Oh, to Live on Cheddar Bay

Red Lobster became my stand-in for the Pine Tree State, and I liked what I saw.

Illustration of person dining at Red Lobster
Illustration by Christine Mitchell Adams
By Sarah Cahalan

From our February 2018 issue.

Scattered around the ponds and lakes of Indiana are a handful of squat, often decorative lighthouses that, with an idealistic squint, might remind you of those that dot the Maine coast. Each winter, the Hoosier State gets a few snowstorms that have the zest of true Nor’easters. We have our own Washington County (although so do a couple dozen other states), and we’ve even got a Portland (landlocked, pop. 6,100ish).

But growing up in the heartland, there was only one place that evoked Maine for me: the cozy, faux-nautical environs of Red Lobster. The middlebrow seafood chain proliferates in the Midwest, and my home state of Indiana has its share: 20-odd Red Lobsters, from Fort Wayne to Terre Haute, each designed in the image and likeness of Vacationland.

I didn’t visit Maine until I was in college, but as a teenager, I visited plenty of casual dining franchises, clustered in the middle of vast shopping-plaza parking lots, little archipelagos of laminated appetizer menus and comforting sameness. But Red Lobster was different — it was exotic. Whenever I walked inside, passing the maritime signal flags and the monstrous wooden marlin, and sat down at a table, soon to be brimming with Cheddar Bay Biscuits and clam chowder, I thought I knew what it must be like to lounge seaside in Kennebunkport with Taylor Swift and the Bushes.

I had no reason to think Red Lobster’s depiction of Maine was anything less than authentic. In 2009, when I was 17, the chain renovated its locations nationwide, aiming to make things New England-ier (stonework, Adirondack chairs, the odd nautical lantern) and to de-emphasize the lobster tank at the front of each restaurant (too gruesome, evidently). The redesign project’s code name was “Bar Harbor.” Nearly every outpost I’ve been to — and I imagine this is a pretty representative sample — features a photo of Nubble Light in a place of honor somewhere in the dining room.

I’d been to Italy in third grade. And I’d been to the Olive Garden down the street from my local Kohl’s. And as best as I could tell, they’d more or less nailed the whole Bell’Italia thing.

But an accurate simulacrum or no, Red Lobster became my stand-in for the Pine Tree State, and I liked what I saw. I liked the feeling of leaving my blue-collar corner of a flyover state to spend an hour in a charming seaside village where I might spot a quirky houseboat or even an errant moose. I liked imagining that, instead of celebrating another semester on the honor roll at Logansport High, I was catching up with my family at a lobster shack while on break from my elite East Coast academy.

After graduation, I caught up to my private-school fantasies. I shipped off to Notre Dame, where my new friends taught me that corporate restaurants were bad and that seafood should be savored near the sea, rather than in a strip mall next to a cornfield. This didn’t stop my me and my best friend from sneaking off once a month to indulge our shared, forbidden love of mid-tier chains. During one late-night study session, another girl in our social circle blew my mind when she confessed her own dark secret: her dad was a Red Lobster VP.

At the end of our freshman year, all three of us were invited to visit a professor we’d grown close to at her summerhouse in Sherman, Maine. It wasn’t the coast, but it was Maine all the same, as real as it gets. Our professor and her husband, both Aroostook County natives, had built their cabin by hand. During our week in Sherman, my friends and I hiked in the shadow of Katahdin, took yoga classes at the 140-year-old Sewall House in Island Falls, and dipped our toes in a very cold Mattawamkeag Lake. And we had a lobster bake, with freshly caught seafood and a can of Moxie for every guest.

It was way, way better than a Seaside Shrimp Trio.

A few years later, I found myself back east, living in New Hampshire, heading up I-95 whenever possible to enjoy our northeastern neighbor’s superior beaches and lobster rolls. I dragged my sister to closing day at Fox’s Lobster House at York Beach, and I shared fresh catches in Ogunquit with my folks. But I have never stopped loving Red Lobster.

I’m back in Indiana now, and when conversation turns to dinner out, I’m the first to suggest The Lob. I know now that the real Maine is far superior to its mall-parking-lot facsimile, but my craving for my Midwestern version will never fade. In the real Maine, your Appalachian Trail day hike might leave you with blisters. That hot new Portland restaurant might have an hour-long wait. Fog might obscure your Acadia mountain views. Flash floods might waterlog your vacation rental.

But in 44 states and four Canadian provinces, a deep-fried, decorative-oar–smattered version of Maine is waiting, ready to convince you that you’ve just crossed over Memorial Bridge. It may only sort of look like the real thing, but with an idealistic squint, you can catch a glimpse of the state behind it all.