The casual dining game is nothing if not cutthroat, with big-name franchises duking it out to score your Friday night dining dollar. However, if you’re looking for seafood, it’s tough to go wrong with Joe’s Crab Shack or Red Lobster. These seafood paradises bring a lot to the table regarding the overall ambiance, delectable dining options, and versatile menus. Red Lobster brings the yummy parade of Endless Shrimp, mega-portions, and nostalgic memories of sipping a Shirley Temple and scarfing down popcorn shrimp as a kid. On the other hand, Joe’s Crab Shack offers big old steamer pots served fresh in a cool atmosphere with friendly service. You can also score some great happy hour deals at Joe’s.
Regardless of which one you choose, you’re bound to enjoy a satisfactory and filling feast at either one, but when it really comes down to it, there’s one seafood giant that reigns supreme, if only by the teensiest of margins.
Most convenient locations
Since upscale casual restaurants like Joe’s Crab Shack and Red Lobster aren’t exactly destination dining, one of the biggest selling points is having one nearby. In this regard, it’s solely a numbers game and one that Red Lobster handily wins. According to ScrapeHero, you can find a grand total of 669 Red Lobster locations all throughout the United States, and your likely proximity to a Red Lobster goes up if you’re in the Sunshine State.
On the other hand, Joe’s Crab Shack has shy of 60 total locations, a whopping 90% less than Red Lobster, and a real disadvantage when it comes to providing its customers a convenient place to swing in on a whim. Joe’s Crab Shack closed many locations in recent years, and the restaurant has been rocked by scandals, which could account for its paltry handful of operating franchises. Whatever the reason, Red Lobster easily dominates in this category.
Best for frugal feasting
Realistically you can get a reasonably inexpensive meal at both Joe’s Crab Shack and Red Lobster, especially when you factor in all of the ongoing promotions and the basic mid-level prices for food. Still, Joe’s Crab Shack takes this one by the slightest of margins. According to Fast Food Menu Prices, Joe’s Crab Shack is a tiny bit cheaper than Red Lobster (via Fast Food Menu Prices), but that’s not the only reason we’ve crowned Joe the winner here.
Joe’s Crab Shack always has plenty of specials going on, including Landry’s Select Club, which allows you to collect points for gorging yourself on crab legs. Unfortunately, while Red Lobster has its famous and unrivaled Endless Shrimp, the sheer quantity and diversity of savings simply don’t match Joe’s Crab Shack. Although, if you haven’t answered the siren call of Endless Shrimp yet, definitely do not miss this glorious glutton fest.
Red Lobster sweeps the bread category thanks to its ultra-famous, unique and tasty Cheddar Bay Biscuits. These fresh and fab treats are regularly celebrated on Reddit, where they’re lauded as "amazing" and even better than Olive Garden’s breadsticks (via Reddit). Red Lobster’s biscuits are so intensely popular that the company released a frozen version (although it’s worth noting that the biscuits you can score in Red Lobster restaurants are never frozen), allowing you to get your Cheddar Bay fix in roughly 30 minutes (via Food & Wine).
A rare tangerine-colored lobster was even spared the boiling pot and christened "Cheddar" after the beloved biscuits (via ABC7 Chicago). Although you can get bready options at Joe’s Crab Shack, you’re limited to hushpuppies or garlic bread. Both are serviceable and tasty, but neither can hold a candle to Red Lobster’s Cheddar Bay Biscuits. Despite what’s in Red Lobster’s name, the biscuits are really the best thing on the menu.
Both Joe’s Crab Shack and Red Lobster have some pretty stellar apps on the menu, but in the case of Red Lobster, it’s not what you might think. Red Lobster’s best appetizer is its gooey mozzarella sticks, followed closely by the calamari and the Langostino Lobster-Artichoke-and-Seafood Dip. While it might be odd to order mozzarella sticks at a seafood joint, these fan faves can make the perfect first course to your seafood-laden main entree.
On the other hand, Joe’s Crab Shack’s Great Balls of Fire are creating quite a buzz with amateur reviewers on Tripadvisor and Yelp. Heralded as phenomenal (via Tripadvisor) and one not to miss (via Tripadvisor), Joe’s balls are a spicy concoction of seafood and jalapeno served with a tasty dipping sauce. In the epic battle of the apps, it’s impossible to choose between Joe’s Crab Shack and Red Lobster, so we’re calling this one a tie.
Most welcoming ambiance
Red Lobster wins on the ambiance front with its welcoming, Maine-inspired design. You’ll find cozy Adirondack chairs and maritime-inspired décor throughout your friendly local Red Lobster, hitting all the high points on both aesthetic appeal and function (via Hospitality Design). Coupled with Red Lobster’s warm, buttery lighting and wooden interior, this chain restaurant is a spot where you’ll feel comfortable enough to sit down and stay awhile while stuffing your face with Endless Shrimp.
While Joe’s Crab Shack hits high notes for casual décor and a touch of seaside whimsy (via Naples News), it’s also had some pretty big missteps. According to CNN Money, one Joe’s Crab Shack found itself in significant hot water with a highly offensive placemat depicting a lynching. The jarring and horrible image was soon spotted and removed, but it was — understandably — enough to cause a major scandal and ensure that Red Lobster won the top place for this one.
Best service overall
While Joe’s Crab Shack’s décor might be a disastrous dud, its service shines. According to Restaurant Business Online, Joe’s Crab Shack is highly popular with families and has an excellent satisfaction rate for its service. While you can expect servers with smiles dishing out your steam pots at Joe’s Crab Shack, the experience is slightly less favorable overall at Red Lobster.
According to the Customer Service Scoreboard, Red Lobster has an abysmal score in terms of support and service, ultimately being classified as disappointing. So if an exemplary customer service experience where you feel like a treasured guest is on the top of your list for dining out, skip the Red Lobster and head over to Joe’s Crab Shack instead. Of course, your mileage may vary, and there’s nothing to say that the Red Lobster near you isn’t staffed with sweethearts, but as a general rule, it’s Joe’s Crab Shack for the win.
Highest quality of seafood
Diners agree: Red Lobster wears the crown of quality when it comes to the best seafood. Between the chain’s iconic popcorn shrimp and tasty lobster tails with clarified butter, it’s a hard act to follow. Additionally, Red Lobster sources all of its seafood from traceable and sustainable sources (via Red Lobster), so you can feel good about sinking your teeth into any of the seafood treats on its menu.
On the contrary, Joe’s Crab Shack might have lip-smacking steam pots, but its products are also laced with trans fats, despite a 2007 vow to abandon the highly unhealthy ingredient (via Today). Also, while Red Lobster broadcasts its commitment to sustainability front and center, Joe’s Crab Shack’s website says precious little about where its seafood actually comes from, so if sustainability and traceable ingredients are essential to you, a trip to Red Lobster could be a wiser choice.
Most family friendly
Although it’s another tough call, Red Lobster ekes past Joe’s Crab Shack when it comes to being a family-friendly destination. Don’t get it twisted — families are still welcome and treated right at Joe’s Crab Shack (via Restaurant Business Online), but Red Lobster’s robust kid’s menu full of pint-sized faves like popcorn shrimp, chicken tenders and mac and cheese is a cut above. Plus, according to Myrtle Beach on the Cheap, Red Lobster makes it easy for you to feed your family inexpensively thanks to Family Meal Deals which come with a tantalizing portion of Cheddar Bay Biscuits.
According to Savannah.com, Joe’s Crab Shack has casual, family-friendly dining, and its 99-cent kid’s menu (with the purchase of an adult-sized entrée) makes it a good bet for a wholesome family fun night out. On the other hand, some Tripadvisor reviews note that children don’t seem completely welcome at all locations.
In another neck-and-neck contest for the king of casual dining shrimp, Joe’s Crab Shack wins the day but just barely. Although famous for its incredible Endless Shrimp promotion, Red Lobster just doesn’t bring the taste like Joe’s Crab Shack does, although certain items, like Parrot Isle Jumbo Coconut Shrimp, are undeniable must-haves. Ultimately, you’ll snack on some fine shrimp at either locale, but Joe’s Crab Shack might taste just the teensiest bit better.
Joe’s Crab Shack routinely rates highly on Tripadvisor for its delectable shrimp and features top mash-ups like bacon-wrapped stuffed shrimp (via Smoky Mountains). Overall, the chain seems to fair slightly better in terms of shrimp-based customer satisfaction, although both Red Lobster and Joe’s Crab Shack serve up a mean shrimp taco and the battered shrimp at both locations gets full marks. Get blackened shrimp tacos at Joe’s Crab Shack, deemed "the best thing on the menu" (via Tripadvisor), or tasty grilled shrimp tacos at Red Lobster (via Tripadvisor).
Despite the word "lobster" literally being in Red Lobster’s name, it ties with Joe’s Crab Shack for the tastiest lobster overall. According to Good Mythical Morning, a head-to-head taste test proved that both chains had stellar elements to their lobster, and finding a winner was a near-impossible task. We tend to agree because while Red Lobster features the crustacean more prominently, Joe’s Crab Shack’s lobster is a full-on flavor frenzy.
Per Tripadvisor, Joe’s Crab Shack’s lobster and crab were both fresh and delicious. Other Tripadvisor reviews say that Red Lobster’s tails are the "best in the country." No matter whether you opt for Joe’s Crab Shack or Red Lobster, the bottom line is that you really can’t go wrong with ordering one of the sweet and savory ruby crustaceans. Whole lobster, tails, or surf and turf style, it’s all good at both Red Lobster and Joe’s Crab Shack.
Best crab legs
Staying true to its namesake, Joe’s Crab Shack has the best crab legs, and you can get them in a sumptuous surplus with portions large enough for the whole family. According to Tripadvisor, the snow crab legs at Joe’s Crab Shack are extra fab, and you can get them with plenty of butter and yummy sides like corn on the cob. Other Tripadvisor reviewers pointed out that when you ate at Joe’s Crab Shack, you could expect the messy but delightful experience of snapping open copious amounts of tasty crab legs.
Red Lobster does a pretty good showing on crab legs, too, although its reviews are less sparkling than Joe’s Crab Shack’s, which is why it doesn’t sweep this category. Red Lobster’s snow leg crabs are very enjoyable (via Tripadvisor), and it’s a decent place to get your crab fix, although there are much better options on the menu. Interestingly, crab legs proved to be a giant revenue suck for Red Lobster when it offered an all-you-can-eat promotion. Americans’ appetite for crab legs knows no bounds, an expensive lesson for Red Lobster (via Revelstoke Review).
Happiest Happy Hour
While you can grab some good cocktails and craft beer at either Joe’s Crab Shack or Red Lobster, the latter doesn’t advertise or promote its Happy Hour, making this a definite but also default win for Joe’s Crab Shack. According to Fast Food Menu Prices, Red Lobster has an unofficial Happy Hour menu of sorts comprised of specials that run between 3 and 6 p.m. during the week and deals on mainstream craft beers like Sam Adams.
Joe’s Crab Shack advertises its Happy Hour, which is cleverly named "Seas The Hour" and runs weekdays from 3 – 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. until the restaurant closes. You’ll have to belly up to the bar to get Happy Hour deals, but it’s worth it for $3 Cajun Garlic Bread and $5 Great Balls of Fire. Joe’s Crab Shack’s Seas The Hour specials let you sample a wide array of different menu items for just a few bucks, making it the epitome of Happy Hour.
The winner is…
Joe’s Crab Shack and Red Lobster are both titans in the world of casual seafood dining, but there’s one that beats out the competition by a pinch. Despite strong showings in the seafood, service, and Happy Hour departments, Joe’s Crab Shack just can’t compete with the granddaddy of all seafood joints: Red Lobster. Thanks to its ambiance, commitment to sustainability, the massive number of convenient locations, and flagship offerings like the Endless Shrimp promotion and Cheddar Bay Biscuits, Red Lobster comes out on top.
The fact that you can find a location on virtually every corner is one of the strongest reasons we had to give Red Lobster the nod. Restaurants like Red Lobster and Joe’s Crab Shack should offer convivence before anything else, and sadly Joe’s Crab Shack just doesn’t compete in this regard. While Red Lobster wins this battle, you could have a fab meal at either restaurant.