My interest was piqued by a promoted tweet and fueled by dietary nihilism.
Red Lobster had announced a lobster-and-waffles special for most of April, and I couldn’t get the image of the crispy, buttermilk-battered split Maine lobster tail atop a “signature Cheddar Bay waffle” drizzled with maple syrup out of my head. My wife and I decided to try it; it was a meal we were prepared to remember, if not enjoy.
On a lazy, almost-warm Sunday last month, we drove to the Red Lobster in Woodbridge, New Jersey, where we were met with a 20-minute wait in a vestibule strewn with spider webs. The two of us took seats between a senior couple dressed to impress for Sunday fellowship and a young couple who smelled like a college dorm on April 20 — visions of #goals past and future.
Red Lobster’s take on chicken and waffles may not seem like a big deal, or even worthy of our patience. But, to me, it represented something of a moment.
In general, casual dining chains like Red Lobster are in trouble. Major franchises like T.G.I. Fridays and Applebee’s have stumbled through a decade of losses, and many chains, including Friendly’s and Bennigan’s, have filed for bankruptcy. Americans have changed their dining habits: The country’s upper class has soured on paying $15 to $20 per meal for bland bar fare, and the chain-sustaining middle class can no longer afford it.
That, coupled with a widening breadth of delivery options through third-party services like Seamless and UberEats, makes the future of casual dining chains unclear.
Restaurants have responded to this shift in consumer behavior in uneven, often stomach-churning ways. For a while, Applebee’s made “a clear pendulum swing toward millennials.” The franchise updated its décor and put youthful-sounding items, like a “turkey sandwich with sriracha chili lime sauce,” on its menu. But in 2017, Applebee’s president, John Cywinski, reversed course. Amid a 21 percent decline in profit and the closure of as many as 135 restaurants, he signaled a return to the restaurant’s Middle American roots.
Red Lobster hasn’t had the same drastic plunge in business, but it hasn’t grown much either (aside from a Beyoncé-inspired uptick in sales in 2016). In 2014, five years after a chain wide remodel and an ill-conceived pairing with Olive Garden, Red Lobster was sold by Darden Restaurants to Golden Gate Capital for $2.1 billion.
Its menu has changed considerably since then. Last December, Red Lobster added snack-size tasting plates, retooled its regionally inspired dishes and announced the return of its endless shrimp promotion. Recent menu items have included a lobster truffle mac and cheese and whipped sweet potatoes with honey-roasted pecans.
But the crispy lobster and waffles — which Danielle Connor, the senior vice president for menu strategy and development, said was meant to show Red Lobster’s “culinary expertise and menu innovation” — is a dish with more than millennial-focused overtones.
For starters, it was inspired by chicken and waffles, an entree that is part of the trend of soul food items rising from post-reconstruction fare for southern black citizens to post-gentrification fare offered at slick eateries in post-black neighborhoods. And the Cheddar Bay waffle element to the dish was inspired by Red Lobster’s famous Cheddar Bay biscuits. In my home state, Massachusetts, where nationwide seafood chains are hard to come by, those biscuits were the stuff of legends.
My first taste of a Cheddar Bay biscuit took place in August 2010, after a five-hour drive from Boston to Rutgers University, where I was going to college. After an hour of unpacking, my family was ready for lunch. I suggested we go to the nearby Red Lobster.
The meal was a mixed bag: The biscuits were every bit as amazing as advertised, but my shrimp fettuccine Alfredo made up with hazard what it lacked in taste. I spent the night counting the tiles in my new college bathroom, much to the chagrin of my girlfriend at the time, with whom I had made plans. When the Red Lobster defense failed to hold water, she dropped me like a limited-time entree.
My first impression of Red Lobster as a killer of relationships and usurper of gastrointestinal equilibrium didn’t stop me from frequenting the place during my years at Rutgers. I ordered the same four things: margaritas, lagers, artichoke dip and indefensible amounts of Cheddar Bay bread.
One night, I came across a Red Lobster Cheddar Bay biscuit kit at the grocery store. Those first dozen biscuits elevated a college evening of glassy-eyed giggling into what felt like a red carpet affair. The next day, I purchased three more boxes of the biscuit mix. After perfecting the recipe, I made them for a crush.
Four years later, that same crush, now my wife, was looking at me, across the table, with a leery expression on her face.
“My stomach might not be ready,” she pleaded as we sat down to order. “We don’t have to do this. We can still go to Popeye’s.”
But by then Sam, an 18-year-old college freshman, was at our table, greeting us with a nervous smile and a few jokes. He was halfway through his first day as a waiter. We asked about the lobster and waffle special (which, I should mention, was $24.99).
“It’s our most popular item,” Sam said. “I haven’t tried it yet, but my boss says it’s fire.”
After two baskets of biscuits, Sam cleared our table and served the main course: An amber, slightly burned waffle, glistening atop a thin layer of oil, rested beneath two piping hot, golden brown strips of fried more-shell-than-lobster tail.
Separately, the lobster tasted much like coconut shrimp; the Cheddar Bay waffle could have been mistaken for a Costco Asiago bagel. In combination, the elements of the meal were a little more unusual. The smoky, oversweet syrup coupled with salty, tough lobster tasted like maple bacon kettle chips, with an aftertaste reminiscent of warm Guinness.
“It’s like a burned Cheez-It with syrup,” my wife remarked after her first forkful. “But I don’t hate it like I thought I would.”