On a recent Saturday night, diners dressed in suits and ties and glittery fancy dresses (theatergoers, perhaps?) sat at a table in Red Lobster. Nearby were a tired couple in jeans and sweatshirts (holiday shoppers?), and near them were a pair of young adults in slacks and sweaters (date night?)
Nobody looked out of place.
Red Lobster, a member of the Darden chain, which includes Olive Garden and Smokey Bones, has two outlets in the immediate area - one on Monroe Street, the other on Reynolds Road in Maumee. It's rare to drive past the restaurants around meal time and not spot a goodly number of cars in the parking lot.
And when the chain runs one of its specials, be prepared for a wait.
"The first night we had the all-you-can-eat shrimp special," our server, Phil, said, "people were lined up, waiting to get in."
Although the food tasted for this review came from the Reynolds Road outlet, chains such as Darden keep a strict control on menus, portions, and recipes, so except for the human element, what applies to one generally applies to all.
For the occasional diner who has no taste for seafood, the menu offers three chicken choices (counting a salad) and two steak choices (a strip and sirloin).
The bulk of the entrees, however, at one point lived in water.
Red Lobster would not have stayed in business so long without knowing what's popular, so the menu is heavy on shrimp, prepared in various ways and offered in various combinations. Also making a strong appearance are lobster, crab, and catfish.
One panel of the menu offers fresh fish, subject to availability, including salmon New Orleans (salmon and shrimp with Cajun spices); roasted tilapia in a bag; grilled rainbow trout with citrus butter, beer-battered lake whitefish. One of the nights I was there, the restaurant was out of the tilapia and whitefish, but there were plenty of other choices.
A seafood platter ($13.75) comes with bay scallops, shrimp scampi, and crab-stuffed flounder. "Broiled to perfection," the menu advertises. They need to work on that perfection part. The shrimp, six smallish ones nestled together in a dish with a garlic butter sauce, were slightly overcooked and chewy. The scallops, about the size of mini-marshmallows, seemed to have the same sauce as the shrimp, but they fared better under the broiler (or heat lamps), and the flounder was delicious.
Another platter featured a broiled Maine lobster tail and shrimp (fried or grilled; we chose grilled) for $16.99. The lobster tail was a good size, and although it obviously had been frozen, the meat was still juicy and didn't need much of the drawn butter. The shrimp, about five middle-sized ones, came on a skewer. They were shelled, except for the tails, and prepared with a light brushing of oil.
A second visit to the restaurant brought a special, lake perch, to the table, lightly battered and fried. It was quite simply delicious, some of the best we've had in the region.
Also tried on that visit were the New England appetizer sampler, with broiled lobster and crab stuffed mushrooms, bacon-wrapped sea scallops, and fried clam strips ($7.99). The mushrooms were covered with melted cheese, which often disguises the flavors beneath, but not this time. The taste of the shellfish was distinctive, and the combination of textures was pleasing. The scallops were large and juicy, and the clams were almost addictive.
This is a hearty appetizer, quite enough to substitute as an entre, which is what we did, rounding out the meal with a cup of the chicken fajita soup and a side of steamed, seasoned broccoli.
Red Lobster's entrees are served with a choice of sides, including coleslaw or salad and vegetables, potatoes, or rice pilaf. They also come with cheddar-flavored biscuits that are hard to resist.
There are few surprises at Red Lobster and no gourmet touches (unless you count the tilapia in a bag). But the chain serves up big portions at a decent quality and a reasonable price. Obviously, that comfortable scene and taste are just what diners are seeking.
Contact Bill of Fare at: firstname.lastname@example.org.