The waitress at the Cheesecake Factory smiles wryly as she unloads a platter smothered by a 1-pound burrito and piles of rice and refried beans. At a nearby table, an office worker celebrating a colleague's promotion holds up a gigantic slice of German chocolate cheesecake and exclaims with amazement, "Look at this!"
Customers leave the Harborplace restaurant toting doggie bags the size of backpacks, while others line up at the door waiting their turn to gorge on a meal that alone will give them a day's worth of fat and calories.
The Cheesecake Factory makes a name selling plentiful food, but it is not alone. Restaurants and packaged-food dealers throughout the country are competing for Americans' stomachs by offering large food portions - a trend nutritionists say is causing those stomachs to get bigger.
Take soft drinks. Coca-Cola used to be served only in 6.5-ounce bottles that contained 75 calories. Today customers can drown in 7-Eleven's 64-ounce Double Gulps, which pack 800 calories each. Grocery-store bagels have grown from 2 ounces (less than 200 calories) to more than 4 ounces (more than 400 calories). McDonald's Super Size french fries contain 4 cups and 610 calories - more than two times larger than the serving that used to be standard.
Along with bigger portions of food have come bigger waistlines, said Dr. Lisa Young, a nutritionist at New York University who traces the dramatic rise in portion size to the good economy and increased competition in the food industry.
Nutritionists say the larger food portions are part of the reason more than half of Americans are overweight.
"It's been said we are killing ourselves with our forks," said Dr. Barbara Rolls, a nutritionist at Pennsylvania State University.
Today most Americans eat far more than the portions recommended in the food pyramid established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The pyramid guidelines describe a serving of meat as about 4 ounces - about the size of a deck of cards. A serving of pasta is about the size of half a baseball.
You aren't likely to find those portions being served in a Baltimore restaurant, however.
In the competitive restaurant business, no chef or owner wants to be viewed as being stingy.
"I felt uncomfortable doing extremely small portions," said chef Mark Henry of the Oregon Grille in Hunt Valley, where he offers customers an 18-ounce steak.
"That is a lot of protein to consume in one meal," he concedes. "We have a lot of customers taking home doggie bags."
Baltimore residents expect big servings, local chefs say. "They want to feel like they're overfed," said Brian Boston, who serves his customers at the Milton Inn a 14-ounce New York strip steak and an 8-ounce filet mignon.
"We are a still a blue-collar city, and they want larger portions. They are working people," Boston said.
A few restaurants that experimented with nouvelle cuisine, serving small portions, failed because customers wouldn't order five or six courses as restaurant owners expected, Henry said.
Henry believes customers want to see large portions when they take relatives, friends and clients out to dinner. "What registers is when they get that plate in front of them. That is what they judge," he said.
Sylvia Chatman, who works for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development in Annapolis, celebrated her promotion recently at the Cheesecake Factory in Baltimore partly because of its reputation for large servings.
"You can't beat it," said Chatman, who said she couldn't finish her Crusted Chicken Romano. But her colleagues used words like "scary" to describe the portions.
The large sizes help bolster's the Cheesecake Factory's public image, said Howard Gordon, senior vice president for business development and marketing of the California-based chain. "That is one of the things we are well-known for," he said. The company's motto: "No one goes home hungry from the Cheesecake Factory."
Gordon said customers aren't necessarily expected to clean their plates, and if they request a take-home bag, that's fine. "You get a lot of value at this," he said.
While super-sizing has evolved in part because of increased competition in the food-service industry, gaining a competitive advantage can be tricky, said local restaurant consultant Diane Neas.
"You get to a plateau, and then it starts to hurt business," she said. "If you give such a large portion, ... you start nicking into the profits."
Yet, she said, Americans are used to thinking bigger is better - a trend reflected in cars, homes, televisions and food. But the idea is appalling to many Europeans.
"Some Europeans say the idea of all you can eat makes them ill," said Sidney W. Mintz, a retired anthropology professor at the Johns Hopkins University who studied the culture of food.
Americans have long struggled at the dinner table, he said.
"We are a people who badly need to balance our sins with our virtues," he said. "We think eating is a matter of good and bad."