Thursday, February 20, 2003

We ate dinner last night at Red Lobster. I know, it's homogenized, corporately-designed seafood; every restaurant looks the same, et cetera. But I still love going there. The food is invariably decent, those cheddar-biscuits are wonderful (if evil), and most of all, Red Lobster meets my big criterion for a seafood place: they decorate the joint so it looks like a seafood place.

I have always been a huge sucker for theme restaurants. When I walk into a place like Montana's, for example, and see all the timber-beams along the ceiling and the wagon-wheels on the walls and the trapping equipment and canoes on display and the branding irons and other assorted whatnot everywhere, that puts me into a kind of mood that usually involves generous helpings of red meat. Likewise, when I go into Don Pablos and note the colored lights (very large bulbs, not the twinkly Christmas-tree lights) strung about, and the faux windows and awnings and the tiled fountain in the middle of the place, I envision myself entering a Mexican sidewalk cafe -- even if I know I'm really in the middle of some suburban strip in Anywhere, USA. I like restaurants that try to convey a sense of place, a certain bit of fantasy to go along with food that, while it's probably not the best you'll ever experience in that vein, is still pretty good.

The single best seafood meal of my life was at a Legal Sea Foods in Boston. The focus there is on the food, and spectacular it is. But I still like the other stuff, too -- the theme stuff, the "other time and place" stuff. What do I want in a seafood place? Besides good food -- which, in my opinion, Red Lobster has -- I want to see nautical charts on the walls. (If they can do local waterways, great; in Syracuse that's probably asking a bit much.) I want to see oars and propeller blades and fishhooks and nets. Anchors are good, and lobster-traps. Low lighting -- enough to see, obviously, but not to make the place brilliantly lit, as a whaling-vessel or schooner would have been -- is a must. Low ceilings too.

If the restaurant is located on water or with a view of water, that's a bonus. This isn't always possible, of course, but it really helps. And if it's near the water, then it's really cool if the restaurant is actually supported on pilings above the water, so that one has to cross a little bridge to get to the place. (Again, too much to ask of Syracuse, but....) I should hear seagulls, and a foghorn would be OK too. And of course, there's nothing like the smell of saltwater to get one in the mood for tearing into some crablegs. Again, not in Syracuse, alas....but freshwater locales can have their own allure, too.

I tend to completely ignore music in restaurants -- a byproduct of having worked in them so long -- so I don't need to hear sea shanties on the speakers. And I pay little attention to what the servers wear, so there's no need to dress them up as captains or crew or whatnot. (Unless, of course, I'm eating at a Disneyworld theme restaurant. In that case, they'd better look the part.) I also suppose that simulating the swaying motion of a ship would be impractical and not entirely desirable.

Red Lobster gets a lot of this right. Yes, it's fairly obviously inauthentic, but it works for the hour or so that I'm there. Works for me, anyway.

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