HARLEM — Harlem residents Sharon Evans and Diane Whitaker say they are "seafood people."
When the friends get the urge for shrimp, they usually make a trip to a Red Lobster in New Jersey because they aren't fond of the one in Times Square. But on Monday, the pair sat in the brand new Red Lobster on 125th Street next to the Apollo Theater and chowed down on a giant plate of shrimp.
"I'm so happy I don't have to go to Jersey anymore," said Evans, 62, a retired dispatcher.
Less than an hour after Red Lobster became the latest national retailer to open on 125th Street, it was steadily filling up with a lunch-time crowd.
"This is a great example of a business that's bringing in a product or service that people were leaving the community to get," said Barbara Askins, president of the 125th Street Business Improvement District.
The restaurant is not the typical Red Lobster. Instead, it was designed with a Harlem theme in mind. Diners in the second-story seating area have a view of the Apollo Theater and 125th Street.
The velvet ceiling in the first-floor bar recalls Harlem nightclubs of the 1940s and 1950s. The music for the restaurant is being curated by the experts at the Apollo Theater. On nights where the Apollo hosts an event, the restaurant will stay open two hours past its midnight closing time.
And Red Lobster engaged with the Harlem Arts Alliance to commission original works from Harlem artists such as Ademola Olugebefola and Aleathia Brown. One piece shows artists such as Duke Ellington, Florence Mills and Louis Armstrong.
"The fact that Red Lobster took the initiative to come and select artists from the community shows their concern for the culture of this community," Olugebefola said.
"And then this becomes more than a dining experience, it's a cultural experience," said Brown. "It is also a model for other businesses to take artists more seriously."
The 8,765-square-foot restaurant seats 340 people and is also bringing in 250 jobs. More than 60 percent of people hired live in Harlem, said Darryl "Chip" Wade, executive vice president of operations for Red Lobster.
When Wade spoke to the 125th Street Business Improvement District in June, he told them that the restaurant was likely to be one of the chain's highest grossing out of its 700 restaurants in North America, but concern was raised about the wage level.
Wade declined to discuss the company's pay scale Monday, but called the salary "competitive" and said there was a chance for advancement. Darden Restaurants, which owns Red Lobster, also supports local arts organizations and will donate unused food to local food banks.
Much concern has been raised as national retailers and major developments come to 125th Street, a move facilitated by its 2008 rezoning. More than $1 billion of development and 1 million square feet of space is planned for the street.
Hundreds of angry residents spoke out last week against the displacement of four local merchants on 125th Street with plans for the National Urban League to build its headquarters, a civil rights museum and retail on the site of what is now a garage.
"We have a lot of guests that are smiling. Clearly, the community has been awaiting our arrival," Wade said.
That includes customers like Whitaker.
"I'm just happy we have more food options in Harlem," said Whitaker, a school social worker, between bites of shrimp.