Even the biscuits are gross.
February 19, 2013 11:33 AM   Subscribe

I need to eat at Red Lobster. What is there on the menu that a relative food snob like myself might enjoy?

A friend has gone through some rough times, and some of us are taking her out to dinner to help cheer her up. Said friend loves Red Lobster and is really excited to go there.

I've tried politely suggesting other options nearby in the same price range that I consider to be a better value for the money (I also offered to cook and host dinner at my house), but her heart is set, and this is about her, not me, so I need to go along.

I will be less resentful about having to eat at a place that I consider to espouse everything that is wrong with chain dining in America if there is some hidden gem on the menu that is actually really good.

My parameters are kind of picky:
  • I'm hoping to avoid anything pre-cooked and frozen, or straight off of the Sysco truck. This, for example, is why a place like Outback Steakhouse that supposedly cooks much of its food from scratch would be more appealing to me, whilst still being a chain.
  • I've read enough Anthony Bourdain to know that dishes like Crab Linguine Alfredo (which are 90% pasta and 10% yesterday's leftover crab all for only $19.95) are a ripoff.
  • I'd be OK with doing the whole lobster (at least I know that's fresh) but will I be overpaying for a sad, poor quality lobster that lived out the last of its life in a tiny tank with poor filtration?
  • I also don't generally eat much seafood because I live in Minnesota so it's not like it's ever really fresh and it's always so confusing to tell what is overfished or poorly farmed, or has to much mercury and all that. I do know about the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, so I'll be using that to help narrow my choices as well -- I'd like the fish to be a "good alternative" if not a "best choice".
  • I realize that this is particularly idiosyncratic of me, but I'm not a fan of cheese that tastes like cheese (gimme mozzarella or provolone and I'm fine) so the Cheddar Bay Biscuits (which seem to be a guilty pleasure of even my food snobby friends who agree that Red Lobster sucks) make me gag.
  • I don't want to do something like eating before hand and just nursing some drinks all evening either, because I feel like that would be awkward while everyone else is enjoying a meal.
The meal doesn't have to be particularly healthy: butter (as long as it's actually butter and not country crock or some hydrogenated nightmare -- what is that "butter dip" made out of anyways?), deep-fried, salty, fatty, are all good, as long as they taste good.

Money is also no object. I will be paying for my own meal, and we don't eat out that often, so if the right answer is the whole lobster at $35/lb (or whatever market price ends up being), I'll do that. I just don't want to get ripped off and be disappointed in the meal.

So, hivemind, what does Red Lobster have that's actually good?
posted by sparklemotion to Food & Drink (59 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Eat beforehand, get a salad, and tell your dining partners that you had a big lunch.
posted by elsietheeel at 11:35 AM on February 19, 2013 [16 favorites]

The shrimp is fine. It's farmed shrimp, same as you get almost anywhere else, presumably flash-frozen at the farm and then defrosted and cooked at the restaurant. Generally you can have it cooked in a variety of ways; pick the way you find least offensive.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:39 AM on February 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Get a salad and shrimp cocktail. It's hard to mess up shrimp cocktail.
posted by something something at 11:40 AM on February 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was going to suggest salad too, and if anyone asks, refer vaguely to some recent stomach upset.
posted by Specklet at 11:40 AM on February 19, 2013

Red Lobster has "fresh fish". I'd probably get whatever that is, a side of wild rice and vegetables.
posted by 2bucksplus at 11:41 AM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

My son had some grilled Tilapia when my mom took us there before Christmas. It was simple and fine. They usually have a menu of fish you can have them grill. You could check out the choices with your app.
posted by Area Man at 11:42 AM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

You know, if I were you, I would just bow out gracefully and do something else nice for this individual. I can't imagine your being able to order ANYTHING (other than, perhaps, a double shot of something strong) that would be enjoyable for you. And, I suspect your feelings about that are going to be evident.
posted by HuronBob at 11:42 AM on February 19, 2013 [49 favorites]

I had a strangely good meal at a well run Red Lobster a couple of years ago - I mean, the food was not startlingly original or amazingly high in quality, but it was all competently cooked and seasoned. If memory serves, I had snow crab legs and broccoli, and the broccoli was lightly steamed so that it was just barely tender. I was very impressed.

I think I also had french fries or some incongruous side.

That is to say, Red Lobster doesn't need to be nauseating or anything - I would take the meal I had there over the sandwich I just bought because I forgot my lunch at home.
posted by Frowner at 11:43 AM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I just looked at a Red Lobster menu -- seems like most of them serve trout. That would be my choice -- farmed, not frozen, and less nasty than tilapia. It's hard to mess up trout.
posted by neroli at 11:43 AM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm always willing to eat the shrimp--it's frozen everywhere, so what's the bfd? Don't get the lobster, as it's not really lobster. And you know--spending time with your friend at a meal she's anticipating enjoying is worth more than any gourmet experience.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:43 AM on February 19, 2013 [10 favorites]

You don't have to get seafood. They have salad topped with chicken, and there are chicken and beef and even vegetarian entrees also. Their menu of sides also looks promising: "Traditional Sides: Fresh Broccoli, Petite Green Beans, Roasted Vegetable Medley, Wild Rice Pilaf, Mashed Potatoes, Crispy Red Potatoes, Baked Potato, French Fries." You could get a steak, baked potato and broccoli, for example.
posted by payoto at 11:44 AM on February 19, 2013

The last time I was at a Red Lobster (for my sister's high school graduation, so... 2006?) there was essentially a tilapia or some other white fish filet en papillote. I don't recall what they called it on the menu, but it was obvious what it was. It was quite good, though probably overpriced.
posted by WasabiFlux at 11:45 AM on February 19, 2013

Call a Red Lobster and talk to a manager. With a little diplomacy on your part, you can get just the recommendations you require.
posted by Ardiril at 11:46 AM on February 19, 2013

I think you should figure out what your priorities are, here.

Is it to not get/feel ripped off?

Is it to eat the tastiest meal possible, even if it wasn't prepared from scratch and/or doesn't use premium ingredients?

Is it to eat the menu item that is most likely to be hand-prepared from fresh seafood?

Personally I love lump crabmeat and don't happen to care if I'm paying more than I absolutely have to, or if the pasta was nuked rather than prepared to order (as long as it tastes good, of course). Because mmmmmm lump crabmeat. For a one off meal at a restaurant I know I don't like, I'd probably go for a simple comfort like that and consider the $19.95 plus drinks, tax, and tip to be the cost of doing something nice for a friend.

If you like shrimp, I'm sure they have some kind of caesar salad + shrimp option. Get that. It'll be fine. You won't die, and at least it's not trying to be anything fancier than shrimp on top of a caesar salad.
posted by Sara C. at 11:48 AM on February 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

  • Stick with salads. There are some ok combos.
  • And avoid anything with the letters "FEST" in the item name.
  • Keep an eye on drink prices whether they be alcoholic or not (the iced tead can be expensive.)
  • Pick any restaurant in your area and check the menu. Most places will have prices listed but if not, try another location. The prices do not vary that much.
  • Smile a lot for your friend's sake. It will be over soon enough and I am sure she will appreciate the support.

  • posted by lampshade at 11:49 AM on February 19, 2013

    Honestly, I'd avoid salad at a Big American Eatery like that. Too much risk of it not being washed enough or sitting around too long and then you've got The Dreaded Hyperpoopies.
    posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:49 AM on February 19, 2013

    When I've gone there, I like the crab legs. My friends all get the whole lobster but I ... can't tear into things that still have heads attached, so I eat crab legs and shrimp.
    posted by ApathyGirl at 11:55 AM on February 19, 2013

    Wait, if money is no object why do you care if the Crab Linguine Alfredo is a ripoff? That's what I'd get in your situation; it's going to be relatively difficult to mess up and you can tinker with the flavor a bit at the table if you want/need to.
    posted by asterix at 11:55 AM on February 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

    Too much risk of it not being washed enough or sitting around too long and then you've got The Dreaded Hyperpoopies.

    Assuming the OP isn't going to the Red Lobster in Times Square, I wouldn't be overly worried about this. Most Red Lobster type restaurants are in suburban areas where lots of people eat at Red Lobster all the time and dining choice is relatively limited. If tons of people were getting food poisoning (at a seafood place, natch!), that place would be shut down in a hot second. Through mass community shunning (OMG did you hear? Jerry Olafsson got food poisoning from a salad at Red Lobster! I think from now on we should do our weekly Rotary Club lunch at Chili's) if not the health department.

    I mean, it's probably not the cleanest restaurant on earth, but between the corporate franchise culture and the nature of the business they run, I doubt the OP has to be any more wary of food poisoning than he would somewhere else.
    posted by Sara C. at 11:57 AM on February 19, 2013 [10 favorites]

    If they serve clam chowder, I'd probably go for that. I'd also be wary of the salads as someone said above.
    posted by perhapses at 11:57 AM on February 19, 2013

    Generally, if you don't want the sense that it fell of a Sysco truck, stick with the preparations that are most food like in their appearance -- grilled shrimp, steamed crab legs, and avoid anything that's breaded or overly processed into little bits like most of the appies, the salad toppings, etc.

    Their crab cakes, despite being pretty much straight off a Sysco truck, are fine, and one of the few exceptions to the 'order things that will look like food' rule.
    posted by jacquilynne at 11:57 AM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

    There are any number of things you can eat on the menu. Go to their website and enter the location you'll be visiting. Worst case, you can get a piece of fish, a baked potato, and a vegetable and there's nothing wrong with that. I know a lot about fisheries from local food activism in New England, am a Slow Food member and foodie, and even I would not overthink this single meal so much. That Monterey Bay list is perhaps misleading often misunderstood because its criteria are myopic and the fisheries problem is not really consumer-driven in the first place (it's policy-driven). Farmed fish are not a great option environmentally. But the thing is you are eating one meal that you don't plan to eat again, and this is not enough to change the entire ecosystem. Go in good graces, do it for your friend, don't make her feel bad about where she likes to eat, and if you really can't abide anything on the menu, just get a baked potato.

    But I suspect you could please yourself with a simple grilled shrimp entree (it is indeed the same shrimp as anywhere else) and two sides.
    posted by Miko at 11:58 AM on February 19, 2013 [16 favorites]

    The salad all comes bagged and pre-washed. It's the same stuff you buy in smaller bags at the grocery store, lot-tracked and scanned. And salad that sits around too long is hard to miss. Fish you eat in all restaurants is never fresh, it has to be frozen.

    Criminy, just order their healty fish meal. It's pilaf and steamed vegetables and a fish. Every single bit of it came from Sysco, and yet it is edible and relatively healthy. Or get the damn Admiral's Feast and eat shrimp and lobster and steamed broccoli. That's what I did the last time I was there. It was fine. Do or do not eat the butter substance; an ounce of it probably won't kill you no matter what. You'll live and your friend will have a nice dinner.
    posted by Lyn Never at 11:59 AM on February 19, 2013 [18 favorites]

    Fish you eat in all restaurants is never fresh

    Definitely not true on the East Coast. It's place by place and species by species.
    posted by Miko at 12:01 PM on February 19, 2013 [8 favorites]

    Seconding Sara C. regarding food safety. A chain like Red Lobster has deep, deep pockets and are a huge target for lawsuits. Most of what happens in a chain place is about process and procedures. not creativity. This is why fast food places, in spite of having terrible food, have some of the best food safety processes and records. Lawsuits are exponentially more expensive than being diligent about food safety, so they're diligent about food safety.

    It sounds like you've already got your answer as far as food goes. Take the seafood watch booklet and get the thing that has the fewest ingredients or is most simply prepared.

    I say this as a person who avoids chain restaurants, won't eat most fast food, and hates most other processed food. I cook my own food 95% of the time and eat at locally-owned places 90% of the time I go out. I'm your friend here. This whole question comes across poorly. It's not about you. It's about your friend, and one meal isn't going to kill you or destroy the environment. Sometimes you have to make minor sacrifices to make other people happy. The question comes across as if it's a major life sacrifice, and I can't agree that's the case.
    posted by cnc at 12:08 PM on February 19, 2013 [48 favorites]

    Disclaimer: I grew up in New England and am a seafood snob of the highest order.

    As you guessed, since you're in Minnesota, just about any salt-water fish or crustacean is most likely going to have been either farmed or frozen and flown in anyway. But in looking at the menu, they have some non-seafood things (steak, chicken, vegetable kabobs) that may also not be four-star, but at least dealable. Going with non-fish would also sidestep the whole Monterey-Aquarium sustainability issue. Or, if the Red Lobster you go to has a "Wood Fire Grill", you can get something done there - at least you will know that what you order was cooked for you right then as opposed to having been pre-cooked and reheated.

    Then consider your trip a payment towards Good Karma and start planning a summer weekend vacation in Truro, Mass. where you can get some good seafood or something.
    posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:11 PM on February 19, 2013

    But be sure you buy a carbon offset.
    posted by Miko at 12:15 PM on February 19, 2013 [12 favorites]

    Red Lobster really isn't as bad as your making it out to be. In fact in Minnesota, for seafood, I bet it's a step up from what you'd be able to buy to cook at home a a grocery store. When you aren't at the sea, most seafood is frozen, and right on the ship where its caught. Just get some grilled fish, crab legs, shrimp or a whole lobster. Don't get just a tail cause that get's f'ed alot and just gets rubbery.
    posted by WeekendJen at 12:18 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

    You haven't been asked to swim across shark-infested waters. You are not about to be deployed to the front line of a war zone. You have been asked to go to Red Lobster.

    As another commenter said, you need to figure out your priorities. Is your top priority to get the most epicurean option, the most value for your dollar, to eat something g "sustainable", or...(wait for it)...be there for your friend?

    As a friend, you should be able to drop the princess and the pea act and let your friend's joy be the sauce for your meal. If you cannot do that, find a graceful way to bow out.
    posted by Tanizaki at 12:22 PM on February 19, 2013 [101 favorites]

    I have to agree with julthumbscrew and co. to some degree. I don't like Burger King, ever at all. But my dad really likes to go to this one Burger King near where I grew up and have coffee and a small fries from time to time.

    I really don't ever ever want to go to Burger King, even though the coffee is OK. But I go because he is my dad. We went on Christmas and had a long talk, and later that night he had a minor injury/accident that at first seemed like it would be much worse. If I had been super snobby about Burger King and something bad happened - can't even think about it.

    Just go and spend time with your friend.
    posted by sweetkid at 12:25 PM on February 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

    I agree with the others that are basically saying either stay home, or drop the hipster foodie act and go have a decent meal at Red Lobster.
    posted by COD at 12:26 PM on February 19, 2013 [17 favorites]

    Oh, and I say this as someone who, 1. Is a food snob of such a high order that I once obtained some foie gras mousse in NYC and wandered around digging into it with bare hands and baguette chunks, like some sort of insanely fortuitous hobo, but who ALSO, 2. Routinely goes to the Olive Garden and Cracker Barrel with my mom, because she likes it.
    posted by julthumbscrew at 12:28 PM on February 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

    I will be less resentful about having to eat at a place that I consider to espouse everything that is wrong with chain dining in America if there is some hidden gem on the menu that is actually really good.

    Or, you could be less resentful simply in the interest of cheering up a friend who has gone through some rough times.
    posted by John Borrowman at 12:28 PM on February 19, 2013 [30 favorites]

    [Folks, maybe less with the "gentle bitchslap" stuff and more with the just being gentle. Point's pretty much been made about the grin-and-bear-it school of thought at this point, it's okay to just pass the question by if you don't want to answer it as asked.]
    posted by cortex (staff) at 12:31 PM on February 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

    At RL, I get a Cape Cod (Iced tea + cranberry juice), whatever the catch of the day is, steamed veggies, and rice. Or coconut shrimp. Or grilled shrimp. Or any of the "shrimp/fish your way" combos. It's not that deep.
    posted by spunweb at 12:32 PM on February 19, 2013

    Thanks everyone for your suggestions thus far.

    Just to clarify, the reason why I am asking this question now (and trying to choose what I will order for dinner on Saturday), is to get all of my angst out of the way so that when dinner comes around I can just order like a normal person and enjoy my meal.

    My #1 priority is to have a good time with my friend. My #2 priority is to enjoy my meal. I'm beanplating this now so that the food isn't something I have think about.

    I'm not going to stay home. And I am not going to say a word about my food preferences to anyone I'll be eating with. Indulging my foodie pretensions is what you people are for, I never had any intention of inflicting my opinions on my dinner companions.

    I think that the suggestion of sticking to things that look like what they are made of is probably in the right direction for me.
    posted by sparklemotion at 12:33 PM on February 19, 2013 [14 favorites]

    Oh, and the shrimp bruscetta is all right -- I remember really digging it.
    posted by spunweb at 12:34 PM on February 19, 2013

    Oh! And try Yelping the location you're going to -- maybe someone who's been to the one you're going to will have recommended something.
    posted by spunweb at 12:35 PM on February 19, 2013

    Get the fish & chips, can't go wrong.
    posted by ageispolis at 12:46 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

    My go-to Red Lobster meal is crab legs and a baked potato. In 30ish years of eating that during most visits, I have had only one meal in which the crab legs weren't perfectly fine to eat. That one time they were overcooked and rubbery, and when I complained they replaced them with new ones. Alas, the new ones were cooked in way over-salted water, but I was hungry and elected to eat them rather than complain twice. That's also never happened again.

    My husband loves the lobster pizza, if you can take the cheese on it. It's officially an appetizer, I think, but one pizza is enough to serve one person.
    posted by telophase at 12:49 PM on February 19, 2013

    'Oh, you're in Minnesota ... no fresh fish there!'

    If you use the conventional meaning of fresh fish, that hasn't been true for 40 years. Consider that Oceannaire, one of the leading seafood restaurants in the country, originated in Mpls. On the other hand, order scallops at most beachside restaurants and you'll be eating frozen.

    At bottom, fish is a real problem for seafood restaurants -- because the best treatment is the simplest, and there just aren't many of those. So they jazz it up with spices and sauces, and the result is not as good as the plain swimmer.

    So order a plain grilled fresh fish, have a drink, at least try a biscuit, and concentrate on your friend.
    posted by LonnieK at 12:55 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

    Red Lobster, at least around here, always has a "daily fresh catch"-type thing on the menu, which their marketing materials say is "never frozen." Now, I know that marketing materials don't always tell the whole truth, but given what has been said upthread about lawsuits and deep pockets and all that, I'd be surprised if the food they explicitly claim in print has never been frozen, has been frozen. So order that, get it broiled with a side of broccoli.

    Also, I happen to find their caesar dressing particularly delicious, so a side caesar would round you out quite nicely.
    posted by jbickers at 12:56 PM on February 19, 2013

    Red Lobster's been around since 1968. I remember eating there in the mid-70s, I've eaten there once or twice a year since then as the mood strikes, and while restaurants have come and gone, fast food chains have changed their packaging and the recipes for their french fries, well, Red Lobster remains encased in amber, with the experience being remarkably similar to the one I had when I was a young lad.

    Red Lobster hasn't stuck around with virtually the same menu all of these decades because it's bad. The vast majority of the people who eat there each year come away at least reasonably satisfied. It is, as goofy as it is, an American cultural institution.

    My theory of Red Lobster is this: they succeed because they've figured out how to make seafood in a way that kids don't hate, so the entire family can enjoy a seafood based meal. It's simple: kids usually don't like seafood that much. Some do, of course, but fresh fish doesn't appear to be very attractive to most kids when placed next to the grilled cheese and french fries of the 60s and 70s or the chicken nuggest of the present day. The masterstroke of Red Lobster is that they prepare many their signature dishes fried up like an order of fries from McDonald's, and voila, the raw shrimp kids dread becomes tasty, breaded *popcorn* shrimp. While you can blanche and say you're better than that, let's be honest here - the food is prepared in a way that both kids and adults can enjoy together. (For those groups of adults without kids, they have ridiculous, festive, colorful, fruity cocktails that allow for a boozy celebration without anyone getting too drunk to drive home.)

    So, this isn't about taste, the kind that lingers on your tongue. Red Lobster has *explicitly designed* the menu to be palatable to a broad base of people. You can get through it. There's something else holding you back here, and that's taste - as in discernment. Red Lobster isn't a high class joint. To which I advise: get over it. Grab yourself a fruity drink, order yourself a plate of fried food, and for the love of god, try to have a good time.

    Let me answer a few of your questions directly:

    I'm hoping to avoid anything pre-cooked and frozen, or straight off of the Sysco truck.

    Why? Surely you keep some veggies and cuts of meats in your freezer, and can make a fantastic meal from those after a few hours in the kitchen. Why believe that a Red Lobster dish that has a chance of being just slightly less than something caught the day before won't be flavorful? Eating wholly fresh, locally-sourced foods in this day and age, across cultures and countries, is largely a matter of privilege rather than flavor, and surely you can surrender this privilege for a few moments and eat something delivered frozen to the restaurant for the sake of your friend.

    I've read enough Anthony Bourdain to know that dishes like Crab Linguine Alfredo (which are 90% pasta and 10% yesterday's leftover crab all for only $19.95) are a ripoff.

    Think of this as paying for a seat in a restaurant to be with your friend. That seat happens to come with food. If you're not financially constrained or on a special diet, order whatever strikes your fancy within reason, regardless of whatever Anthony Bordain recommends. It's not like he'll be be there watching you and pop out from behind a booth to deride the fact that your pasta order would cost $10 less to cook at home.

    will I be overpaying for a sad, poor quality lobster that lived out the last of its life in a tiny tank with poor filtration?

    Red Lobster has a tank of lobsters in the lobby. You can take a look at them. If they look of poor quality for the money, don't order it! If they look OK, order it! That said, you may actually find, as a guilty pleasure, you prefer some fried shrimp over a fresh lobster. Now is your chance to seize the day and find out!

    I do know about the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, so I'll be using that to help narrow my choices as well -- I'd like the fish to be a "good alternative" if not a "best choice".

    Most of the fish is farmed, frozen and sent to the restaurant. Most of it is shrimp and crab that doesn't really have an issue with sustainability. And even a crappy chain restaurant like Red Lobster has a reasonable statement about sustainability on their web site, believe it or not. The gas you (hypothetically) use driving to the restaurant will be less environmentally friendly than this meal. So carpool. No, seriously.

    I realize that this is particularly idiosyncratic of me, but I'm not a fan of cheese that tastes like cheese (gimme mozzarella or provolone and I'm fine) so the Cheddar Bay Biscuits (which seem to be a guilty pleasure of even my food snobby friends who agree that Red Lobster sucks) make me gag.

    Then don't eat them! Avoid things with cheese that actually tastes like cheese if you don't like cheese! There's plenty on the menu that has nothing to do with cheese. Your friends don't want to see you gag. This will not be a problem.

    I don't want to do something like eating before hand and just nursing some drinks all evening either, because I feel like that would be awkward while everyone else is enjoying a meal.

    Great! Then my advice is to Go to the Red Lobster Menu page, take a look at the menu, and order something that sounds good to you. It's that simple. They've got lots of stuff! It's mostly fine! You'll order it, you'll like it or you won't like it, and that's that. Your concerns sound based more on matters of class and privilege than issues that will actually affect you when you pick up a menu. If you don't like the meal after you clear your mind of such things and order, then stop eating, order a colorful Lobsterita (or an iced tea if you don't drink) and enjoy the company of your friends, and when you pay, think of it as paying for your seat and not for your food.

    But I do offer one sure-fire menu tip here. It's for something Red Lobster serves fresh, in a distinctive way, and virtually everyone agrees is absolutely delicious - the baked potato side. This is not some sad, soggy baked potato - it's brushed with oil, salt crusted, and baked so the inside is fluffy and the outside is wonderfully crispy.

    You'll love it.
    posted by I EAT TAPAS at 1:00 PM on February 19, 2013 [30 favorites]

    If you're concerned about sustainability, you'd do OK with any of the tilapia entrees. The whole Maine lobster isn't bad -- my Googling indicates that if you go with the live lobster, it really is a Maine lobster -- I guess I'd take a look at the tank going in and see how my conscience takes it.

    Just FYI..."Sysco" has become popular shorthand for "processed crap," but that's a very misleading misconception. If you eat at any restaurant, you're almost certainly eating Sysco product, or product from another foodservice distributor. Sysco and their like are just a middleman for the actual food manufacturers, who might be industrial behemoths like Tyson (most likely) or mom 'n' pop organic cage-free pastured humanely raised grass-fed whatevers (rarely, but possible). The fact that a Sysco truck is parked behind the restaurant in the mornings doesn't say anything about the quality of food. (Most of the "house-made," "cooked from scratch" entrees that restaurants tout are merely prepared in-house from ingredients bought from Sysco or another distributor.) So what you really want to research in evaluating a restaurant's food quality is who actually produced the food, not who delivered it.

    Note: I do not work for Sysco.
    posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 1:08 PM on February 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

    My strong feeling is that your best bet at this type of place, where the cooks likely learned their trade in that very kitchen the day they were hired, possibly yesterday (I don't know about Red Lobster specifically, but this is definitely the case at other, similar chains), is to go for something unfuckupable, i.e., something that goes straight from freezer to fryer. Fish and chips, say. That fish, which was caught and then frozen at sea, is going to be a lot fresher than anything that had to make its way through the supply chain to your Red Lobster in an unfrozen state. Not to mention what mishaps may have befallen it after it arrived. Especially if your dining dollars are limited, don't make the mistake of thinking that spending more is going to make for less regret later. I always prefer to spend less and get something that's at least a decent version of what it is.
    posted by HotToddy at 1:17 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

    what is that "butter dip" made out of anyways?

    "100% Pure Melted Butter" (check under "dipping sauces").
    posted by jedicus at 1:42 PM on February 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

    I have a friend who insists that we go to Red Lobster once a year. In Times Square, no less! Here's my 2-step plan for having a good time:

    1. Order a large margarita. They are surprisingly good, and about the size of your head.

    2. Order stuff that does well when frozen. This means shrimp, crab legs, lobster tails. (Even in fancy restaurants, 98% of the shrimp was previously frozen). In fact, in the middle of the country, flash frozen seafood is better than fresh stuff that's been flown in. The frozen rule applies to vegetables as well. I'd far rather get broccoli and peas this time of year than a salad.
    posted by snickerdoodle at 2:05 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

    You're not really interested in Red Lobster, so what you can achieve by going there is: 1) supporting your friend, and 2) enjoying the company of others. There's no need to spend tons of money or consume a lot of calories to do this. Money and calories will not serve your purpose, so you might as well:

    ---> eat something healthy and not terrible.

    With that in mind, here's what I'd order (from the menu for the Cary, NC restaurant):

    fresh broccoli
    petite green beans
    wild rice pilaf
    garden or Caesar salad
    baked potato (if you won't already have complimentary bread)

    There's no point in eating food that a) you don't want, and b) you don't need. If people comment on it, act all excited about the food experiment you're trying.
    posted by amtho at 2:12 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

    "That fish, which was caught and then frozen at sea, is going to be a lot fresher than anything that had to make its way through the supply chain to your Red Lobster in an unfrozen state."

    No, by definition that fish is not fresh. No doubt it's fine, but it's not fresh fish. On the other hand, fish that travels unfrozen from sea or farm to a RK kitchen -- that is, fresh fish -- does not arrive spoiled or nearly-turned. Fish have fairly specific turn times and optimal temps, and the modern supply chain delivers product virtually everywhere in the US at very near those temps and well under those times. Exceptions are extremely rare, and Red Lobster wouldn't be in business otherwise.

    "Not to mention what mishaps may have befallen it after it arrived."

    Since restaurant mishaps can befall fish delivered fresh or frozen, they're irrelevant to a comparison of the two.
    posted by LonnieK at 4:49 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

    Just a warning: the last time I dined at a Red Lobster, the rice that was served with my fish was saturated in some buttery sauce that made it inedible.

    And I say that as someone who actually enjoys their biscuits.
    posted by roger ackroyd at 4:51 PM on February 19, 2013

    I EAT TAPAS: "Red Lobster has *explicitly designed* the menu to be palatable to a broad base of people. You can get through it."

    I'll second this. I don't like seafood much and even I can find 2 or 3 seafood things I like at Red Lobster. Last time I had shrimp 3 ways and enjoyed it.
    posted by IndigoRain at 5:02 PM on February 19, 2013

    Ahem, I worked in the kitchen at a Red Lobster... a decade and a half, ago. But, the menu hasn't changed much, so I'm willing to bet a good chunk of this stuff still applies.

    Just about all the seafood is prepped and cooked in the restaurant (it's still been frozen, but it wasn't shipped breaded), most is cooked when you order.
    We used to get people that requested the biscuits without the cheese. We'd make them, but they weren't good. The dough is a little loose, so they spread more when you scope, come out over cooked and tough, and are a big pain for who-ever has to make them, but it was an option.
    Baked Potatoes are made fresh. In fact, they're made by the same guy who makes the biscuits, it's the two things they do.
    posted by Gygesringtone at 5:10 PM on February 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

    I live in land-locked calgary, alberta, and I am a pretty massive food snob, and I regularly go to red lobster BY CHOICE for a pound and a half of crab legs. I skip the second side. garden salad with ranch (or a wedge of lemon if I'm not doing carbs) shrimp caesar to drink, though they may not have that in the states.

    if you like snow crab, you're golden. if you by chance don't get real butter (never happened to me..) just complain and say "this butter tastes weird" and they'll replace it with melted butter, it has worked for me at like a million restaurants. :)
    posted by euphoria066 at 6:07 PM on February 19, 2013

    Your most sustainable choice is probably a vegetarian meal. TED talk on sustainability and seafood.
    posted by Miko at 6:26 PM on February 19, 2013

    This is going to be almost like a parody of an AskMe answer, given that I am a vegetarian who has never eaten at a Red Lobster. I am, however, answering in good faith.

    Having perused the menu, I think you should have the fish and chips.

    1) I suspect it's pretty hard to screw up fish and chips. I don't think I ever had unacceptable fish and chips when I ate fish. My brother had some made from catfish once, which didn't go over so well.

    2) It's not pretending to be gourmet anything. You can't scoff at something so unpretentious.

    3) Most other things on the menu looked kind of repulsive. The pasta looked okay, but every time I order pasta as a 'nothing really sounds good' option, it's disappointing. Heck, half the time I order pasta because it sounds good, it's disappointing.

    4) I'm hoping that even if the Golden Valley Red Lobster (whose menu I looked at) simply reheated everything they could in the microwave, they'd have to be making the fish and chips approximately to order. This logic presumably applies to anything fried, if you're tolerance for eating heavily breaded seafood is greater than my tolerance for looking at pictures of it.

    5) You don't get served vinegar with your chips all that often in the US. You might as well take advantage of it.

    Your most sustainable choice is probably a vegetarian meal. TED talk on sustainability and seafood.

    Sad to say, this is a bad strategy. It looks like the only vegetarian option is to cobble together some sides. Or order the pasta without the shrimp, I guess. This would make vegetarian me grumpy. For someone willing to eat seafood, it'd probably ruin the OP's dinner to precisely the sort of degree that they're trying to avoid by asking this question.
    posted by hoyland at 9:05 PM on February 19, 2013

    Well, it was not entirely clear whether the big issue was good taste or sustainability. if sustainability is the concern, then the most sustainable option would certainly be not to eat any fish - not only because of how it's harvested, but how far it's been flown and hot it's been stored. If good taste is the concern, then perhaps eat some fish and enjoy it, but then don't worry about sustainability.
    posted by Miko at 9:11 PM on February 19, 2013

    Last time I went to Red Lobster I skipped the usually just OK salmon and had the crab and lobster stuffed mushrooms for my meal. Delicious.
    posted by cda at 8:37 AM on February 20, 2013

    Red Lobster has a drink called a "sunset passion pina colada" or similar, which is a pina colada with strawberry stuff on top. It is delicious.

    Bonus: You can get the large "alotta colada" which is much bigger and only slightly more expensive and ask for the strawberry stuff and they will do it for you.

    I have also found that the wood-fire grilled fresh fish is almost always good- better than I can cook at home, because I'm not great at cooking fish, and much better than similarly-priced fish entrees at other places nearby.

    I also think the coconut shrimp is quite tasty, though I do not care for the shrimp scampi. The fresh lobster is also good, and you can get it split and cleaned with seafood stuffing if you want to mix it up a bit.

    They are currently running their Lobsterfest promotion, which includes a few options that include rock lobster tail, which I prefer over the kind they normally serve, for lower prices than it usually costs on their menu.

    I used to dislike Red Lobster, but they have done a fair amount of revamping to their menu in the last several years (most notably the introduction of the wood grill/"today's fresh fish" stuff) and now I find it much improved.

    I mean, it's a chain restaurant, so you're not going to get gourmet cuisine, but it's actually one of the easier chains to find something that is healthy and tasty, and it has lots of options so usually even a moderately picky group can all find something they like.

    Good on you for taking the time to get over your dislike of this restaurant enough to eat there. Time spent making sure you can enjoy this outing in the spirit it is intended will be the best time you can spend to help your friend feel better.
    posted by oblique red at 12:32 PM on February 20, 2013

    So, we ended up going for lunch instead of dinner. My friend was in good spirits and it was nice to see her smiling again. I got pressured into ordering off of the Lobsterfest menu so that our table would qualify for free appetizers.

    The lobster pizza appetizer was tasty, and the lobster bake (maine lobster tail, shrimp, scallops) was well cooked but super greasy. I also took the advice of going for a baked potato, and I'm glad I did because the salads that I would have gotten instead were sad to behold.

    I still feel no great desire to eat there ever again, but I won't be quite so trepidatious if this situation comes up again.

    Thanks to everyone who provided advice.
    posted by sparklemotion at 7:55 AM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

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