The Guilty Pleasure: Cheddar Bay Biscuits Where To Get It: Red Lobster, locations Valleywide The Price: Complimentary with your entrée order, $7.50-$26 What It Really Costs: Only 150 calories each. Good luck eating just four.
If there's one thing that we food-crazed folk have in common, it's disdain for casual restaurant chains. We just aren't their target demographic. They're for middle-of-the-road Americans, people who value predictable (if drab) results over the risk of trying something different and hating it.
The poster child for consistently mediocre fare has to be Darden Restaurants. Its sister flagship restaurants, Olive Garden and Red Lobster, will make a dish exactly the same anywhere from here to New England. Never mind that it's barely a step up from heating up a frozen skillet meal; there are zero dishes to wash, and everyone in the family can have something different.
Even among acquaintances who frequent either restaurant (or both), I rarely hear much about the food from either place. At least, until they unleash a tidal wave of endless pasta or shrimp, but that's another column. However, I do consistently hear about particular items at both places, even among people who otherwise wouldn't be caught dead in a Darden restaurant.
I'm pretty sure that these items are the reasons for Darden's continued success. Simply put, soft warm carbs bathed in garlic butter are delicious. Olive Garden has its salad and garlic breadsticks. Red Lobster gets the better end of the deal with Cheddar Bay Biscuits.
It's kind of fun to watch foodies sneer at the mention of Red Lobster, then develop a Pavlovian drool at the mention of those biscuits. It's just a drop biscuit with some cheese mixed in and brushed with garlic butter, but I'll be damned if I don't inhale the entire basket seconds after it hits the table. Cheddar Bay Biscuits have been so instrumental in the menu that Red Lobster has incorporated them into a new entrée. It recently introduced a shrimp-and-lobster pot pie that's topped with one of those famous biscuits.
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I wish I had any sort of non-obvious news about the pot pie. It was as bog-standard as Red Lobster fare gets. I could tell the pot pie was carefully assembled, as there was but one paltry bite of lobster strategically hidden at the bottom of the dish. Beyond that, the creamy sauce mutes the shrimp and pre-fab veggies to the point that they are there only for textural purposes. Overall, the filling was so banal that it tarnished the allure of the Cheddar Bay Biscuit topper. If beige had a flavor, it would be this very dish.
So what's a food nerd to do if they get roped in to dining at Red Lobster? It's easy. Take the Alice Waters approach that simple food is best. Never mind that Waters had in mind taking great ingredients and letting them shine. Here, it's because the simple stuff is the least likely to get screwed up. Have an entrée salad topped with grilled seafood; the blueberry balsamic vinaigrette that comes on their Bar Harbor Salad is pleasant, if not downright enjoyable. Reacquaint yourself with the naive charms of cool, extra-crisp iceberg lettuce.
And of course, demolish basket after basket of those warm, delicious, addictive biscuits.