Restaurant websites: Why are they so awful? Which ones are the absolute worst?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Aug. 9 2011 6:14 PM

Overdone

Why are restaurant websites so horrifically bad?

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But it'd be a mistake to blame the chefs for these sites. They were all aided by Web designers who were either too unscrupulous or unsophisticated to disabuse them of their ideas. In fact, when you dig into some of the worst restaurant sites, you notice that they share the same designers. The Inception-like Buddakan site was built by a firm called  160over90, whose portfolio also includes New York's  Morimoto—a site that has a 10-second load time, obnoxious bass-heavy music, and a cut-out snapshot of the chef that constantly hovers on the screen. Those two places are owned by Starr Restaurants, whose other Web properties are also a piece of work. The site for Philadelphia's  Butcher and Singer, created by a firm called BAJ Design *, flashes an old-movie-reel countdown while it loads, then plays old-timey music that will drive you mad. I tried to contact 160over90 and the designers behind other sites mentioned in this article to ask them, essentially, why they sucked. Not surprisingly, I got no response.

I did get a plausible-sounding explanation of the design process from Tom Bohan, who heads up Menupages, the fantastic site that lists menus of restaurants in several large cities. "Say you're a designer and you've got to demo a site you've spent two months creating," Bohan explains. "Your client is someone in their 50s who runs a restaurant but is not very in tune with technology. What's going to impress them more: Something with music and moving images, something that looks very fancy to someone who doesn't know about optimizing the Web for consumer use, or if you show them a bare-bones site that just lists all the information? I bet it would be the former—they would think it's great and money well spent."

Not coincidentally, designers make more money to create a complicated, multipage Flash site than one that tells you everything you want to know on one page. Bohan, for one, isn't complaining about the terrible state of restaurant websites. Menupages, which lists each restaurant in its database by menu, operating hours, price, and address, is one of several sites that benefits from bad restaurant pages. (Yelp and Urbanspoon are also good resources.) Menupages' menus are formatted as Web pages, whereas many restaurants require you to spend time downloading a PDF file. This is because restaurants often don't have tools to update the text on their sites—saving and replacing a PDF file of a menu is easier than messing with the code on the site. But, again, this reduces usability, and pushes people to use third-party sites.

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This can't be good for restaurants. Scott Jampol, the head of consumer marketing at the reservations site OpenTable, points out that the Web is one of the primary ways that people determine where to get dinner. One-third of restaurant's reservations occur online during hours in which the restaurant is closed, Jampol says, and more than 10 percent of diners are coming from mobile devices. But many in the restaurant industry don't understand how important the Web is to their businesses. "The fact that it's a front door for many customers is still a new idea," he says.

Not all is lost. I spoke to a few restaurateurs who've created great, easy to use, elegant sites, and they all said they were motivated by one thing: They were missing out on traffic from mobile devices. The steakhouse chain Morton's, for instance, has a mobile site that uses your GPS location to get you information on the restaurant closest to you. The site loads up quickly, and lets you make a reservation in a matter of seconds. "We wanted to keep the bells and whistles at a minimum," Roger Drake, the company's head of marketing, told me.

Also, look at the the National, a New York bar and restaurant whose site uses nice photos and a simple layout to give you a quick impression of the place. The National's site was designed by Eng San Kho, of Love and War, who also created what I consider the platonic ideal of a restaurant site—the page for Jimmy, a rooftop bar at the James Hotel in Soho. The site is aggressively minimalist. At the top is a slideshow (not in Flash) of large photographs. Underneath, in easy-to-read text, you'll find everything you're looking for: address, email, phone number, hours. The site works on any device, and it loads up in half a second. "It's a beautiful business card, nothing more," Kho says. "It's not an 'experience,' it's not a dive into the magical world of flavor, it's not entertainment. What else do you need to communicate? It's just, what is this place about, how do I get a reservation, where are you located—that's it, and you're done."

Correction, Aug. 10, 2011: This article originally misidentified the designer of the website for the restaurant Butcher and Singer. That site was designed by BAJ Design, not 160over90. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.