“Oh Red Lobster. You are a delicious treat!” So said an acquaintance once in my Facebook 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 suspect some folks still snarkily call it).
In this piece from the Toronto Standard, John Semley examines what some find to be the reassuring comfort of the Red Lobster dining experience. (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 essay, The Onion AV Club (Toronto) ran a piece by Semley [no longer available online] that 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.
Red Lobster’s appeal seems to be fading for some, though, as its parent company reported weak performance in 2012. As CNBC notes, “unsuccessful promotions led to a decline in sales at its Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and LongHorn Steakhouse chains…. The decline in traffic comes despite the company’s efforts to revamp the menus and marketing for its flagship chains…. At Red Lobster, it added options for people who don’t like seafood.” Things haven’t improved much in 2013. As USA Today reports, “Darden Restaurants’ third-quarter net income dropped 18%, as it dealt with soft sales at Red Lobster…. Darden Restaurants (DRI) has been struggling to make its brands relevant again as diners increasingly head to chains like Chipotle and Panera, where they feel they’re getting restaurant-quality food without paying as much.”
I haven’t joined the (apparently shrinking) camp of Red Lobster fans, but familiarity and plenty are two quintessential American values, so I think I understand the appeal a little better. Competition from Chipotle and Panera notwithstanding, Red Lobster in particular seems to have succeeded in part by marketing itself as a “fancy casual” place. Prices aren’t cheap — at $17.25 (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.
The Conscientious Omnivore is away this week. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on December 17, 2011.