When I turned 16, my entire family forgot that it was my birthday. It’s funny to me now in the way that all nominally tragic events are funny from a distance, but as a teenager who had internalized how important that specific age was, I was devastated, and let my family know it. “Do you want to go to Red Lobster? Or Olive Garden?” my mom tentatively asked me, after I had dramatically informed everyone that yes, I had Turned Sixteen, with nary a person marking the occasion.
We had never been to either restaurant. We rarely went to non-fast food chains, given their cost (we were a family of seven, nine if my grandparents came with us) and, in my mom’s opinion, their lackluster food. In fact, the only one we ever frequented was Golden Corral, a buffet we loved 1) because it was a buffet and 2) for its sweet rolls, which were so good that my mom would wrap as many as she could in a napkin and discreetly put them in her purse each time we visited.
I suspect that she felt the marking of what to her must have seemed like a very American tradition—a sweet sixteen!—should rightly happen at a very American restaurant, one with pretensions to grandeur. And is there a casual dining restaurant more seared in our collective imagination than Red Lobster? Okay, there probably is, but go along with me, anyway—just for a moment. As a kid growing up in a strip mall-filled part of town, and with classmates whose families would casually go to Outback Steakhouse or Red Lobster for a weekday dinner while I was stuck at home making Hamburger Helper for my two younger brothers, my parents absent due to their working long hours, believe me when I tell you I yearned to sit down and say, “I’ll have the Ultimate Feast, please.”
All this to say that dining at places like Red Lobster and restaurants of its ilk has always stood in my mind for a sort of middle-class, comfortable respectability—which is, of course, exactly what their executives schemed up in their C-suites. (You got me good, Red Lobster.) Crab! Lobster! For the masses! Cheddar Bay Biscuits! Endless Shrimp®! Endless, just like the bounty of America!
Today, of course, Red Lobster is more known for being Beyoncé’s treat of choice for her man after a good fuck, where I suspect she orders a whole plateful of biscuits because she understands the universal truth that all one wants after a sweaty sex marathon is a carb overload.
But you can understand why, when our editor-in-chief asked what restaurant I wanted to review for our Welcome to the Neighborhood series, I immediately shrieked, Red Lobster!!! As an adult, the allure of Red Lobster has faded somewhat, but inside me still lives the ghost of that annoying teenager who wanted nothing more than to be like everyone else in my neighborhood. And that ghost wanted a shit ton of Cheddar Bay Biscuits.
A “surprising” “fact” I have learned about Red Lobster is that its origins are not in Maine. The first outpost was not a much-beloved seafood restaurant in Bar Harbor that then became so popular its owner expanded beyond its initial confines, all with the goal of bringing Cheddar Bay Biscuits to the American public. Contrary to all of the lighthouse-filled artwork and maritime flags behind glass that dot the walls, Red Lobster was the brainchild of two Florida residents, Bill Darden and Charley Woodsby. The pair sold the Red Lobster brand to General Mills in 1970, which then turned it into the chain we know today, marketed as a family-friendly dining option—fancier than a McDonald’s without quite breaking the bank.
After selling off Red Lobster, Woodsby opened another series of restaurants but seems today to be most passionate about Jesus. Darden, who died in 1994, seemed like a good dude, having opened a lunch counter in Waycross, Georgia in the 1930s that refused to segregate its customers. Which is why it’s extremely unfortunate that the restaurant group that now bears his name (in 1995, General Mills spun off its restaurant business, which by then included Olive Garden, and renamed it Darden Restaurants) has become fairly notorious for some serious labor violations; according to the Restaurant Opportunities Center, between 2005 and 2016, “Darden has paid over $14 million to settle lawsuits from servers around wage and hour violations at Olive Garden and Red Lobster.” Bill Darden, wherever he is, is not happy!
The Times Square Red Lobster is allegedly the “world’s busiest” and occupies a full three floors on one of the busiest corners in Manhattan. Jimmy Kimmel and Nicki Minaj, who had worked at and been fired from several different Red Lobsters, had filmed an awkward bit here the week prior, pulling up in a hot pink limo; the sketch ended with Minaj being gifted an entire basket of biscuits. Upon entering, one of the first things I saw was a tank in which about a dozen lobsters were swimming around desultorily; one of them was flat on its back, possibly dead. Since the smattering of diners were shoving everything BUT lobsters down their gaping maws, I can only surmise that they are there to add a sort of horrific charm. I had brought along Clover Hope, Jezebel Culture Editor and a Red Lobster veteran, with me. Oddly, we were ordered by the hostess to take an elevator to the second-floor dining room, despite the presence of stairs.
Once seated, I took stock of our surroundings. The lighting was dim, the music soft, the lush green plants (surprisingly!) real as I found out when I ripped off a small leaf, despite our server’s insistence that they were fake. How do they survive in such a low-light environment? I tested the soil—extremely dry. A mystery, to be solved another time.
The decor itself—the dark wood, the paintings, the flags—was relatively new, the result of a nationwide remodeling effort begun in 2009 to give the restaurants the “atmosphere of a seaside village,” with the goal of “strengthen[ing] unit economics,” a phrase I do not understand the meaning of. What did it look like before? I have no clue, but given that the first thing I thought when I entered was “mid-range hotel lobby” and not “seaside village,” I assume that the previous incarnation looked like the Bates Motel? Perhaps unique to all of the chain restaurants in Times Square, the diners appeared largely to be locals, based on my own discerning eye as well as from brief chats I had with some diners, like 25-year-old Ryanne from Brooklyn. “The biscuits are a nice treat,” Ryanne told me, “but it’s not the reason I come.” (She loves seafood.)
Unlike Ryanne, I was there for one reason and one reason only—to eat as many Cheddar Bay Biscuits as humanly possible, after spending three decades on this planet sans biscuit, despite coexisting with the Cheddar Bay Biscuit for two of those decades. When I asked Clover to describe the Cheddar Bay Biscuit, she said they were “perfect.” After I asked her to elaborate, she had this to say: “They’re buttery, garlicky, and cheddary, all in perfect balance.”
I told our waiter, the very patient Evonda, that I was a Red Lobster virgin, eager to be deflowered. “When I started working here, I gained so much weight!” she told me. Evonda was very slender, and, I suspected, a model. “Don’t get too full off of the bread,” she warned.
We were handed an eight-page, double-sided menu, where it read, in extremely small print, that with each entree you order, you get UNLIMITED BISCUITS. I really wanted to order a dozen Cheddar Bay Biscuits and call it a day, but in the service of journalism and to really feel like I had experienced what Red Lobster had to offer, I decided to order the “4-Course Feast for $21.99,” which would get me a lot of food as well as the biscuits. I chose a New England Clam Chowder as my soup, coleslaw, Parrot Isle (???) Jumbo Coconut Shrimp, and then Key Lime Pie as my dessert, which cost an extra $2.99. Clover ordered the Lobster Bisque (an additional $1.50), the coleslaw, the Shrimp Linguini Alfredo, and like me, the Key Lime Pie.
Since I felt bad for not ordering an actual lobster, I tacked on the Lobsterita, an alcoholic beverage that I learned only when it arrived at our booth in its gigantic margarita glass is actually meant to be shared among five friends, or two people who are committed to becoming severely drunk at a Red Lobster in Times Square at 12:52 p.m. on a Tuesday. “Wow!” I said when it arrived. “I didn’t expect it to be so big,” Clover said. If I had only watched the Fallon/Minaj segment, I would have known in advance.
The Lobsterita, it turns out, would be a mistake.
Evonda brought out a basket containing four Cheddar Bay Biscuits. Finally! Originally called “freshly baked, hot cheese garlic bread” when they were introduced in the early 1990s, they were christened Cheddar Bay Biscuits a few years later. How popular are they? According to the official Cheddar Bay Biscuit hagiography, Red Lobster sells 1.1 million of the biscuits every day. One Facebook page named, simply, Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits has almost a million followers, and until it stopped posting in 2014, merely shared photos of the biscuits; 11 of my friends continue to follow the page.
I took stock of the biscuits. The outside was nicely browned, with flecks of what looked like fresh parsley. Picking one up, it was surprisingly light—a good sign. The anticipation was building. Would it melt in my mouth? Would I be transported to Cheddar Bay, a fictional place to be sure but also, so is heaven?
You know when you want something to be good so badly that your anticipation is almost painful? You know that feeling of relief and joy when it meets and even exceeds your expectations?
Yeah. I didn’t get that feeling. First, the positives. The biscuit exterior has a nice firmness to it, and the interior is indeed like a pillow. But the overwhelming flavor was salt and then baking powder. “Where’s the cheddar?” I asked. It was almost—and I say this knowing how I’m going to come off—too buttery. “I find the salt overpowering,” I told Clover, a pronouncement that she said was “sad.”
I was sad, too, but I decided to truck on. By 1:20 p.m., I had had three biscuits, and felt faintly nauseous, the metallic baking powder flavor only intensifying with time. I would have likely eaten more, but I had been steadily sucking down the Lobsterita, which probably had contributed to my nausea. Almost an hour after I had received it, it looked like I had barely touched it. Clover, who had also ordered a Lobsterita, not knowing we would only need one, said it was “good.” I agreed.
But the rest of the food we ordered was middling. Of the two soups, the clam chowder was best, as it tasted like clam chowder. The “lobster bisque” was more like a cheese dip than a soup, nary a whiff of lobster to be found. We both proclaimed the coleslaw to be “okay,” if you like your coleslaw drenched in poppyseed dressing. Of our entrees, the coconut shrimp was very coconutty, which is the point of coconut shrimp. The shrimp linguini alfredo was perfectly forgettable, as was the key lime pie, which, more sweet than tart, needed more key lime in my opinion.
Mom, if you’re reading this—you were right.
Maybe it’s fitting that Red Lobster, much like America itself, is in decline. Some tie its waning fortunes to the decline of the middle class, though maybe, just maybe, it’s also because the food isn’t all that good?
My advice? Go during happy hour, bring five friends, order some Cheddar Bay Biscuits if you must, and a single Lobsterita. That’s really all you’ll need.