It's a tricky time for plan-ahead, chain-dining daters. They have six weeks to figure out where to make Valentine's Day reservations, and despite the fact that dining out on February 14 is way more hassle than it's worth (big waits even with reservations, crowded dining rooms, flustered staff, long ticket times and artificially inflated prices on booze and dining packages), people still insist on doing it. But where?
Red Lobster, maybe? It's a solid, mid-range, mid-priced seafood place that's on a surprising number of foodies' guilty-pleasure lists. Besides, everybody knows that feeding your date lobster shows that you really care -- and where you go may determine what you get for dessert.
The last time I'd had a meal at a Red Lobster, Bill Clinton was president and I could afford to suck down lobster tails like they were Arkansas crawdads. Not so much today, but I thought lunch there still looked like an appealing option because -- like so many prominent chain restaurants these days -- it offers cash-strapped diners deeply discounted offerings. There are the current $7.99 lunch specials, the lunchtime Quick Catches menu, and new Maine Stays entrees under $15, which come with a choice of salad and unlimited Cheddar Bay Biscuits, which everyone who has ever been to a Red Lobster knows is half the reason to eat there.
I was impressed with the variety of the less expensive entrees. The various sub-menus included choices ranging from shrimp tacos to seafood-stuffed flounder to classic fish & chips, all the way up to blue cheese sirloin and Chesapeake shrimp with crab. I was definitely interested in a couple of the "premium sides" (available for an upcharge) of Langostino lobster baked potato or mashed potatoes.
I ordered the Coastal Soup and Grilled Shrimp Salad and Sailor's Platter off the lunch menu -- with the lobster mashers upgrade -- and, as an afterthought, the Lobster-Artichoke-and-Seafood Dip off the Seaside Starters menu. I asked for the dip in a sourdough bread bowl so I could try and recapture the lobster fondue magic from Lobsterfests of long ago, and also because I recall the sourdough bread there as being above average.
Another plus with lunchtime dining is that the service is usually much better, with baskets of delicious cheese biscuits delivered like clockwork. After spending a lot of time in fast-casual places, I tend to forget how good the service can be in sit-down chain restaurants.
So far, so good for my recommendation of Red Lobster as an alternative to having non-cheap dates get cases of the angries at being taken to Chipotle for chips and guacamole, or having to spend rent money on a lobster cocktail and oysters at Elway's.
Bill Darden and Charley Woodsby gave restaurant-birth to the first Red Lobster in Lakeland, Florida, in 1968. By 1970 it had expanded to five locations, and was purchased by General Mills, leading to massive expansion in the 1980s. In 1995 Red Lobster, Olive Garden and its other sister chains were bought and turned into the publicly-traded corporation Darden Restaurants, Inc.
I have occasionally wondered if all of Red Lobster's fill-in-the-blank seafood fests actually helped sales or hurt them, and I found a tidbit about the 2003 all-you-can-eat snow crab promotion being a complete f*ckfest, with the promo being badly timed to coincide with the price of crab legs being at a high point, and management not taking into account how long customers' butts occupied seats while their hands kept cracking crab legs, so apparently the restaurants had full lobbies with huge waits. Red Lobster ended up in the red that quarter, and the company president resigned.
Yeah sticking to easy-peel shrimp was probably a strategic move. Avoid the crabs, Red Lobster.
My Lobster-Artichoke-and-Seafood dip arrived in a quick ten minutes, and the bread bowl pieces were way better as dippers than the slog of oily, chilly, multi-colored tortilla chips that are the official accoutrements. The dip was a little thick but pleasantly crab-laden, and ordering it in a bowl really makes for an appropriately romantic appetizer, since couples can feed each other little bits of drippy bread.
The entrees came fifteen minutes later, and the Sailor's Platter looked a little less bountiful than in the picture -- damn you, close-up shots! -- but was still plenty of food for the price. I got four small fried shrimp, six shrimp scampi, a broiled tilapia fillet and my side of Langostino lobster mashed potatoes. The poached tilapia was prepared well but boring in its sprinkle of Old Bay seasoning; the shrimp was all standard-issue Red Lobster, unchanging from every other plate of shrimp that I remember. But the oval dish of perfectly whipped -- with a couple of lumps to indicate they are real -- potatoes was slathered with a super-rich lobster sauce filled with the tiny lobster tail-meats.
The soup and salad both exceeded my expectations, and since Red Lobster has now followed the non-chain seafood restaurant trend of using oak to grill everything, the shrimp on my salad were far better than the meh-boiled ones I remembered. I'd ordered the lobster bisque in another sourdough bread bowl, which might have been too much bread. And the soup quickly became too much, too: It was rich -- almost as rich as the lobster sauce on the quickly-consumed mashed potatoes -- and I suspected that the soup and the sauce were both heavily augmented with seasoning base or a mix.
On the flip side of that, a Valentine's date might be easily impressed by so much lobster.
I cruised the dessert menu, but there was nothing interesting -- just the yawn-heavy trifecta of key lime pie, cheesecake and something made with a chocolate chip cookie and ice cream. Please update the dessert menu, Red Lobster, especially if you want to be taken seriously as a romantic meal spot.
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Then again, forget Valentine's Day. I'll be going back to treat myself to another romantic lobster-lunch for one.