“Oh Red Lobster. You are a delicious treat!” So said a Facebook friend this morning in my feed. Since I was having a hard time understanding this statement in the absence of any winky irony, I decided to take some time to consider the appeal of chain dining by way of Dead Lobster (as I’m sure teenagers and former-teenagers everywhere still call it).
Apparently my Facebook bud isn’t the restaurant’s only fan. Just yesterday, the Darden restaurant group announced it’s third-quarter financials; as reported by the AP, “Revenue at restaurants open at least a year rose 6.8 percent at Red Lobster …. That figure is considered a key performance indicator because it excludes the effects of restaurants that open or close during the year.” Darden’s Olive Garden has been struggling, though, presumably because more people think “I can just make pasta at home” than think “I can just make fried seafood and biscuits at home.”
In this piece from the Toronto Standard, John Semley considers the comforting appeal of Red Lobster. (USA-folk, don’t be scared off by his Canadian references — the writing, save a few grammatical clunkers, is worth it, even if you aren’t entirely sure what Jack Astor’s is.) As he puts it,
Tacky, faux-faded plaques with names for businesses like the AMES BOATWORKS deck out the wood-paneled walls, alongside replica oil paintings of mighty Maine lighthouses, which seem so essential to the idea of eating at a Red Lobster that they’re practically conceptually loadbearing. The result is weird, but fitting considering the marginalized place of chain restaurants like Red Lobster: the restaurant seems to exhibit a sense of nostalgia for itself…. Imagine, driving out with your best gal to the Bar Habror [sic] Bar in Kennebunkport, circa 1968, to enjoy one of those not-yet-patented Red Lobster Shrimp Caesars with a side of homemade biscuits, cheese sifted straight from Cheddar Bay! The idea itself is phantasmal, referring to something that never even really existed. But this desperately nostalgic Red Lobster restaurant concept breeds a weird sense of urgency, like you’re eating in a restaurant that’s on the verge of extinction. (The cheesy dated signage certifies this feeling, collapsing time into space, like when people talk about dying and your life flashing before your eyes instantaneously.) And while a sense of necessity may help you scarf down a pound of reliable-but-ultimately-mediocre crab legs, it also undermines what’s supposed to be, above all else, a comforting experience. Because it’s dependably delicious [a]nd because the uniform sameness of the chain itself proves reassuring….
As an unofficial followup to that piece, a few weeks ago The Onion AV Club (Toronto) ran this piece [no longer available online] by Semley, which reports his annual participation in Red Lobster’s Endless Shrimp promotion. He mentions aspects of the restaurant that draw him in regardless of the current promo (“As usual, the server was friendly, attentive, and helpful, ensuring a steady rotation of shrimp, beer, and fresh-baked Cheddar Bay Biscuits. The restaurant is an absolute joy.”), but never-ending shrimp take center stage. Where his earlier essay paid homage to the comfort of chain predictability, this one revels in the gluttonous, painful pleasure of overindulgence.
Because shrimp are slight, fairly insubstantial things on their own, it’s easy to take down a whole bunch of them before the feeling of satiation begins to bear on you in any real way. (Unless you’re one of those people who sensibly knows when to stop eating, instead of just waiting, counting on your body’s disapproving reproach to tell you, “Put the fork down, fatso.”) Personally, I took down in excess of 70 shrimp, which was on the high end for our party, but not earth-shattering or anything. Just enough to get full in a way that makes you feel both proud and ashamed—the Janus-face of crapulence itself. It’s when you get home, and the overload of shrimp and garlic-butter begins churning through your disgusting gut that the Red Lobster avenges itself on your hubris.
I’m not sold, but familiarity and plenty are two quintessential American values, so I think I understand the appeal a little better. Red Lobster in particular seems to have succeeded in part by marketing itself as a “fancy casual” place. Prices aren’t cheap — at $16.99 (here in Madison), the pick-two Create Your Own Feast is on the lowish end of their prices, and doesn’t include beverage, tax, or tip — but they aren’t approaching the nosebleed heights of high-end places. Folks can splurge on a night out without making a reservation or getting dressed up, without worrying about which fork to use, and without wondering what skate wing, beurre blanc, or almond foam are. No one will look down on you for ordering a Diet Coke with your baskets and plates full of (superficially) satisfying salt, fats, and carbs, and your car is conveniently waiting for you in the parking lot to whisk you home at the end of your meal.