Before this past Saturday, I’d never been to Red Lobster. It was one of the few chains in my childhood hometown I hadn’t tried, and after a lifetime of curiosity, I decided it was time to see how it compared to what I assume it aims to emulate: the New England steak-and-seafood restaurants that have long punctuated my life.
Though I grew up near Albany, New York, I currently live in Vermont—a landlocked place with surprisingly good seafood restaurants—and frequently traverse the rest of New England, including its beach towns. The authentic steak-and seafood establishments found in those towns have a particular smell, and it is decidedly un-fishy. It’s more like butter and warmth. They’re intimate places, even when they’re big. You visit these restaurants to enjoy a seemingly endless meal with your entire extended family after a graduation or while you’re all on vacation together.
In terms of decor, seafood is often somehow woven in, but the theme isn’t thrown in your face. There might be some seafaring stuff (a lobster trap, maybe, or a net), but it’s tastefully understated, never cartoonish and, perhaps paradoxically, never beachy. The atmosphere is a nod to the ocean and its fruits, not to the sun and sand.
From the outside, Red Lobster has the vibe of one of these places. It’s a massive building with painted siding, big windows, and an angled roof. It certainly looks like it could stand up to the thrashing winds of winter in an oceanside climate. The restaurant’s neon sign could not be more literal: A red lobster sits above the restaurant’s name, Red Lobster, which is written in serif font.
Inside, the vibe was a little less clear. The host station had the words “Reel Fun” emblazoned on it, and the booth seating’s semi-worn upholstery was covered in woven fishes. Multiplied across the large dining room, the fishy pattern created the visual effect of diners sitting down to a meal inside an aquarium. The system of air ducts at the top of the high ceiling were painted turquoise, a color I associate with the beachy decor at Home Goods that promises to turn a suburban guest room into a seashell-studded getaway. Dividers between booths were splashed with the names of fake fisheries. A wooden sign on the wall read “Sand Bar,” though no bar was present beneath it.
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To be fair, I was perhaps incorrect to presume a New England aesthetic at all; Red Lobster was founded in Florida. Still, nestled in the suburbs of Albany, I felt a bit like I was stuck between two attempts at immersion: an unflappable steak-and-seafood restaurant and a sandy clam shack.
Working my way through the Red Lobster menu
My husband joined me for my inaugural Red Lobster journey. Before our drinks arrived, the restaurant’s famous Cheddar Bay Biscuits hit the table still warm, and they were, frankly, delicious. We each ate two, and we were immediately presented with more. I avoided eating another, but I would have kept eating them if I didn’t have several other dishes to get through. Their dusting of garlic reminded me of the crust on a Domino’s pizza, of all things.
We each ordered an appetizer, he a cup of Clam Chowder, I the Seafood-Stuffed Mushrooms, because stuffing mushrooms with tender seafood and smothering it all in cheese feels classically steak and seafood, not clam shack. My husband’s chowder lacked some depth, and the clams were so minced that in the few spoonfuls I sampled, I never had to chew one. The mushrooms, meanwhile, were very good. They arrived piping hot, the cheese was melted just right, and the stuffing was delectable, rich, and full of red pepper and (nonspecific) seafood chunks.
I’d only eaten half of one of these mushrooms, however, when more food suddenly showed up. Because I took pictures of each dish as it arrived, I have the timestamps to prove just how rapid the service was: Six minutes elapsed between the server dropping off our mushrooms and chowder and the server returning to our table with hulking entree plates in each hand. I’d just taken a bite of very hot mushroom and had to cover my mouth to let some steam escape as I tried to clarify which entree was for whom.
I got the Lobster-Topped Stuffed Flounder, which included both Maine and langostino lobster. The cream sauce was bracingly salty and buttery, and the flounder was pretty fishy, but such is flounder. For my sides, I chose broccoli, which was overcooked, and coleslaw, which was underwhelming. The stuffing was, however, quite good.
My husband got the Seafarer’s Feast, which allows one to taste a little bit of everything Red Lobster has to offer. It included a lobster tail that was cooked to the point of being a bit rubbery, which was a true bummer; the butter provided alongside that lobster tail was, like the cream sauce on my flounder, bracingly salty. There were some highlights, though. “Walt’s Favorite Shrimp” turned out to be a butterflied, battered, fried shrimp, served with a classic (and good!) cocktail sauce. The shrimp scampi was merely okay, whereas the scallops were surprisingly good. They didn’t have much seasoning but were blackened on both sides, and the char imparted a flavor I’d never had on scallops before and would like to have again.
With tax and tip, our meal for two cost around $115. We were not left with the feeling that we’d enjoyed a $115 experience, but not because everything we ate was disappointing. Instead, it’s because for that price point, it was all kind of a whirlwind. From the moment we sat down, we had food hurtling toward us practically nonstop, with only so much time to eat it at its optimal temperature.
According to the timestamps on my photos, the biscuits arrived three minutes before the drinks, and it was only another five minutes before our sizzling appetizers arrived. Six minutes later, the entrees were there. The food at places like Red Lobster (which, from a culinary standpoint, did skew more steak and seafood than it did clam shack) is heavy. Which is great, if you have time to digest it, or even take time to consume it, before you’re presented with more of it.
Speedy service like this is, in theory, an admirable feat. Yet as I raced through my appetizer and dove straight into my dinner, I couldn’t help wishing that instead of trying to quiet the heat of a steaming-hot mushroom to greet my entree, I’d had a few minutes to savor my appetizer, sip my drink, and start looking forward to my flounder. I’m sure the pace of the service is designed to turn over tables as efficiently as possible. It’s the DNA of all chain restaurants laid bare: get diners in and out, keep wait times down. Yet as we sped through our meal, I felt a bit like I was on an island—not because of the beachy theme, but because all the surrounding tables were empty.
With entrees ranging from $25-$40, it makes sense that Red Lobster is a dining experience many people reserve for a special night, be it an anniversary, a birthday, or some other celebration. And on those occasions, I would think customers are probably hoping for more than a 40-minute experience. My husband and I thought about stopping somewhere else for a drink after dinner, but we were too full to stomach it. When we got back to my mom’s house at 7:15 p.m., my seven-year-old lamented, “You’re back already?” All I could really do was shrug and agree.