The first thing that pops up when you visit the website of the San Francisco restaurant Fleur de Lys is a nearly full-screen animation of celebrity chef Hubert Keller's autograph. That makes sense—when I'm choosing a restaurant, the first thing I want to know is, Can the chef sign his name?
Wait a second, though. What does Chef Keller look like? You're not going to bother with this place if the chef doesn't have a good headshot. Good news! After the signature, the site fades into a snappy photo of Keller. Fortunately, he's a looker—think Peter Fonda with Fabio's hair.
After the autograph and headshot, the site transitions to a "main menu," which presents you with links to Keller's other restaurants and his PBS TV show. Tempted though you are, you stay focused and click for the San Francisco restaurant. One bit of advice: If you've got a subwoofer attached to your computer, now's the time to crank it up, because you're in for some auto-playing, royalty-free, ambient techno smooth jazz! As you stifle your urge to get up and dance, you click around in search of information about the restaurant. (The page emits a friendly beep every time you click.) If you spend the better part of your lunch hour scouring the site, you'll eventually find the menu. What you won't find is the price—it takes a Web search to determine that the tasting menu at Fleur de Lys costs $72 a person.
By this point, you've likely been so beaten down by the music, the nested menus, and the interminable "Loading …" prompts that you're considering Taco Bell for dinner (though it too has a terrible site). Still, I'm not arguing that Hubert Keller is responsible for the worst restaurant website ever created. That's a bit like trying to decide on the most awful serial killer in history. The head-poundingly awful Fleur de Lys site is just one of many in an industry whose collective crimes against Web design are as routine as they are horrific. If you think Fleur de Lys is ugly, check out the site for New York's Buddakan, which launches a full-screen window, auto-plays sitar-heavy technopop, and subjects you to a series of flying panels every time you click. (Eater NY described the site as "like the Inception trailer, but with summer rolls.") Next, check out Cavatore, an Italian restaurant in Houston that hired Web designers who were either a) on a Monty Python-besotted acid trip, or b) looking to induce epileptic seizures. Seriously, this site is so bad it's evil.
While lots of people have noted the general terribleness of restaurant sites, I haven't ever seen an explanation for why this industry's online presence is so singularly bruising. The rest of the Web long ago did away with auto-playing music, Flash buttons and menus, and elaborate intro pages, but restaurant sites seem stuck in 1999. The problem is getting worse in the age of the mobile Web—Flash doesn't work on Apple's devices, and while some of these sites do load on non-Apple smartphones, they take forever to do so, and their finicky navigation makes them impossible to use.
Over the last few weeks I've spent countless hours, now lost forever, plumbing the depths of restaurant Web hell. I also spoke to several industry experts about the reasons behind all these maliciously poorly designed pages. I heard several theories for why restaurant sites are so bad—that they can't afford to pay for good designers, that they don't understand what people want from a site, and that they don't really care what's on their site. But the best answer I found was this: Restaurant sites are the product of restaurant culture. These nightmarish websites were spawned by restaurateurs who mistakenly believe they can control the online world the same way they lord over a restaurant. "In restaurants, the expertise is in the kitchen and in hospitality in general," says Eng San Kho, a partner at the New York design firm Love and War, which has created several unusually great restaurant sites (more on those in a bit). "People in restaurants have a sense that they want to create an entertainment experience online—that's why disco music starts, that's why Flash slideshows open. They think they can still play the host even here online."
When you visit many terrible restaurant websites in succession, it becomes obvious that they're not bad because of neglect or lack of funds—these food purveyors appear to have spent a great deal of money and time to uglify their pages. Indeed, there seems to be an inverse relationship between a restaurant's food and its site. The swankier the place, the worse the page. Chez Panisse, Alice Waters' Berkeley temple of simple, carefully sourced local cuisine, starts with a pointless, grainy five-second clip of what looks like a scene from a Fellini movie. Alinea, the Chicago molecular gastronomy joint, presents you with a series of menu buttons that aren't labeled; you've got to mouse over each one to find out what you're about to click on. Masa, the exclusive New York sushi bar, presents you with a pages-long, scroll-bar-free biography of its chef, but (as far as I can tell) no warning that you'll spend $400 or more per person for dinner.
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.
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.)