us soda by the pitcher and freely jumped in and out of the conversation without killing it. Number three: the free sombrero.

I knew the hat was coming, because there were an awful lot of early-July birthdays at Chevy's. At five-minute intervals, somewhere in the restaurant, the waiters would launch into another round of the branded Chevy's birthday song, which starts "Uno! Uno! Uno, dos, tres!" and ends, thankfully, soon afterward.

They snuck up on our table from behind and plopped the hat on my head before I could steel myself for the onslaught of cheer. They also set down a free ice cream sundae, topped with whipped cream and a deep-fried cactus tortilla chip, no less. All free! An emotion related to both gratitude and guilt stirred deep in my breast. I dismissed it as heart palpitations from too much Diet Coke.

I felt so emboldened -- validated, even -- by the Chevy's celebration that I had to repeat it for dinner. Two friends drove with me to Benihana in Concord, where, once again, it appeared that everyone else was fêting their birthday, too.

I hadn't been to Benihana since age fifteen, when I was wowed by the knifemanship of the cooks and the urbane sophistication of sitting at the cooking station eating a meal that looked so foreign yet tasted so familiar (Shrimp! Steak! Iceberg lettuce salad!). I could see some of the same daunted thrill in the couple next to us, two teenagers sipping Cherry Cokes on their big date. My friends and I tensed for an incident when our other tablemates, three flushed-face good ol' boys in town for a conference, were finding it hard to communicate with the Japanese hostess taking our orders. "I. No. Understand. You," one of them drawled. She smiled gamely and repeated herself.

But the three launched into a steady flow of compliments to our chef, Pedro, and the entire table applauded when he flipped shrimp tails into his hat. When the drum finally came for me, its thudding accompanied by our hostess singing a Japanese "happy song," teens and men all joined in on the chorus of "Happy Birthday." I blew out a candle nestled in the hands of a ceramic geisha, smiled for a birthday Polaroid, and tucked in to my free scoop of green tea ice cream. "Hey, birthday guy, you're going to pick up the check, aren't you?" called out good ol' boy number two.

When it comes to birthday parties, chain restaurants seem to be the Chuck E. Cheese for folks over the drinking age. It makes sense: They're moderately priced, they're loud, and no one will snarl at you if your girlfriends get a little sloppy. With the exception of the Hooters cheer -- and to the waitresses' credit, my friends and I hardly looked like we were there for good clean fun -- the waitstaff at all four restaurants seemed genuinely pleased to be pleasing us. The food they served up may have been incidental, but the good time couldn't be faked.


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