Living in cities, especially if you’ve always lived in cities, breeds contempt for chain dining. I’ve lived in Toronto for like…it’ll be three years this September. And in that time I’ve met plenty of born-and-bred Torontonians who have never eaten at a Swiss Chalet or an East Side Mario’s.
These are people who don’t know that when you leave the city and get out into the strip malls and suburban Cineplex parking lots where chain dining bivouacs, the “TOR” in the Jack Astor’s sign flashes on and off in an effort to convey precisely how un-seriously it takes itself. These are people who subscribe to magazines, eat pizza with a knife and fork, and say they like jazz even though there’s no way anyone can like jazz. These are people who do not, who cannot, set their watch to Red Lobster’s perennial calendar of seafood-themed promotional culinary bazaars: Shrimpfest, Crabfest, and Lobsterfest.
Red Lobster is the king of casual chain dining in the same way the Whopper is the king of fast food hamburgers: it just stands apart. East Side Mario’s is too ubiquitous. Plus you can whip up any of the pasta dishes at home for eleven cents. Likewise, Mandarin is built for marathon gorge-sessions, not anything like a nice dinner. And Montana’s Cookhouse is way too needy in its showy ornamentation of mountaineering bric-a-brac and other Klondikey relics of rough-hewn Canadiana. No. Red Lobster’s the thing. The closest you can get to fine dining without having to make a reservation.
Red Lobster recently renovated its Canadian restaurants, unveiling what’s called a “new restaurant concept.” So I bussed up to the Red Lobster at Warren and Sheppard in Scarborough—past the strip malls, fabric wholesalers, Pennington’s Superstores and byways with names like Metropolitan Rd., Marble Arch Crescent, and Boem Ave.—to check it out.
The Red Lobster in Scarborough is a real Red Lobster. There is one at the corner of Bay and Dundas, smack downtown in the Atrium on Bay. But I would argue that this is not a real Red Lobster. Walled in by thick plated glass looking onto busy, well-trafficked streets, the downtown Red Lobster show-offish and gawky, situating its well-meaning customers like fish floating around in a tank. It’s one degree of self-consciousness away from plastering a “DON’T TAP ON THE GLASS” sign on the outside.
This is a decidedly urban mode of chain dining, which misapprehends the appeal of chain dining itself. The open-concept is designed, presumably, to entice passerby who see people enjoy Red Lobster’s sundry variations on their cheese/garlic/seafood protein recipes. But chain dining isn’t meant to hinge on whims and walk-ins. You’re supposed to know you want to eat there. When you arrive at the Red Lobster at Warren and Sheppard, alone, on a Thursday night like any other, the place is packed, precisely because people know they want to eat there. You have to get in the car and drive there and park the car and go in and put your name on a list and then they give you like a light-up buzzy thing that kind of looks like a plastic ashtray that will begin quivering and blinking when your table is ready. It’s a whole production.
As far as the “new restaurant concept” thing: this basically this just means that they slapped a fresh coast of paint on the place, Windexed the mock-portholes, and steam cleaned tucked away bits of Cheddar Bay Biscuit (Red Lobster’s signature dish is, incidentally, the one that comes free with every meal) out of the knotty carpets. But the “concept” part makes it sounds as if there’s some kind of guiding coherence. Which there kind of is. Which is good, because Red Lobster could use a little coherence.
Being the go-to name in mass-market seafood, Red Lobster’s interior design scheme has always been nautically oriented. But the strictness of this theme has been fuzzy. The dcor has recalled a Maine boathouse, with Naval-themed dishes (“The Admiral’s Fest”), and pirate-related stuff for kids, like picking a toy out of a treasure chest when you leave the restaurant (they used to do this when I was a kid, anyways). And honestly, this confused, buffet-style approach to nauticalia was in need of streamlining.
The “new” Red Lobster is cooler: dimmer in a way that seems to bring out the richness in the wood tables and featuring new, marbled blue wall-to-wall carpeting, flecked with biscuit crumbs and cast-off receipts. It’s “modern” in that kitschy, throwbacky way. The glass behind the bar, for example, is embossed (redundantly) with the words “BAR HABROR [sic] BAR EST. 1968.” Tacky, faux-faded plaques with names for businesses like the AMES BOATWORKS deck out the wood-paneled walls, alongside replica oil paintings of mighty Maine lighthouses, which seem so essential to the idea of eating at a Red Lobster that they’re practically conceptually loadbearing. The result is weird, but fitting considering the marginalized place of chain restaurants like Red Lobster: the restaurant seems to exhibit a sense of nostalgia for itself.
Red Lobster’s bout of self-reflexive wistfulness is strikingly contemporaneous. We see it in plenty of chain restaurants, which try, like Jack Astor’s and Montana’s, to harken back to same bellwether era of roadhouse dining, which is only really defined by the ubiquity of these restaurants themselves. It’s kind of like how McDonalds will dress itself up by hanging black-and-white pictures on the wall framing bygone McDonaldses, this languor for McDonalds informing the McDonalds experience itself.
But you don’t have to look to gluttonous chains for this. It’s all over downtown, too, in the simple Wonder bun-mounted cheeseburgers at Burger’s Priest, or the Old Worldy knife-and-fork pizza of Queen Margherita, L’il Baci, et al. It’s like we’re supposed to be enjoying not just the thing, but some fading memory for it, like the food has time-travelled to our plates or been kept in cryogenic sleep for decades, like the last Dodo egg or something.
Imagine, driving out with your best gal to the Bar Habror [sic] Bar in Kennebunkport, circa 1968, to enjoy one of those not-yet-patented Red Lobster Shrimp Caesars with a side of homemade biscuits, cheese sifted straight from Cheddar Bay! The idea itself isphantasmal, referring to something that never even really existed. But this desperately nostalgic Red Lobster restaurant concept breeds a weird sense of urgency, like you’re eating in a restaurant that’s on the verge of extinction. (The cheesy dated signage certifies this feeling, collapsing time into space, like when people talk about dying and your life flashing before your eyes instantaneously.) And while a sense of necessity may help you scarf down a pound of reliable-but-ultimately-mediocre crab legs, it also undermines what’s supposed to be, above all else, a comforting experience. Because it’s dependably delicious.
And because the uniform sameness of the chain itself proves reassuring, just as the very thought that no matter where you are in the developed world, a Whopper will always taste like a Whopper (charred-warm, too much flour on the bottom of the bun) is reassuring, in some odd way.
I think it’s this sense of comfort that people who devalue chain restaurants don’t understand. Which has never really made sense to me. Why be suspicious of a restaurant with more than one location? Or with dozens or whole hundreds? The idea, after all, is that the food is so good that more people wanted it so they opened more restaurants. Right?
And it’s not just blas supply-and-demand. Chain restaurants respond to a need in a very meaningful way, the same way re-watching the same movie or buying the same two or three kinds of beer does. Maybe fretting that Red Lobster’s self-cannibalizing homesickness for itself is just stupid hand-wringing. The chains, after all, are always playing catch-up with the trends in haute, downtown restos. And that they miss the point is part of their charm. Anyways that the revamped Scarborough Red Lobster is crammed with people on dates and whole families and guys eating alone scribbling notes into a notebook is sign enough that buttery seafood’s most unfailing port-o’-call is still staying afloat.
The point, though, is that the pleasures of chain dining don’t just exist in the absence of alternatives. Certainly, I could probably get better seafood in Toronto (though I’d have no idea where), but eating at Red Lobster, kind of like eating at any chain, is less about wanting to eat the kind of food the restaurant serves and more about wanting the restaurant itself. You go to Wendy’s to get “a Wendy’s.” It’s like in that Seinfeld episode where Elaine asks Puddy what he wants for dinner and he says that it “feels like an Arby’s night.” It’s not about the food but about the feel of the night.