When I told friends I wanted to write about Red Lobster, they guffawed. "You're not serious? It's not a real restaurant -- it's a chain!" They weren't remotely impressed that an August New York Post story reported that pop icons Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez had been spotted dining at a Red Lobster in Savannah, Georgia. Savannah is a great food town, with several renowned restaurants, including the Crab Shack and Elizabeth's on 37th. The Big Red isn't one of them, but Ben and Jen knew what they wanted.
As for the difference between real restaurants and the mass-produced variety, I could have pointed out that Morton's Steakhouse and the Capital Grille, two of the city's more expensive dining venues, are chain operations. Who laughs about them? And even though the 35-year-old Red Lobster is admittedly lowbrow compared with McCormick & Schmick's or the Bristol, it is the largest casual-dining seafood chain in the country, with 670 restaurants in the United States and Canada. That includes the spanking new Red Lobster -- featuring the corporation's "Coastal Home" design -- going up at 95th Street and Metcalf in Overland Park, built on the site of a badly outdated 1971 model that was finally torn down last spring.
The six-year-old Red Lobster in Olathe, near the hideously ugly Great Mall of the Great Plains, doesn't boast the "Coastal Home" architecture, but it is one of the busiest outposts for Orlando, Florida-based Darden Restaurants Inc. In fact, on weekends, the wait for one of those uncloaked tables can be as long as an hour. Patrons congregate in front of the glass-paned doors (with brass lobster-claw handles) and wait patiently for a chance to dive into low-cost seafood dinners. Interestingly, though, not everything is all that cheap. In fact, the Maine lobsters lurking in the bottom of the 140-gallon tank are priced in the same league as some upscale competitors.
One recent weeknight, a freshly boiled 1.25-pound lobster at Olathe's Red Lobster was going for the market price of $24.99. The same night, the Bristol had a 1.25-pound lobster for $25, the Savoy Grill was selling a 1.5-pound version for $39.50, and McCormick & Schmick's had set a price of $19.90 a pound.
Fans of Red Lobster might argue that the restaurant includes a lot of extras with its dinners: a salad; lots of those fluffy "irresistible Cheddar Bay biscuits"; and a choice of fresh vegetables, rice or potato. Because most of the dinner entrées are priced at less than twenty clams, it makes sense that Red Lobster seems like a pearl for penny-watching diners.
And I have to confess that there are a few things I really like about the place. Those cheddary biscuits, for one, which I prefer to the Bristol's jarringly sweet drop biscuits. When I get the occasional yen for snow crab legs, they're relatively cheap at Red Lobster and don't taste like they've just been hauled out of the freezer and dumped into boiling water. One day I watched my ridiculously fussy goddaughter Roxanne -- her diet is primarily chicken nuggets and fries -- devour an entire pound of crab legs, working that shell cracker like a master mechanic. Her younger sister Alex begged for a whole lobster, but I was wary of her actual interest in the dish and made her get a plate of fried popcorn shrimp instead.
The kid glared at me after the plate arrived, heaped with little brown curls so heavily breaded and tasteless that they could have been deep-fried rabbit turds for all I knew. They'd obviously spent a few too many minutes in the fryer; I would have sent the dish back, but luckily, most modern pubescents will eat anything if it's been fried. So Alex resigned herself to dipping the crunchy pellets in lots of cocktail sauce. She nearly polished them off, too, along with a big pile of fries and a strawberry-banana smoothie. I hope she won't think back to that high-cholesterol meal when she can't zip up her prom dress in a few years.
But I could barely zip up my own trousers after sampling a few of Red Lobster's absurdly rich appetizers: oversized mushroom caps in a mound with bits of lobster and devilled crab, blanketed with bubbling cheddar cheese; a plate of rubbery, batter-fried calamari rings thrown together with far too many broccoli florets and too few red-pepper strips; and a lobster pizza on a crispy cracker crust -- which I thought was too salty and overbaked. My friends Bob and Jeanne disagreed, though. "It's delicious!" Jeanne proclaimed, reaching for the salt shaker.
In fact, many of the offerings were heavily seasoned, despite the restaurant's bland suburban setting. A flaky hunk of farm-raised tilapia, for example, was beautifully roasted in an artfully folded parchment bag with carrots, peppers and potatoes but doused with so much cayenne and paprika (and God only knows what else) that it nearly blistered my tongue.
Conversely, though, the wonderfully rich-sounding crab Alfredo -- a jumble of linguini doused with a latex-shiny cream sauce, peppers and good-sized chunks of crabmeat -- had no flavor except for an oddly chalky aftertaste on the third bite.
Bob was much happier with one of the chain's newer surf-and-turf additions. He bravely ordered a grilled center-cut sirloin with a lobster tail and righteously raved about both -- the steak was juicy and tender; the lobster was fluffy and moist. But the accompanying "home-style mashed potatoes" tasted like instant spuds to me and had the same consistency of the "whipped" taters from a 1960s TV dinner.
When I returned on a less-crowded Monday night, though, I had a surprisingly good dinner of grilled mahi mahi brushed with a lemony glaze and generously complemented with a sweet-sour salsa of fresh mango, pineapple and jalapeño. The dish was almost as entertaining as people-watching in the dining room -- a veritable ocean of mullets, bad perms and cowboy boots. Diners at McCormick & Schmick's might be scandalized if a patron strutted in wearing a ripped, sleeveless shirt and a baseball cap embroidered with "World's Greatest Stud." At Red Lobster, it's a legitimate fashion statement.
No wonder Ben and Jennifer, that trend-setting duet, had to make a public appearance there. Perhaps they'd have gone through with the wedding if they had ordered the Summer Berry Sensation, a giant margarita glass stuffed with a sugary biscuit, sliced strawberries, blueberries and a cloud of whipped cream. It's visually stunning, so little Alex applauded when it arrived at the table. But she barely made a dent in it after inhaling all the whipped cream.
We didn't see any celebrities in the Olathe restaurant, though one of the waiters did bear a slight resemblance to actor Jason Biggs, and the manager could definitely pass for Chuck Norris. In a restaurant where it's chic to be cheap, that might be enough reason to get out the autograph book and pass the biscuits.