In the 90s, my parents ran a restaurant in the NBC Tower in Chicago called Mantuano Mediterranean Table. I spent a lot of time there as a kid, shoveling whole olives into my mouth and running around the spacious, echoing lobby before dinner service. It’s been closed for years, but the old restaurant had something in the 90s that set them apart, besides the ahead-of-its-time Mediterranean fare (yes, I know I’m biased).
It had a website.
The restaurant opened in March of 1997, a mere three weeks after my parents closed Tuttaposto, a similar Mediterranean restaurant that served dishes like Flaming Ouzo Shrimp and plates of Moroccan pasta, otherwise known as couscous. According to my dad, the Mantuano Mediterranean Table website had an orange background with the restaurant’s title in a blue old-school font right at the top of the homepage. There was even cheesy smooth jazz that played as you scrolled through the site.
“When we decided to make a website,” my dad said, thinking about the old restaurant, “I read about people doing it in New York and LA. I saw it coming, so why not make one if we could.”
The restaurant’s first review in Chicago Magazine included the url of the site below the address and phone number (something that was rare at the time), with the glowing remark, “ever the trailblazers, the Mantuanos actually have a website.” Food media wasn’t as intense and cutthroat as it is today, with the constant coverage of restaurant openings, Instagrammable food trends, and an industry that glorifies chefs. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that the Internet changed all that. Back then, it was the early days of the Internet where most people felt like Katie Couric did in that infamous Today Show clip where she thought “@” meant “about.” It was considered high-tech to have a website as a restaurant, or really as any kind of business that wasn’t an Internet or technology company itself.
Fast forward to the mid-2000s. We entered into an era where if you were a business and didn’t have some kind of online presence, you were behind the times. Founded in 2004, Yelp immediately impacted the kind of crowdsourced information that users could find out about businesses, especially restaurants. All this to say that people began relying on the Internet for many things; one of those things being where they should eat.
Ever since the early days of the Internet, there have been rudimentary web pages laced with all kinds of unnecessary flash components, stock photography, Comic Sans, and music that nobody asked for. However, restaurant websites seemed to be particularly
From “If This Fusion Restaurant’s Website Could Talk”:
“HEY HEY HEY! Watch this slide show! LOOK! We have modern chairs and minimalist light fixtures!! LOOK! It’s an orchid floating in a pool at sunset! Want to hear some DANCE MUSIC? Mute it any time you like! Just click the animated parakeet flying around the screen! You want to get into the site? Just click the smallest fork!!! DANCE MUSIC!!!!!”
While these excerpts are over the top with their criticism, especially the McSweeney’s piece (DANCE MUSIC!), they accurately point out the problems of restaurant websites from earlier this decade: an old era of web design with too many links to click on and horrible color choices, cutting corners with the design like using old photos and deplorable font choices, and not understanding what their customers ultimately want out of a website, i.e. to make a reservation, view the menu, and learn the location and hours.
However, when reading through the saved excerpts from the “Never Said About Restaurant Websites” Tumblr, there was one statement in particular that felt dated and no longer true in 2018.
“‘I go to restaurant websites for the ambiance.’ Anyone?”
Nowadays, besides it being common practice to not even consider eating at a restaurant before looking at its website, people who go out to eat want their restaurant choices to reflect who they are and look for a website that showcases the restaurant’s personality.
Other than the fact that restaurant websites have become less confusing and more streamlined, there has also been a surge of purposefully poorly designed websites. The archetype for this is the LA-based restaurant Salazar, whose website is filled with flash-wrought abominations of spinning alarms, dancing little men, and an auto-playing synth-only version of “What Is Love.” Owner Billy Silverman explained the reasoning behind the website in the 2017 Bon Appétit article “These Restaurant Websites Are Super Weird and Awesome” written by Elyssa Goldberg. Silverman said, “I think I Googled worst restaurant websites, and we just wanted to be as bad as the worst restaurant websites. We get notes all the time from people offering to help us like, ‘I noticed your website could use some work.’” Yet, by rendering this intentionally bad version of a website, the reactions have been almost unanimously positive. I would argue what potential diners really are looking for in a restaurant’s website design is something that fits with their own personality, for something that sets this website apart from the trend of uniform templates and clean minimalistic designs.
While services like Squarespace, Wix, and Wordpress exist to give restaurateurs easy to use templates to build their websites themselves, they run the risk of creating a self-designed website that looks like all the rest. Restaurateurs have the added responsibility of knowing what the digital landscape looks like. Taking into consideration a restaurant’s identity, it can be tricky to build a website that feels genuine, well-designed, interesting, and actually useful. However, it is possible to navigate between the super clean template designs, the over the top novelty sites, and the purposefully bad nostalgic sites.
A couple of months ago, I was on the phone with my parents as they brainstormed ways to create a website for The Mantuano Food Shop, a brand to sell packaged Italian goods online and possibly at a physical location. They hope to build the brand and website in a way that capitalizes on nostalgia, using the name and likeness of my great-grandpa’s Kenosha, Wisconsin food shop, with a modern design-driven sensibility. When thinking about the website, they were considering reaching out to the person who designed the website for Spiaggia, a Chicago restaurant where my dad is Chef/Partner. I told them that they should just do it themselves on Squarespace, since they are perfectly capable with technology. I told them with all sincerity that the Spiaggia website feels pretty stale, too much copy highlighting the accolades of the restaurant, hard-to-read text over dark backgrounds, hidden pages that aren’t accessible from the homepage. Basically, the antithesis of what is considered to be a successful restaurant website nowadays. Similar to how a menu is created with the thought of how each dish will visually impact diners, a restaurant’s website should be created with the same intention—presenting a restaurant’s strongest points in a way that matches and complements the restaurant’s aesthetic and vibes.
They were silent on the phone for a second, and then agreed.
“Yeah, we should just use Squarespace.”