For half a century, Red Lobster has reigned over the nation’s premier dining category—Chain Joints on the Frontage Road by the Mall—towering above such foes as Outback, Olive Garden, and Applebee’s. But it’s been years since you’ve graced its door, hasn’t it?
You, after all, are an influencer, a tastemaker, an early adopter. Your Instagram page is curated with photos of craft butters, upcycled Filipino longganisa, and lots of stuff involving bowls. Your legions of followers would be legion no more were you to show favor to corporate food served next to a freeway in Roseville.
Yet in the secret recesses of your heart, you long for comfort—chow born for simple pleasure, its intentions no more than a full belly.
So leave your phone behind. Tell friends you’re visiting an aunt with leprosy. Wear a disguise if you must. We’re going to Red Lobster, America’s home to comfort seafood.
You will enter a womb of dark woods, framed nautical flags, and picturesque lighthouse scenes rivaling anything you’d find in a Holiday Inn Express. It’s totally authentic. Or as authentic as one can get when buying in bulk from a restaurant-fixtures distributor in Harrisburg.
You will be seated by an old-school waitress. She is fleet of foot, polite, but not predisposed to light chatter. Maybe because you’re wearing a ski mask.
The menu is the approximate size of a high school football playbook. All the basic wines, brewskies, and “signature cocktails” are represented, whimsically abetted by Malibu Hurricanes and Caramel Appletinis.
But it’s a long drive back to Uptown. You order a Coke. Its subtle notes of high fructose corn syrup and phosphoric acid ring effervescent and crisp, an explosion of 1,000 senses.
You pair this with a Caesar salad, featuring iceberg lettuce and shaved cheese of indeterminate lineage. There is no romaine on this day, for rumors suggest it may be trying to kill you. Besides, you want the full experience. And there’s nothing more seafaring than lettuce named after something that can take down a cruise ship. The salad is delicious.
You will also notice that a basket of famed Cheddar Bay Biscuits has arrived, gratis. These gems—so sumptuous they were once used as official currency in the pirate era—are a soft, buttery concoction of garlic and Old Bay-style seasoning. Their inventor is considered a deity in certain megachurches of the rural South.
But dive deeper into the playbook, and you realize the menu is loaded with healthier, pricier items like 1-1/4 pound live steamed lobster ($33.79) and a rock lobster and steak ($37.49). “Today’s catch,” hustled straight to the kitchen from the wharves of Roseville, includes Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout.
You wisely take a pass.
Pro tip #1: The smart diner always orders fried food, since only the best chefs are assigned to match wits with a tub of gurgling-hot oil.
Pro tip #2: The quality of a dish can be discerned by the stoutness of its name. That’s why anything called “lumberjack” or “hungry man” makes for a superior breakfast. But since we’re in a nautical setting, you’ll choose the “Admiral’s Feast” ($20.49, $15 on Tuesdays).
As you may be aware, the admiral is the second-most figure of import on a ship—after the guy who always seems to have weed even when you’re 274 miles out to sea. “Feast” derives from an ancient Turkish phrase meaning, “the upside of sacking an Ottoman village.”
It will arrive at your table in less than 10 minutes. You suspect Red Lobster is entirely staffed by people who moonlight as ambulance drivers.
You take a moment to behold the largesse: Mounds of fried ocean creatures brim from a giant plate, arrayed in the monochromatic beige recommended by school nutritionists from 1950s Alabama, back when science was still respected. The only coloring is a side order of broccoli, a nod to pacifying insurrectionists in your gastrointestinal unit.
One bite of shrimp will convert you to a willing seaman in the Red Lobster Navy. It’s lightly breaded, meaty, perhaps large enough to serve as a racquetball paddle, exquisitely proportioned with seasoning and grease.
Then come the filets of flounder, the sea’s most underrated fish. Only the truly lovable can earn a name like flounder. He’s the guy other fish call when they need an emergency babysitter, or when their car won’t start at 3 a.m. He’s been repeatedly offered endorsement deals by Mrs. Paul’s and Long John Silver. But he always declines, saying he just isn’t that into money.
And he’s fully committed to being your supper—tender, moist, a bonanza of goodness in every bite.
By the time you reach the scallops, your stomach is in mid-balloon. You consider offsetting the bill by leasing yourself to the Macy’s Parade. Fortunately, scallops are like a miniature crustacean hockey puck. You soldier on, your palate aroused by their luscious squishiness.
But you can eat no more. Nature and arterial safety considerations require a ceasefire. And just in time. All that’s left is the broccoli—Broccoli? WTF were you thinking?—and clam strips, the one thing Red Lobster does not do well.
They’re overcooked, rubbery, and taste like fried tendons, as if fished from the garbage behind an orthopedic surgeon’s clinic. If you happen to be an international spy, they’re sturdy enough to stab out someone’s eye should you ever be captured by Iranian intelligence. Yet your vocation does not require stabbing, does it? You find them unworthy of your to-go container.
Not that it matters. You have now packed an estimated 38 pounds of fish and grease down your gullet. You feel as if you won’t be hungry again until April. You’re satiated in the way of empresses of old.
For one brief moment, you are seated on your rightful culinary throne, ruling over a kingdom free from the obligations of fashion and status.
You are happy... though with one minor consideration: Will you still fit behind the steering wheel of your car?