Red Lobster Vs Joe's Crab Shack: Which Chain Is Better?

In May of 2024, word got out that iconic seafood chain Red Lobster was closing as many as 87 restaurants. But it's not alone: fellow seafood chain Joe's Crab Shack has been closing locations across the country for years. That's not their only similarity; they're two of the more well-known seafood places, they're both casual sit-down restaurants, and they're popular with kids, families, and adults. They may be struggling today, but they might be the best two options for folks who are feeling a little shellfish.

The question is, when forced to choose, which one is better? In reality, you can go to both, but for the purposes of our showdown, we want to decide which one has tastier food, better prices, a more varied menu, and stronger drinks. We've gone to both restaurants to eat a full three-course meal to be able to judge first-hand. We've dissected everything from their free bread to their desserts. So which is better — Red Lobster or Joe's Crab Shack? Let's dig in and find out.

Which restaurant has the better vibe for you?

Even though both Red Lobster and Joe's Crab Shack are sit-down family seafood restaurants, they're actually quite different — and it goes beyond the difference between lobster and crab. Red Lobster's casual dining experience and reasonable prices have made it popular from coast to coast, and even internationally, while the atmosphere gives off "classy on a budget" vibes that make it perfect for a date night or a mellow evening out with friends and family.

Joe's Crab Shack, conversely, goes for a livelier, more colorful look and feel, something more akin to a seafood version of Margaritaville. Walls with a raw wood look are adorned with an eclectic mix of ocean-themed paraphernalia, from surfboards and life preservers to photos of people frolicking on the beach. Its brighter color palette, along with the more upbeat pop-rock music piped through the restaurant's speakers makes it more attractive to families, teens, and adults who want a livelier night out.

To top it all off, my local Joe's included a memorabilia shop full of t-shirts with kitschy, sometimes naughty slogans sure to make a rowdy crowd laugh. Overall, Joe's Crab Shack appealed to me more — it's more fun and vibrant in a way that Red Lobster isn't. For those looking for something a little more formal, Red Lobster will fit the bill, but the inherently messy nature of lobster and crab always seems to work better in a more casual environment like Joe's.

Can Red Lobster compete with Joe's prices?

It's important to remember that good seafood isn't cheap. Like a good steakhouse, a seafood restaurant is going to set you back more than a burger. Still, there are definitely some price differences between Red Lobster and Joe's Crab Shack that are worth noting.

For starters, with its emphasis on lobster, Red Lobster's seafood entrees may be somewhat pricier here and there, as was the case with the entree I chose on my review visit. Red Lobster's lobster linguini was $29.99 while Joe's seafood linguine was $24.99 (prices may vary depending on where you live). Over on the crab side of things, Red Lobster offers snow crab legs for as low as $29.99 while Joe's least expensive steamed crab entree is $49.99. The two restaurants' shrimp dishes are similarly priced, with Red Lobster's shrimp plates ranging between $17.99 and $27.99, with Joe's array of shrimp baskets selling for $20.99 to $24.99.

Over on the non-seafood side of things, Joe's provides a menu that begins at $16.99 for chicken tenders and goes up to $26.99 for a sirloin steak. In contrast, Red Lobster's most expensive steak is over $30, though it has cheaper options too. On average, it's a draw between the two restaurants.

Red Lobster is a clear winner in the battle for bread

Red Lobster is downright legendary for its free bread — Cheddar Bay biscuits — that has become so overwhelmingly popular that there's even a make-at-home version that you can buy in stores.

Made using cheddar and garlic powder and served hot at the table, Red Lobster's biscuits look just as delicious in person as their reputation would suggest. They are buttery, flavorful, and perfectly fluffy on the inside and light and crispy on the outside. They're so good, in fact, that some folks have claimed to eat there just for the Cheddar Bay biscuits. Not only do I heartily agree with these Cheddar Bay fans, but my taste test for this review confirmed that they may be the best free appetizer offered in any national restaurant chain, with the possible exception of Olive Garden breadsticks. Sadly, this isn't just an easy win for Red Lobster because its biscuits are so good, but because Joe's Crab Shack didn't even offer a complimentary pre-meal snack of any kind during my sit-down visit. 

A taste test: Whose seafood is better?

For the purposes of my comparison, I attempted to find similar — and popular — dishes from both establishments. I went with the classic lobster linguini at Red Lobster and the seafood linguine at Joe's Crab Shack. The former boasts a trio of lobster: Maine lobster, langostino, and creamy lobster sauce. The brightest spot with this dish was the sheer amount of lobster included, which I appreciated given its hefty $29.99 price tag. There was enough lobster to get a decent helping with every forkful.

The issue with the lobster linguini, however, was the lobster itself. Though a good consistency, it didn't have much flavor, and the sauce didn't do much to bring it out. Joe's seafood linguine, meanwhile, may not have included as much lobster, but it did also feature shrimp, clams, mussels, and calamari, all topped with chopped tomatoes, basil, and white wine. A tomato sauce helped bring an added layer of richness. It also included some seriously tasty garlic bread. 

Though some might prefer the lobster trifecta of Red Lobster over the seafood smorgasbord in Joe's dish, the seafood in the seafood linguine was noticeably fresher-seeming and had more flavor than the lobster in Red Lobster's entree. All in all, the lobster linguini was a tad generic, even if the bread crumbs were a nice touch that added some good texture. Joe's seafood linguine wins this one handily with a better taste and a lower price.

How do the appetizers stack up?

For the appetizers, I chose to go with seafood stuffed mushrooms because it was a unique starter that both restaurants offered. Red Lobster's version, which I got first, was packed with unspecified seafood. Like the entree, it wasn't the freshest or most flavorful, though it was still good. The Monterey Jack cheese worked well, smothering the mushrooms, while the snap of the mushrooms was enough to offer a contrasting consistency to the soft cheese and seafood.

Joe's Crab Shack was unfortunately out of its version of this appetizer — crab stuffed mushrooms — so I was forced to go with the crab & shrimp dip. Though not quite comparable, it did reinforce that Joe's Crab Shack offers seafood with a bit more freshness and flavor. The shrimp conveniently had their tails removed, and the crab-infused dip was loaded with flavor. Overall, however, the dish just wasn't as memorable as Red Lobster's seafood stuffed mushrooms. If I'd been able to taste Joe's stuffed mushrooms, things may have been different, so I'll have to factor in variety too.

Red Lobster's starter menu is quite good; in addition to the mushrooms, it also includes such unique choices as spicy Crispy Dragon Shrimp, lobster flatbread, and crab queso. Joe's appetizers, meanwhile, are fairly standard, with chicken fingers, garlic bread, mozzarella sticks, and fried calamari. So while the seafood itself wasn't the best I've had, Red Lobster's better choice of starters gets it a win.

Comparing the side menus

The soide options at Joe's Crab Shack are almost like its appetizer menu: lots of simple, staple sides you'd expect at a seafood joint: snow crab, queen crab, shrimp, mussels, lobster tail, clams, and more. That said, it's a good menu of sides, even if it's simple, with the likes of hush puppies, corn on the cob, and french fries ensuring there's something for almost everyone. That said, this is a seafood restaurant, so vegan options aren't something it's putting much thought into, and while that might go without saying, it seems important enough to note.

Red Lobster is able to impress with a better variety of menu options. The side offerings there include enticing items like two sizes of clam chowder, bacon mac & cheese, and a creamy lobster baked potato (or creamy lobster mashed potatoes) on top of the usual salads, fries, and veggies. The restaurant also offers an extra basket of Cheddar Bay biscuits for just $4.99, so it's hard not to give this one to Red Lobster.

A dessert decision

Desserts may not be a must-have but they are a significant section of the menu at both Red Lobster and Joe's Crab Shack, so it's worth taking a look and seeing who does a better job in that category. I ordered the Key lime pie at both establishments for a direct head-to-head.

At Red Lobster, the Key lime pie is listed as a new item on the menu, which was partly why I wanted to check it out. I was handed a decent enough portion, not quite enough to get your belly bursting. The only notable feature was the potency of its lime flavor. In fact, it might have been a bit too potent; At times, the strength of the lime flavor was so tart it was overwhelming. If you like a strong pie, this is for you. Joe's Crab Shack offers up a less pungent, but still strong, Key lime pie that I preferred. The addition of whipped cream helped too.

Red Lobster also offers slices of either chocolate cake or cheesecake (in regular or strawberry), as well as the Brownie Overboard, mixing ice cream and brownies. It sells whole pies or cakes on request. At Joe's, meanwhile, you can get a chocolate cake slice, a Crab Apple Crumble (with ice cream), and the Campfire S'mores — a small slice of chocolate cake pressed between graham crackers and topped with a milk chocolate bar and toasted marshmallows. This category is a win for Joe's.

Which menu has the best entree options?

For my tastes, at least, it's already been established that Joe's Crab Shack beats Red Lobster in terms of its linguine. But what about its other menu options? While I couldn't taste-test them, I think it's important to see how each restaurant stacks up in terms of available entrees. Because both places do so much more than pasta mixed with seafood.

At Red Lobster, the entree menu starts with the Signature Feasts, which include various platters of lobster, crab, and shrimp, typically with an emphasis on the lobster. All range between $25.99 and $53.99 and provide a healthy helping of seafood, with the lower-cost Admiral's Feast serving only shrimp, flounder, and scallops alongside clam strips and french fries. The restaurant also serves steaks with or without lobster, offering your choice of sirloin, filet mignon, or NY strip steak. The restaurant also has a menu of sandwiches, burgers, and salads with or without shrimp, chicken, or salmon.

Joe's Crab Shack has a similar menu but with a wider variety of fish dishes that feature cuts of salmon, mahi, and tilapia. For its specialty, crab — as well as lobster, clams, and other shellfish — Joe offers full buckets and steam pots, something Red Lobster doesn't have. The point goes to Joe's.

Who has better drinks?

Like desserts, alcoholic beverages aren't a big part of the meal for everyone, but we'll need to compare the drink menus if we're going to find a winner in this battle. To Red Lobster's credit, it has a nice-looking menu that puts a spotlight on its colorful seasonal offerings. I couldn't resist a drink and ordered the Main Deck, which looked too good to resist. The problem was the drinks themselves.

The Main Deck is three flavored margaritas served on a wood plank: passion fruit, Caribbean Blue, and watermelon. I taste-tested them in that order. The first was a solid, if overly sweet, drink. Each of the next two got progressively sweeter to the point where the watermelon was a challenge to get through. All that sugar may have been to compensate for what felt like a very small amount of alcohol. What's most attractive about it was the price: $15 for three drinks.

You might be better off at Joe's Crab Shack if you want a margarita — and perhaps any cocktail. It's worth noting that Red Lobster's margarita uses Hornitos Reposado Tequila, which isn't great. By contrast, at least Joe's uses enough Monte Alban Silver to justify its $12 price tag. What Joe's does best, though, is offer goodies: In addition to a solid margarita, I also got to keep a colorful, screen-printed plastic drink mixer. Joe's also provides patrons the option to upgrade to higher-shelf liquors.

Which chain is easier to find?

If you're in the mood for some solid seafood you may not have quite as many choices as when you're looking for a good burger. When it comes to chain restaurants, there's really only a handful that operate nationally, so the question becomes, which one do you go to? Before considering budget or even quality, you may be forced to pick based on which one is closer to you.

Though both Red Lobster and Joe's Crab Shack operate from coast to coast, there are plenty of areas where one is more common, as well as places where one or the other is nonexistent. That's because — as good as Joe's Crab Shack is — there are fewer than 30 locations across the country, and that number is falling. In fact, the location I patronized was due to be closed for good within two weeks of my visit and will probably be gone by the time you're reading this.

On the flip side, Red Lobster has more than 600 locations in the United States alone and more internationally. If you're even remotely near an urban center of any kind, even just a reasonably sized town, you're likely to have a Red Lobster within driving distance. That gives Red Lobster a huge advantage, although it's worth noting that it too is experiencing troubles — the chain is shuttering more than 80 locations across 27 states.

The final verdict

Going into this seafood grudge match I wasn't sure quite what to expect. Both Red Lobster and Joe's Crab Shack have good reputations and I've been to each before more than once, but never considered how they stacked up against each other. After sitting and chowing down in both places back-to-back, the winner is Joe's Crab Shack.

The fact that Joe's Crab Shack's seafood linguine handily bested Red Lobster's lobster linguini is critical. Joe's won with better, fresher seafood and tastier pasta. Joe's also boasts a better choice of entrees, a better drinks menu, and a more fun atmosphere. Red Lobster does have the best free biscuits, a better sides menu, and better desserts, but that's just not enough to take this matchup. Because at the end of the day, it's hard for Red Lobster to win a war of seafood chains if its seafood isn't as good.

Final verdict: I like both chains, but Joe's was the clear winner. Of course, with so few locations remaining open, it's very possible you don't have one nearby, so Red Lobster may be the only game in town for you.