Red Lobster restaurant history: Look back at the dining experience in the 70s, 80s & 90s

Vintage Red Lobster restaurants

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Was Red Lobster restaurant where you got your first taste of seafood?

The first Red Lobster restaurant was in Lakeland, Florida, and opened its doors to seafood lovers back in 1968. Just two years later, the chain had five locations, and were doing well enough that the food giant General Mills decided to buy the company.

As you can read below, that investment allowed the restaurants to bring fresh seafood and casual dining — and eventually those delicious Cheddar Bay biscuits — to millions of people across the country. (PS: If Red Lobster restaurants offered you an introduction to seafood, you may well be a Midwesterner!)

Vintage 70s Red Lobster Inn restaurant interior (1972)
Vintage 70s Red Lobster Inn restaurant interior (1972)

Red Lobster: A growing family seafood restaurant (1976)

The Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) October 1, 1976

Red Lobster seafood restaurants are ever-growing proof that dedication to a concept is making it possible for people all over America to enjoy good seafood at reasonable prices.

In only a short span of years, the specialty organization has grown from a single restaurant to more than 170 restaurants serving more than $100 million worth of seafood a year from border to border and the East Coast to the Rockies.

Vintage Red Lobster restaurant scene (1979)

Adhering staunchly to its pre-opening concept of offering quality, value and service, the Red Lobster restaurants — all company owned and operated — have served millions of people a variety of seafood at moderate prices.

Red Lobster restaurant history

THE ORIGINAL Red Lobster was conceived by a group of veteran restaurant men who believed that people would appreciate a sit-down seafood restaurant where they could enjoy good quality food at reasonable prices in friendly, informal surroundings.

Red Lobster restaurant in the late 1970s-Early 80s

The emphasis has continued to be on the quality of food, value, and personal service, not on unnecessary frills that would increase the check, but not necessarily the enjoyment of the meal.

The first Red Lobster was such an immediate success that it was necessary to remodel it within its first month of operation to provide additional equipment which could cook more seafood efficiently.

The dining chain sold to General Mills

Two years later, Red Lobster had grown to five units and attracted the attention of General Mills, which purchased the restaurants and supplied the support and backing to enable rapid expansion.

Old Red Lobster decor (1978)

Drawing on the expertise gained with the original restaurant and maintaining rigid quality control, the operation grew rapidly with 13 units opening by 1971, 31 by 1972, 54 by 1973, and 76 by 1974.

NEW OPENINGS now are occurring at an average of three a month, spreading Red Lobster territory from coast to coast and border to border In 1969, the headquarters of Red
Lobster Inns was established in Orlando, and all operations were conducted from an 1,800 square-foot office.

In 1974, Red Lobster headquarters moved into its own 55,000 square-foot, five-story building, and expansion plans already are underway.

MORE: Vintage 1970s restaurants: See vintage fast food, sit-down places & other retro eateries

Old Red Lobster restaurant - Cocktail Lounge sign (1970)

Red Lobster history: The winning formula

Much of Red Lobster’s success can be attributed, according to President Joe R. Lee, to the spirit of its employees, the expertise acquired through the operation of the multi-restaurant organization in many parts of the country, and to rigid quality control.

“A scientific system of testing, tasting and training has been perfected,” Lee revealed, “under which highly skilled experts in five divisional test kitchens check quality, size and condition of every order of seafood shipped before it is purchased.” Every proposed addition to the menu must undergo the “executive taste test” — tasted and approved by the top executives of the company.

Vintage 1970 Red Lobster restaurant lobby

THE NEW recipe then is passed along to each Red Lobster restaurant, where it is prepared, served and sampled by those who will later prepare and serve it to Red Lobster customers.

The menu addition procedure is an example of the Red Lobster practice of thoroughly training all its employees from supervisory personnel to kitchen workers, so customers in each restaurant will consistently be served quality food, properly prepared and pleasantly served.

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Store management training includes two weeks in classes conducted in the corporate offices in Orlando and 13 weeks in the field, covering every station in a Red Lobster. Each Red Lobster has three managers and two of them are always on duty during high-traffic periods.

Old-fashioned Red Lobster restaurant dining room (1977)

To further ensure uniform quality, when each new restaurant opens, trained personnel are brought in from other Red Lobsters to train and supplement in key positions. This team stays from one to two weeks to give the new employees further training and confidence.

According to President Joe Lee, “These are among the things that have enabled Red Lobster in eight short years to grow and become the world’s largest seafood restaurant chain.”

1970s Red Lobster history: Vintage menu cover

Vintage 1970s Red Lobster menu front

Red Lobster restaurant’s bill of fare in the 70s

All hot seafood entrees served with hush puppies, cole slaw, and choice of potato


CLAM CHOWDER New England Cream Style Cup .49


SHRIMP COCKTAIL Tangy Cocktail Sauce 1.29

CRAB MEAT COCKTAIL Famous Alaskan Crab Meat 1.29


FRIED SHRIMP – Succulent and tender .. 2.99

SHRIMP CREOLE – Served in Casserole Half Order 2.39 over a Bed of Rice 2.59

BROILED STUFFED SHRIMP – Tender, sweet Shrimp stuffed with a Delightful Crab Meat Mix 2.99

COLD BOILED SHRIMP – 18 Shrimp in the Shell, served with Cocktail Sauce and Saltines – You peel ‘urn 3.19

SHRIMP LOUIE – Served on a Bed of Lettuce, topped with Louie Dressing, Chef’s Garni 2.39

POPCORN SHRIMP – An unusual Treat of Golden Fried Petite Shrimp 2.49


STEAK & LOBSTER Broiled to perfection 5.69

STEAK & STUFFED SHRIMP – Broiled Shrimp stuffed with Crab Meat Mix .. 4.89

Steak & Lobster Combinations served with Garlic Bread in place of Hush Puppies.


BROILED FLORIDA LOBSTER – Florida Lobster stuffed with our Special Dressing 4.99 

BROILED ICELANDIC LOBSTER TAILS (Sometimes called Danish) 4.49

ROCK LOBSTER TAILS – Broiled to perfection 5.99


FRIED OYSTERS – Tender Selects fried to a Golden Brown Half Dozen 2.19 One Dozen 2.99

FRIED SCALLOPS – Fried Select Deep Sea Scallops 2.99 / Half Order 2.19

FRIED CLAM DINNER 1.99 Sweet, Tender and Juicy


Entrees served with Choice of Potato, Cole Slaw or Shredded Lettuce and Garlic Bread

COMMODORE’S STEAK – Rib Eye Cut 4.39
HAMBURGER SANDWICH 1.29 – Served with French Fries, Lettuce, Tomato and Pickle Chips

TOT’S GALLEY: 10 Years and Under

DEVILED CRAB CAKE, FLOUNDER, HAMBURGER PATTY, FRIED CHICKEN, FRIED SHRIMP, FRIED OYSTERS – Served with hush puppies, cole slaw, and choice of potato: .99

Apple Sauce or Cottage Cheese may be substituted for Potato or Cole Slaw with Entree.

Vintage 1970s Red Lobster menu page - Bill of fare

DON’T MISS: Famous Red Lobster biscuit recipe: These copycat Cheddar Bay biscuits taste like the real deal (1998)

Vintage 1970s Red Lobster restaurants: Take-out service

Vintage 1970s Red Lobster take-out service

Red Lobster restaurant in the late 1970s-early 80s

Red Lobster restaurant in the late 1970s-Early 80s

Red Lobster Inns server (1980)

Carolyn here is showing off dozens of the foods the chain offered on the menu in the 80s, including King Crab legs, lobster tails, shrimp cocktail, fried shrimp, salads, and cherry cheesecake

Red Lobster Inns (1980)

Red Lobster restaurant party platters (1983)

Red Lobster party platters (1983)

ALSO SEE: Famous Red Lobster biscuit recipe: These copycat Cheddar Bay biscuits taste like the real deal (1998)

Red Lobster presents The Platters & party platters to go (1985)

Red Lobster presents The Platters (1985)

YouTube video

Red Lobster history: A business snapshot from 1986

[The General Mills company] resumed its expansion in the United States during 1986, and began to accelerate its development of international markets.

Red Lobster USA is America’s leading seafood dinnerhouse chain, offering a blend of great food and exceptional service that wins high consumer ratings.

About Red Lobster in 1986

Retro 80s Red Lobster dining room decor (1987)

Vintage 80s Red Lobster dining room (1987)

1980s Red Lobster dinners and salads in 1985

Red Lobster restaurant meals (1985)

Old Red Lobster restaurant server & uniform (1987)

1980s Red Lobster server (1987)

A 1980s Red Lobster server and food (1989)

80s Red Lobster server and food (1989)

Red Lobster history: A chain restaurant in 1989

Red Lobster in 1989

90s Red Lobster Restaurant ad: Fisherman (1996)

Red Lobster (1996)

Famous Red Lobster biscuit recipe: These copycat Cheddar Bay biscuits taste like the real deal (1998)

Red Lobster or Rock Lobster?

Although the decor and menu were created to evoke a feeling of the old New England seaside, the first Red Lobster Inn restaurant was actually in Lakeland, Florida. That city happens to be in central Florida — miles away from the ocean.

As it turns out, though, their lack of proximity to the brine didn’t matter too much, because the iconic big-clawed lobster in the company’s logo (and in the restaurant interior images you can see above) was a Maine lobster, anyhow.

Those delicious crustaceans are found in cold waters, unlike the warm-water Florida lobsters — also known as spiny lobsters or rock lobsters — that don’t have claws, and are often served at restaurants when you order a lobster tail.

Maine lobster and Spiny (rock lobster, Florida lobster) differences
Maine Lobster and Spiny/Florida/Rock Lobster (Deposit Photos)

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. Recently, a Red Lobster memory popped in my mind. I remember the large relief/3-D/sculptural picture (ca. 1974—I was in grade school) that hung in the waiting area of a Red Lobster in my hometown in Missouri. The colors were very bright/vivid. I remember the Red Lobster in front of a large half shell ruling over his underwater domain including the mermaids. I was tickled to see half of the artwork I remember in one of the photos in the article (though the photo’s color is on the drab side). I have two small souvenir Red Lobster menus I have kept since I was a kid (again, ca. 1974). A lobster & steak dinner is priced at $4.79.

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