Red Lobster at Night, Casual Diner’s Delight

Is there any casual dining establishment that’s enjoyed a catapult back into the public consciousness like Red Lobster has in the past year? RL has been with us since the 60s, with its life-giving Cheddar Bay Biscuits and its seemingly endless -fests (see: Lobster, Shrimp, etc), but Beyonce’s reference to it as a post-coital reward for satisfactory lovemaking has reminded us all that it’s time to revisit the place that brings slightly classy seafood to the masses.

The chain’s longevity and its distinction as being the only true seafood restaurant around in the upper Midwest gave this encounter a special feeling. Also contributing to that special feeling? The fact that this was two members’ first time at any Red Lobster. We kept expectations high for those tasty biscuits, and low for everything else.

This casual encounter was also notable for welcoming Sadie, Rachel’s newly-born daughter, as a participant. She slept almost the whole time, but her outfit showed that she was committed to the cause.

A thematically-appropriate onesie? Come on, that’s adorable.

Food:

Seafood, duh. But a wide variety of preparations for said seafood kept it interesting. Would you like your seafood fried? Skewered? Atop pasta? What about a sauce or seasoning? The menu was not quite Cheesecake Factory-level of length and complexity, but it was somewhat daunting.

John says: Johnny on the spot, aka Rachel Levitt, let us know if we sign up for the Red Lobster Club we get a free dessert or app with the purchase of 2 entrees. So we hit that up. Aaron ordered some calamari. It was fine. I ordered the Ultimate Feast for my dinner! It didn’t disappoint. Lobster tail, crab legs, two types of shrimp, rice, mashed potatoes, and a salad. Everything was good. 

Jenna says: I found the lengthy menu to be overwhelming, almost to the level of Cheesecake Factory’s menu. I sort of assumed that my first visit to RL should include lobster, but holy hell, that s**t’s expensive. I went instead for a lightly breaded tilapia in honor of Tilapia Monday [Ed. note: Follow @twinkiejiggles on Snapchat to learn more], and it was very good. Not too fishy or oily, perfect ratio of breading to parm to fish. It even was better the next day. Dinner included a basic bitch house salad, steamed broccoli and mashed potatoes, all fine. The cheddar bay biscuits were…..overrated? Sorry not sorry, I said it. Perhaps I found them just “meh” because my pants are still tight from eating my weight in delicious biscuits in Nashville [Ed. note: What a f***ing hipster].

Tilapia Monday

Rachel says: In true Rachel fashion, I spent too much time kibitzing with my fellow diners and not enough time looking at the menu, which led to panic ordering. But it turned out just fine. My garlic shrimp skewers were tasty and light. The menu also features calorie counts for all food, with which I have a love-hate relationship. Don’t tell me my business, menu! But also, thanks for helping me make healthier choices. Confession: I also think the Cheddar Bay Biscuits are overrated. Good, but overrated.

Shrimp skewers. Note also the plate that once held biscuits.

Food rating:  

Beverages:

The drink menu tended to skew more towards “beach” than “asea,” but you didn’t hear our crew complaining. [Ed. note: What would an “asea” themed drink be? Seawater served out of a buoy?] Lots of blended drinks and synthetic fruit flavors.

John says: I had a Malibu hurricane. It was refreshing unlike other hurricanes. I’m looking at Katrina and Andrew. 

Jenna says: I really wanted a well made margarita on this particular Monday evening. As in no super sweet margarita mix, just tequila, triple sec, lime juice. I tried to explain my desire to Susan and her suggestion was to add soda water to cut the sweetness of the mix. That’s a stupid idea, Susan. My marg was full of soda water, and not enough tequila. Despite the snickering from my dining mates, I stand by my request. [Ed. note: Stop trying to make margaritas happen at non-Mexican establishments, Jenna. Bad marg once, shame on them. Bad marg twice, shame on you…]

Rachel says: This was only my second drink postpartum, after not drinking for about a year, so I really regressed and went for a pina colada topped with strawberry puree. OMG IT WAS DELICIOUS. 

Behold, a table full of delicious yet obnoxious beverages. Not pictured: A decent margarita.

Beverages rating:

Service:

John says: We had great service! Another home run. She was very friendly and helpful. She even made sure our order got in before the table of 16 in the corner did. That was huge. She spoke very highly of Red Lobster and that was really cool. She wasn’t Earth but she was damn close. 

Jenna says: Susan, oh Susan. Our evening together had its high points (she made sure our orders got put in prior to a large party), low points (her defending RL’s decision to not make a bigger deal about Beyonce name dropping the chain) and just weird points (more info than needed on her love life). One thing’s for sure though, Susan LOVES working for RL, specifically this location, and she will defend the s**t out of them. Our relationship with Susan was a rollercoaster, but in the end she earns 5+ cheesecakes because she checked on me multiple times while I was dealing with the aftermath of my car being broken into [Ed. note: What kind of a**hole breaks into a car in a Red Lobster parking lot???], and she brought me supplies to help cover my broken window.

Rachel says: I agree with everyone else in our party, Susan was top-notch. Such a pro move getting our order in before the big group. Nothing makes me harrumph harder than having food be delayed. Susan was maybe a little too talkative at times, and spoke a lot about her dating status when it was just time for the damn check or whatever. But I don’t hold it against her. The newly-created mom in me also appreciated that she made us agree to actually drink our water before she brought out waters for all of us. Susan is not putting up with any BS.

Service rating:

Ambience:

Ahoy! Red Lobster definitely leaned into its maritime heritage [Ed. note: Red Lobster is based in Orlando, so no actual maritime heritage to speak of], but not too much. They could have gone with a crap-on-the-walls aesthetic, like a nautical Chili’s, but they didn’t. Way to take the high road, RL. Except when it comes to the depressing tank full of lobsters in the entry way. Give ’em a little wiggle room, why don’t you?

John says: Nautical theme of course. The obligatory lobsters in aquarium was gawked at. Nothing too exciting. 

Jenna says: This was my very first visit to the RL, and I went in with the lowest expectations. I expected it to smell like the aquarium at the Minnesota Zoo. Or like the flaky food you feed goldfish. Much to my surprise, not only was there barely a smell, but I totally dug the decor. I am such a sucker for anything nautical, turn an anchor into a light fixture and throw an East Coast seaside on the wall and I’m yours.

Jenna attempts to discern whether a squall is a-brewing.

Rachel says: Classier than I’d expected. I figured there’d be way more whimsical decoration than their was. This kind of restraint is admirable, but made the dining room somewhat bland. Kudos for not having a fish smell, but demerits for having a bathroom that smelled like one at the State Fair.

Ambience rating:

Casualosity:

John says: VERY casual. It was so casual even a baby was allowed in. Specifically, Sean and Rachel’s newborn Sadie! She was fun.

Jenna says: I’m reaching a point in this ranking process where I’m getting downright pissy that the cost of food and drinks at these “casual” restaurants is on par with the not so casual restaurants in this city.

Rachel says: On the one hand, not very casual. Prices were pretty high, and the dark wood and cloth napkins gave it a somewhat classy feel. Susan talked about how often this place is used as a date spot, which tells me it’s not very casual. On the other hand, Aaron wore Crocs as footwear, and no one really noticed. [Ed. note: We’d love to know more about how Aaron felt with this footwear chocie, but he refuses to take this project seriously and submit his ratings.]

Crocs. Very casual, very gross.

Casualosity rating:

Dessert:

John says: Putting our freebies to work (described in detail earlier so I won’t explain again, you can’t make me) we ordered two desserts: vanilla bean cheesecake and a chocolate cake with ice cream. Both were quite tasty. I wish the cheesecake had been better than Old Country Buffet’s though. 

Jenna says: All the cheesecakes/gooey brownies/ice cream things are starting to blend together. I’m sure the dessert was fine.

Rachel says: The vanilla cheesecake was tastier than anticipated. The chocolate cake was good, nothing groundbreaking. I’d hoped for something more…molten. But no complaints. 

Dessert rating:

Favorite part:

John says: Special guests! Always my favorite part when it happens. Rachel’s husband Sean was with as well as baby Sadie! My sister Jessica also was there! All great additions.

Jenna says: Sadie’s first casual encounter! Spending Tilapia Monday with Sean McPherson, creator of Tilapia Monday! John’s sister!

Rachel says: Special guests, like my husband and baby!

Least favorite part:

John says: For how seemingly empty the place was, we waited quite a long time to be seated.

Jenna says: My car getting broken into while I was eating mediocre biscuits. I’m still finding glass shards in my lunch bag.

Rachel says: Jenna’s car getting broken into. Having to tolerate too much small talk from Susan, at times. 

Overall rating: 

Next  up: Fueling ourselves with chicken and testosterone at Buffalo Wild Wings!

 

Dining Well in the Surrounding Community

Our March Casual Encounter was at the most stereotypical of casual dining establishments, Applebee’s. If Olive Garden is the sanitized version of Italian food, Applebee’s is the sanitized version of already-sanitized food. Despite their recent to commitment to sophisiticaed tastes (like “wood-fired grill” menu items), Applebee’s is still the most convenient shorthand for the restaurant we, as overly-self-aware hipsters, love to disdain. Though the restaurant cracks the top 10 on our list (#10, to be precise), we were prepared for disappointment. And we were not disappointed in…being disappointed. We were disappointed, is what we’re saying.

[Ed. note: Jenna and Sarah dined with us as well, but they couldn’t be bothered to send in their comments or ratings in a timely fashion. They are henceforth considered “on notice” though no real consequences exist.]

Food: 

The hot deal at hand was the 2 for $20 promotion, where you choose an appetizer and two entrees off of a limited menu for, you guessed it, $20. Many of us had the brilliant, if less-than-classy, idea of ordering that promotion with the intention of eating one entree at the restaurant and bringing the other home for a future meal. [In fact, Olive Garden does something similar to this on occasion but calls a spade a spade, explicitly saying that one entree is for now and one is for later. Another in the Win column for OG.] Others of us ordered a la carte, like regular people. All of us experience similar levels of mediocrity.

John says: 3/5 of the table went for the 2 for $20 meal. That’s just prudent planning. I ordered a caprese burger with fries as well as the three cheese chicken cavatappi. I ate the burger as my dinner. IT WAS TERRIBLE. It came absolutely loaded with onions which  was disgusting. The cavatappi the next day was really good. 

John, right before the burger in front of him brought untold disappointment

Aaron says: Several of us thought that it was a good idea to get the 2-for-$20 deal.  It turned out to be a GREAT idea.  Except that the food was pretty sh***y.  For the appetizer, I got the boneless wings.  They were pretty good, but I have to think they are not that hard to f*** up, so I’m not going to give them too much credit on that one.  I got the rib tips for my dine-in option.  They were bad.  Real bad.  I couldn’t tell if they were super charred or just mostly bones.  For my second entrée, I got chicken tenders, figuring that they’d be good to reheat for lunch the next day.  I toasted them up in my little toaster oven and they were great.

Rachel says: As per usual, I married value with flavor and got the 2 for $20 special, just like John and Aaron. I went with the hard-to-mess-up chicken fingers for my dine-in entree, and the Fiesta Lime Chicken for my to-go entree. My chicken fingers were very tasty, and the fries weren’t bad either. I do think they skimped on portion sizes, even though the menu specifically states that the promo comes with “full-sized entree.” I didn’t get to try the Fiesta Chicken because my husband was hungry later that night and I offered it to him, because I love him/I’m a sucker. Anyway, he said it was good.

Keep it simple, stupid.

Food rating:

Beverages:

John says: I tried to order a hurricane. Apparently I request extremely difficult drinks because their bartender couldn’t make it. [Ed. note: Bartenders know that Google exists, right?] It was the Sevyron situation at Ruby Tuesday all over again. I amended and got a boring ol whiskey ginger after that.

Aaron says: Limited selection of tap beers.  Mostly national big brands.  But, beer is beer?

Rachel says: They have Pepsi products, so I stuck with water. The water tasted a little funny, maybe Roseville’s water treatment plant is a little more lax or something. I did think it was BS that John’s ginger ale refills weren’t free.

Beverages rating:

Service: 

This casual encounter brought us a level of service more in line with general expectations surrounding casual dining. Our server was polite and somewhat attentive, but dead behind the eyes. Either the Roseville Applebee’s was her first career stop, or her last…

John says: I am struggling to remember our server’s name which should say something. She didn’t do a good job of checking in often enough. Also, she recommended the Caprese burger which is a major flaw. I miss Earth.

Aaron: Our service was a little lackluster.  The server seemed to avoid us for long periods.  On the plus side, they did keep our to-go orders in back for us until we were ready to leave.

Rachel says: Sophia was very nice, but bland; there wasn’t much going on behind her eyes. My guess is she was tired, or an android. She also had perfectly smooth skin, which puts one in the “android” column as well. In any case,  she was patient with us during our 2 for $20 ordering frenzy, was pretty on the ball about refills and checking in, and ran our checks herself instead of making us do it on the Ziosk knockoff that was at our table.

Service rating:

Ambiance:

Four words: Stuff on the walls.

John says: Again, Applebee’s is known for stuff on their walls and they didn’t disappoint. The most prominent things were the various high schools nearby and all the accolades they’ve won. Congrats Timmy! You won your JV baseball game, let’s go to Applebee’s to celebrate. Terrible parenting.

Rachel says: It was oddly dark where we were sitting. It kind of felt like I was reading the menu by candlelight. The “stuff-on-the-walls” aesthetic had a Minnesota bent to it (e.g. a photo of the State Fair Grandstand) which was a nice, if basic, touch. Our table had 6 seats, but felt pretty squished. There were plenty of TVs so Aaron could watch hockey players beat the crap out of each other.

Ambiance rating: cheesecakes

Casulosity:

Despite their pathetic attempt at being more gourmet (see: Wood-fired grill explanation above), Applebee’s remains staunchly casual.

John says: We were seated in the bar area which is not ideal for me. Also, the table was entirely too cramped for 5 people. The stuff on the Rosedale Applebee’s walls was as great as ever.

Aaron says: Still being early in the spring, I opted not to wear my velvet flip flops.  I did however wear my crocs

Rachel says: Quite casual. Aaron wore Crocs instead of velvet flip flops, so our methodology is skewed this time, but I’d argue that Crocs are even more casual than VFFs.

Casulosity rating: cheesecakes

Dessert:

Our group had to call an audible and order something else when we learned that no cheesecake (in regular or shooter form) was available. We went with that age-old axiom: When in doubt, order something with “molten” in the title.

John says: No cheesecake available. I was already so full from my shitty burger that I barely wanted to have dessert anyway. But I (we) soldiered on. We ordered the Triple Chocolate Meltdown which is engorged with sugar. And it was great.

Aaron says: Truly saving the best for last. Not only did the triple chocolate cake not have cinnamon, but it was also delicious.

Rachel says: The highlight of the meal. We shared the molten chocolate cake, and it was fantastic. Molten-y, chocolatey perfection. I wish we’d ordered two (maybe that was the pregnancy talking, but probably not).

  Dessert – before
Dessert – after

Dessert rating:

Favorite part:

John says: Celebrating Rachel’s last casual dining encounter before the baby is born.

Aaron says: Being savvy diners and getting the 2-for-$20 for ourselves.

Rachel says: That dessert, and feeling like I made out better than my dining companions by sticking to the basics. 

Least favorite part:

John says: Onions.

Aaron says: Generally not good food.

Rachel says: The disappointment of everyone else at their entrees. I could feel their pain.

Overall rating:

Next up: Red Lobster!