So a guy takes a girl to dinner for their first date. She orders lobster, market price — code for the most expensive thing on the menu. ¶ She never hears from him again. ¶ But the crustacean's days as a romance killer may be over. The lowest prices in decades have prompted restaurants across Tampa Bay to offer live Maine lobster at a deep discount. ¶ Now, lobster has a new role: business booster. ¶ "It's been a savior for us through the summertime," said Steve Fennell, general manager of Billy's Stone Crab & Lobster. "It brings people in. Everyone loves lobster." ¶ The Tierra Verde restaurant started selling 1 ½-pound lobsters for $15.95 a few months ago and got such a strong response, it has kept the promotion going. Fennell sees lobsters as a good alternative to stone crabs, which are now in season but are costly and in short supply. On average, the restaurant goes through about 400 lobsters a week.
Once a luxury dish reserved for special occasions, lobster is making its way to more and more plates. Even grocery stores are promoting it to at-home cooks as an affordable meal. Last week, Publix advertised small lobster tails for $4.99 each.
Diners can credit the deals to a glut of lobsters from Maine, the top producer, along with the Atlantic coastal areas of Canada. Last year, Maine's catch rose to a record 126 million pounds, double the amount a decade earlier and six times the average of the 1980s. Lobstermen accustomed to making $4 per pound have earned less than $2, creating a significant hardship for a region dependent on fishing.
Jeff Hazell, owner of Bar Harbor Seafood in Orlando, the area's largest supplier of lobsters, said he's selling 40,000 to 45,000 pounds of live Maine lobster a week, double that of two years ago. Interest has soared as prices have dropped. Restaurants that never considered the crawly crustacean now offer it as a featured special.
"We preach to restaurants, 'Put lobsters on the menu. Give them away to get people through the door. They'll order drinks and appetizers,' " he said.
This time of year is particularly good for soft shells from Maine — lobsters that molted their shell during the warmer months and are growing into a larger hard shell. Some gourmands consider soft shells sweeter, but they have less meat and thus are less expensive per pound.
Prices start to creep upward in November as trapping stops in Maine and shifts to Canada's more expensive hard shells, said Katie Sosa, co-owner of Sammy's Seafood in St. Petersburg. During the winter, prices peak when fishing stops altogether and supplies are limited to whatever companies have stored in tanks.
"This is the cheapest time of year for (soft) shell lobster, but we're just on the cusp of them getting more expensive," she said.
Companies deliver lobsters live to restaurants in seaweed-packed crates stored in coolers. (Lobster tails are processed up North and arrive frozen.)
CopperFish restaurant in Tampa gets daily deliveries of 1- and 2-pound live lobsters, served steamed or grilled. The low prices have made lobster even more popular, said chef Ted Dorsey. A customer who might wince at a $45 lobster dish is much more apt to try it when it costs $22 or $34, depending on the size.
"We want it to be accessible for people," he said.
Dorsey compares lobster to champagne. It's special and celebratory, with a touch of exclusivity. Each butter-soaked bite makes you happy.
Robert Nichol and Terri Huffman of Brandon head to James Joyce Irish Pub in Ybor City three to four times a month for its $9.99 lobster special on Monday nights. They like the casual bar atmosphere for digging into a delicacy most associated with fine dining. Live lobster isn't something they would attempt to cook at home.
The pub started the promotion last year as a way to gin up business on a normally slow day. Some nights were so busy the kitchen sold out of lobster before closing time.
Chef Jose Santiago said the pub makes about $1 per lobster — sometimes less — but makes up for it in beer sales and side dishes. During the summer he added the special on Tuesday and Wednesday nights but discontinued it a few weeks ago when prices inched up.
"A lot of people think that for that price, it must be frozen lobster, but it's not," he said.
Just ask his staff. At least once, a rogue lobster has escaped its crate and scurried around the kitchen.
Even national chains are getting deep into lobster. Earlier this month, Tampa-based Bonefish Grill, with 189 restaurants in 32 states, started Tuesday Tales of Lobster, a lobster tail dinner with choice of salad and side for $12.90 or lobster roll sliders with fries for $7.90.
Harold Seltzer's Steakhouse introduced steamed Maine lobster in September as an daily off-the-menu item. The 1 1/4-pound lobster sells for $15.99 and includes a cup of New England "chowda."
The response was so positive, customers started calling ahead to make sure the restaurant still had lobsters in stock, said Harold Seltzer, owner of the two restaurants in St. Petersburg and Port Richey.
"Lobster is a really good draw for us," he said. "It's very, very popular. People compliment us on it all the time."
The restaurant inspects every lobster when they arrive and "if they aren't alive and kicking, we send them back." Even cheap lobster won't sell if it's not fresh.
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] and (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston on Twitter.