Monday, October 16, 2006

Red Lobster and Designer Jeans

As long as I can remember, Marty and I have typically avoided going out on Friday nights. This is not new behavior. No matter where we have lived - Houston, Hoboken, Lincolnton - we have always considered Friday nights to be amateur nights, and so we are typically contented to stay home and have a quiet night after a long week.

But this most recent Friday we found ourselves in unfamiliar territory: out.

Why didn't we stay home? We had cooked an unprecedented 3 nights out of the last 4 and wanted to get out.

We evaluated our few Lincolnton options for going out: Court Street - we had been on Tuesday, our one night out for the week. Tradewinds - we had been there the previous Friday (going our for a quick and easy local dinner doesn't really count as "going out") and besides, it's always so smoky, I wanted to enjoy dinner without the constant reminder that I live in tobacco country. Fatz never came up - I suppose neither of us were in the mood for Calabash chicken. That's pretty much it for Lincolnton - unless we had wanted to give the new Waffle House a whirl.

We didn't want to drive into Charlotte. I suggested 1 or 2 of our favorite restaurants out by Lake Norman but in jeans, a Rugby shirt and Birkenstocks (and with no intention of changing), Marty was ill attired.

So we got in the car and began driving. Our path led us to Hickory. I suggested Da Vinci, the local Italian joint, but Marty declined saying we'd be right there on Saturday (we were planning to watch the A&M game at a nearby tavern). Marty suggested Outback. I declined saying we had just eaten there. We both longed for a high-end sit-down Chinese like Chin Chin or David K's but the only Chinese in these parts is a buffet or take-out. As a compromise, I suggested Kobe - a hibachi steakhouse similar to Benihana. Marty wasn't sure but we headed in that direction.

En route, we passed a brand new Chili's, closed because they were training the staff. We passed an Applebees, where we had once stopped for drinks many, many months ago because there was no place else to go. We passed an Olive Garden - one of the few chains I have never experienced first hand. We passed a Red Lobster, another heretofore unvisited chain.

All of a sudden, Marty recalled a semi-recent dinner he had had with his parents in Gastonia en route home from the airport. The "Rockzilla" lobster tail, he assured me, had been phenomenal. Although we were in Hickory and not Gastonia, how different could the experience be?

Still, it was 7:45pm on a Friday and the parking lot was full. We continued towards Kobe but at Marty's request, I called Red Lobster to see what the wait was. 15 - 20 minutes.

Ok, he said. If we get to Kobe and it's also a 15-minute wait, let's go back to Red Lobster. I agreed.

Of course Kobe was packed and so we turned around and headed back to Red Lobster.

Now I confess, short of Marty's rave review of a singular excellent lobster tail in Gastonia, I associate Red Lobster (courtesy of frequently run commercials) with all you can eat shrimp for $5.99. I associate Red Lobster with various pasta dishes laden with chicken, seafood, cream sauce and lots of garlic. Frankly, I associate Red Lobster with Middle America.

It's not where I pictured myself on a Friday night. But that's where we were.

I walked in and gave them my name. In return, I was given a little buzzer to hold onto that would flash and vibrate when our table was ready. Not exactly Le Bernadin.

The restaurant was packed but the bar was relatively empty, and although the person ordering before me asked the bartender if he knew how to make a Jolly Rancher (he did), the bartender also knew how to pour a glass of chardonnay.

When we were seated a few minutes later, I looked around the brightly lit room. Lots families with young kids. Plenty of sweet teas and colas – the occasional oversized mixed drink – not too many dry martinis or Cabernets. One or two all you can eat shrimp plates. Somehow, we seemed – as per usual – out of place.

Apparently, the trick to ordering at Red Lobster is to order "formula food." By formula, I mean they've developed a recipe/technique/method of cooking that is so foolproof it's impossible to screw up. Cooking a steak is not a formula (actually - it is at Outback but that's an exception) - it can be overcooked, undercooked, and the quality of meat can be poor. Attempted recipes - recipes that involve things like lemon Parmesan cream sauce, sun dried tomato garlic stuffing or citrus butter sauce - are to be avoided at all costs. They are generally poor attempts to recreate haute cuisine for the masses and they generally fail. This typically wipes out half the menu at a chain like Red Lobster or Olive Garden (not that I’ve been to Olive Garden, but I've seen enough commercials).

Formula food at Red Lobster is steamed lobster. A fresh 2 pound lobster pulled out of a salt water tank and served steamed with drawn butter is the same at Red Lobster or Oceana. It is what it is. Lobster is lobster. You can't get lesser quality lobster the same way you can get lesser quality meat. Fried fish is also formula food. Roll anything in seasoned flour or batter and drop it in hot oil and you can't go wrong. Shrimp. Flounder. Scallops. It's all good.

I of course didn't stick to the formula this trip (my first trip - lesson learned) but I think I've got it figured out when we go back.

Marty - a Red Lobster veteran - did stick to the formula and it was delicious. His 2 pounder with drawn butter was exquisite.


After dinner, we headed back to Lincolnton and made a stop-off at Zipper's. It was a typical night at the bar - smoky, mediocre karaoke (at best) and cheap Bud Light bottles. There was the usual cast of characters. A redhead with too much eye make up and in need of orthodontic work was there celebrating her 50th birthday. She greeted Marty with a hug - he had apparently met her a few nights back with Carl and she remembered him. We met a man named Doc who looked like Burt Young in the Rocky movies (Uncle Paulie) - down to the hat perched jauntily atop his curly white hair. Although he was short, he was built like a Mack truck and Marty and I agreed that we wouldn't want to be on the opposite end of his fists. Or the holstered knife attached to his belt. It was - for the most part - a typical night at Zipper's.

And then I saw them. People like us. Well dressed. Well coiffed. Dental work intact. Thin. I noticed the men first. One was wearing jeans, an oxford underneath a cashmere v-neck and Gucci loafers. He was talking to a heavyset but pretty girl in pearl earrings and designer jeans. Their companion (who offered a better than average rendition of a Garth Brooks song) was in a black t-shirt and blue jeans that had Dolce & Gabbana embroidered on his ass. It reminded me of the scene in Mystic Pizza when the guy who winds up playing Julia Roberts' love interest walks into the local townie bar as part of a foursome on a double date. The girls - in their heavy plaid pleated skirts, headbands and with their orders of chardonnay stick out. So does the love interest - with his cashmere overcoat and well-styled hair (although at least he has the sense to order a beer).

I desperately wanted to talk to these people. Find out who they were. Why they were at Zippers. They seemed to know a fair number of locals, which made me think they were local themsleves. Better sense initially prevailed - but when Dolce & Gabbana made the rounds of the bar with the karaoke tip jar, I worked up the nerve to ask him what he was doing there. Of course - I phrased it slightly better and pointed out that we didn't exactly belong there either.

He laughed. And said he'd tell me later. Later never came.

And so I am left with the knowledge of what to order next time I find myself at Red Lobster and wondering - who's the guy on the D&G jeans?

And if that ain't country, I'll kiss your...