Why Does Anyone Eat at Red Lobster?

I ventured into the land of chain dining to find out.

When my co-editor Marion and I travel to conferences, we’re on the same page: We’d rather talk to locals, pay cab fares, or troll around sketchy neighborhoods looking for restaurants than spend one dime or one calorie at a TGI Friday’s or Chili’s. I live in Collingswood, a town known for its BYOB restaurants. I can be in Philly in less than 15 minutes, where a plethora of cuisines await. I can even be at the Jersey Shore in under an hour, and have day boat scallops while overlooking the water where they were caught.

So whenever I pass Buca di Beppo, Olive Garden and Applebee’s, I wonder: Why do so many people cling to the familiar rather than explore something new?

Recently, after seeing a commercial for Red Lobster’s “Lobsterfest,” I decided to flip this on myself. Why not explore and see why the chains survive and thrive?

My always amiable boyfriend simply said, “Red Lobster?” when I ask him to go that weekend. We drove to the Cherry Hill mall, both of us only having a vague idea that the restaurant was somewhere near. We drove past it, ended up at the next mall (this is South Jersey), and had to call Red Lobster to ask them where they are.

“Seriously,” said the girl who answered the phone. “By the mall.”

I kind of love that this call astounded her—that she thinks “by the mall” should be a specific enough answer.

“Yes, by the mall,” I said. “But where?”

“The mall,” she repeated, not even attempting to add more detail or mask her incredulity.

By the time we parked in Red Lobster’s big, crowded lot, far from the restaurant’s entrance, I was already longing for my hometown where I can walk that distance to a restaurant and leave my car in the driveway. I couldn’t help but long for what’s familiar to me.

We gave our name at the hostess desk and were given one of those beeper/coasters with the blinking lights. I thought of the locally owned restaurants, where they ask for your first name, often already know you, and always remember your name long enough to seat you.

I will spare you the details of the meal. Suffice it to say that the scallops seemed machine-extruded; the lobster was real enough, but curled in on itself from the heat lamps it must have waited under. The service was timed: We were greeted, beveraged, saladed, and entrée’d in under 40 minutes. Dinner went so quickly it was disorienting.

There were three large birthday party dinners in our section alone. The service staff sang and brought out cake after cake. I wasn’t sure if the repetitive birthday song was depressing, or the most life-affirming thing I’ve ever seen.

I won’t be going back to Red Lobster, and I don’t have plans to go to Outback or Applebee’s, but I think I get it. When I wander around Little Italy in Baltimore or Greek Town in Chicago or Congress Avenue in Austin or the Village in New York or even Old City in Philadelphia, I can have a bad meal. I can feel ripped off. I can have bad service. With Red Lobster, you might be getting crab-cake-flavored crab cakes, but you know what will be served. The familiarity is the key to the appeal, along with the efficiency. Sure the shrimpfest isn’t quite as festive as depicted in the TV commercials, but really, we don’t expect it to be.

I realize I’m sounding judgmental, and I don’t mean to. I want to say, I get it. I’m not saying that most Americans accept mediocrity, and I don’t. Sometimes I watch predictable television or formulaic movies for the same reason: We all wander around wondering what will happen next, so sometimes, it feels good to know.