Restaurant Websites: The Great and the Terrible.

| February 26, 2008 | 21 Comments
  • 21 Comments

I admit to being a bit of a design snob. I initially judge blogs on the way that they look or their terrible photos rather than the quality of their writing. And I often want to avoid restaurants whose websites have irritated me in one way or another. Of course, once I look further into some of those blogs I find writing I love, and once I actually go to some of those restaurants I find I enjoy them. But first impressions mean a lot.

A couple of days ago, a friend was asking me for a restaurant recommendation. Easy task, I thought. I had some restaurants in mind and just needed to check and see if they were open and send her the websites. What should have been a 5-minute email turned into a half-hour nightmare as I slogged through websites that are more intent on impressing me with movies, music, and other annoyances than on giving me direct information.

Hear this, restaurants: We are not looking to your sites for entertainment. We want to get our information, get out, and get back to watching Eli Stone. Noise of clinking glasses or a dull roar or fancy music does not make us want to go to your restaurant more, it just tips off our employers that we are making dinner plans instead of filing our TPS reports. We don’t want to sit through 30 second flash movies of how happy we’ll be if we go to your restaurant. We just want the facts: When are you open, what’s for dinner, and how much does it cost. And I want to do that in as few clicks as possible.

Oh, and also? We are in the Bay Area — arguably the technology capital of the world. How difficult is it to learn to code up a simple HTML page? Why are you still making us click through to PDF’s of your menus or (horrors) Word documents? It’s all about time for me, and opening up the pdf takes up my precious seconds.

MY FAVORITES

Some of my favorite restaurant websites are super basic, nice to look at, and tell me all I need to know.

Spork. Looking at this website makes me want to spend my hard-earned money to hire this designer to redo all other restaurant websites. It’s gorgeous.

Bar Jules. The lovely Bar Jules site changes daily and tells us what’s for lunch and dinner.

Slanted Door. Chock full of information, and has a handy plug-in to make an Open Table reservation.

Arizmendi Bakery. Arizmendi’s pizza changes daily, and Arizmendi has a calendar for the whole month of delicious flavors.

SITES THAT MAKE ME WANT TO SCRATCH MY EYES OUT
(warning, many of these have music)

Bix. I want to send a friend directly to Bix’s list of cocktails, as I had an excellent one there the other night. Oh wait … the whole site is in FLASH so I can’t send a direct link!

Market Bar. Don’t. Resize. My. Browser. Ever. (And while you’re at it, you might want to get spellcheck. Mediterranean is spelled with one “t”.)

Spruce. Let’s review how many steps I have to go through to find the Spruce dinner menu:

1) wait for flash site to load
2) click “menus”
3) click “food”
4) click “dinner”
5) change my browser to allow pop-ups for this site
6) PDF!

House. Give us prices. Seriously. Not having prices reeks of pretentiousness and is absolutely useless.

And then we have a “bandwidth exceeded” message over at 1300 Fillmore.

Fortunately for us consumers, there are ways around these horrid websites. Menu Pages, while not the prettiest site out there, lists over 4000 menus in San Francisco. And Yelp is the easiest place I’ve found to figure out restaurant hours.

Let’s call out all the bad restaurant websites — which would you nominate? What are your pet peeves?

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About the Author ()

"My passion for food began young." I am the editor of the influential website www.EatLocalChallenge.com which encourages readers to support local farmers and producers. I began my personal website, Life Begins at 30, in 2003. I have been published in Edible San Francisco and Fine Cooking, write regularly for Bay Area Bites, Serious Eats, and have been quoted in many nationwide publications. Photography is a passion, and I have had photos printed in National Geographic Traveler and Travel + Leisure. I contributed to a Williams-Sonoma cookbook: Cooking from the Farmers' Market, which was released in February 2010. I live in San Francisco, California and can often be found at local farmers markets seeking out the best of what's in season and chatting with farmers.
  • Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic

    Oh my god, SERIOUSLY! It’s about time we talked about this.

    Restaurants like my beloved Chapeau! need to learn not to have a proxy website. It’s awful looking.

    http://bistrochapeau.ypguides.net/

    Also, I don’t know what restaurants thinking when they don’t even have a web presence whatsoever. It took just until this past year for Zuni to get their internet act together and even when they did, it’s not much to speak of.

    http://www.zunicafe.com/

    I know it takes time and money to keep a menu really up to date, but I give special kudos to those restaurants that do. I really don’t like the restaurants that give “sample” menus that are out of date by many seasons and even years.

  • Jennifer Maiser

    Thanks for the Chapeau! link. I didn’t know that any of those old citysearch sites existed.

    And you bring up a good point re the time and money — my frustration is with the sites that have obviously spent a chunk of change and still don’t give us good information.

  • Chuck

    I totally agree with you. I don’t know why restaurants feel the need to entertain us. Just give us a simple, pleasing site design with easy access to hours and menus!

    It seems like the restaurant industry is 5+ years behind in site design and copy one another. There’s a big love affair with flash sites. I don’t mind flash when used appropriately but most restaurants sites screw up the user experience with flash.

    For example Gary Danko, the site makes me skip through TWO splash/intro screens then presents the content in is this tiny area that forces me to scroll within the flash. Then the site content is presented inconsistently, most of it is in flash then a few pages in regular html (see the wine list and reservations). I prefer the regular html pages.

    Now check out the Salt House. This could have been a nice, simple design but they screw up the UI by using flash. There’s no need to make me scroll the menus in flash. Why are they so afraid to display content below the fold?!?

    If sites what to use flash, I think Poleng Lounge does a decent job. The design is a little busy for me, but they use flash appropriately and display the rest of the pages and menu in regular HTML.

    It amazes me how many bad restaurants sites are out there!

  • Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic

    Well, when I said “up to date,” I didn’t mean technologically, because I agree with you there, I mean that they aren’t keeping up with their changing menus.

    It also drives me nuts when restaurant websites don’t give a cross street with their addresses.

  • wendygee

    I was going to say Chez Panisse’s website is a bit old school but is fairly easy to find essential info from the homepage….but then I checked out the Cafe Menu and saw that it was for Dinner Friday Feb 22…today is Tuesday Feb 26. And they serve lunch as well…where is that menu? Also, having a bottom cluttered footer navigation as the primary site navigation once you are off the homepage is not very user-friendly. No “you are here” element and super small text centered in a cluster. The site encourages the user to rely on the back button to navigate back to the homepage to find things. Also, they have their hours on the About page which is logical but the details are buried in the text and should be called out. Website should clearly have basic details like hours of operation, price range, and directions front and center…Chez Panisse needs to learn about embedding google maps! Definitely time for an upgrade.

  • Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic

    CP’s menu handling doesn’t really bother me. It’s crucial that they update the downstairs menu, of course, but I never thought the cafe menu changed enough to warrant constant updating.

  • wendygee

    Stephanie-
    Regardless of how much the menu changes daily… a user seeing the menu dated last Friday on Tuesday indicates that the restaurant is not keeping current with their information. I order food from the Slow Club regularly and their menu only changes slightly on a daily basis but they keep it up-to-date by changing the date to indicate the current day.

  • Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic

    Yes, I suppose when you’re thinking of it that way, it makes sense. I was just thinking of it in terms of actual changes to the menu. On the other hand, how hard is it to write a script that just changes as the date changes? Probably not hard.

    However, I remain unsurprised that Alice Waters — as much as I love CP — doesn’t really march on with time.

  • Brett

    Great post, Jen. As someone who is in the process of designing my restaurant’s website, I completely agree with your criteria. No Flash. No sound. No PDF menus (or, worse, until recently, when I clicked on the menu for one of your favorite restaurants, the menu opened up as an Excel spreadsheet. They’ve since fixed that). The phone number, address, and hours should all be easy to find as on a clearly marked page (I find “about” to vague). Ideally Google Maps and, if applicable, Open Table should be embedded into the design too. I hope to upload daily menus onto my restaurant’s site, but time restraints may prevent that. We’ll see. Again, thanks for the excellent tips.

  • Jane

    The ambient noise at the Alembic site. I hate it too!

  • Marc

    It’s also important for websites to keep their events pages up to date. I went to a place a few months ago after checking the website for the hours and also checking the events page, only to find that they were closed for a special event that day.

    Websites should also clearly announce when they will be closed for special events, like private parties. Just put a big note near the address or the hours: “Closed for private party on the 24th”.

  • tkw

    from the east bay, here is the worst:

    http://www.maricaseafood.com/

    (i worked for chris cheung long ago, he is a good chef and this is a decent restaurant, but this site suu-uucks)

    i like wood tavern’s site:

    http://woodtavern.net

    overflashed:

    http://www.fleurdelyssf.com/

    HATE:

    http://www.mandarinoriental.com/hotel/519000039.asp

  • Diane

    Super slow-loading intro screens are the devil’s spawn! And EVERY restaurant seems to have them. Was this some kind of “bad web page 101″ seminar that all restaurants were required to take or something? Do restaurants honestly think we care enough about their graphic experimental skills that we care to waste 30 seconds clicking through tedious content-free intro pages before we get to content?
    Ick.

  • shuna fish lydon

    Jen,

    Thank you so much for writing this! I have a full year’s worth of horror stories from many restaurants I’ve worked at who didn’t even know why a website was necessary and important.

    Restaurants have little to no idea what and why the designers are doing and so there’s a huge disconnect there to begin with. Really it’s a miracle you like any of them.

    And many of the places that have been mentioned as having horrible websites rely on their tried and true repeat customers and can barely be bothered with the fact that new diners might never get there. It’s a strange but true fact.

    Although Oliveto’s menus show up in a PDF with my browser I give them a lot of credit for keeping up with posting their daily dinner and dessert menus. Any restaurant that changes their menu daily, and considers that to be an important draw, should be able to figure out how to make this function happen.

    There’s so much more to be said and discussed on this subject, I hope you’ve started a web-fire!

  • Griff

    The point about prices struck a nerve with me. Menus on restaurant websites are useful for two things, to tell you what sort of food it serves and to tell you whether you can afford it. Omission of prices short-circuits the second purpose, and as you say, seems pretentious. House’s website lacks prices, and although I was thinking of going there, now I’m not going to because I don’t know what I might be getting myself into. No prices, no customer. Simple.

  • KiltBear

    Oi, try using opentable.com on an iPhone… They have this “autocomplete” feature when typing in a restaurant name that totally hoses your ability to actually select the restaurant you want…

  • Virginia

    Amen! I spend a lot of time daily browsing restaurant websites, experiencing all the annoyances you describe with the desire for simple basics: price, hours (amazing how hard that can be to find!), location, maybe reservation links. I agree Menu Pages has been a lifesaver at times, unappealing as it looks.

    The website for the new Orson is already annoying me with it’s “sample menu MIGHT include”, listing only a handful of items, no prices, no real idea of what they will cost or are serving.

    Though I like Ducca, their website is also annoying with (once again) PDFs for all menus and NO PRICES. Nothing is more annoying than not listing prices.

    Thanks, Jen!
    http://www.theperfectspotsf.com/newsletter/

  • EB

    What’s worse? No website or impossible to navigate/no info site???

  • Desirae

    Hey Jennifer,

    I’m the web designer behind Spruce’s site. I just wanted to say thank you for posting this and for motivating people to leave some very valid feedback about some of the local restaurant websites. I’m going to work with the people behind Spruce to make navigation improvements and to work on another format for their menus besides PDF. I also plan on pointing other restaurant clients and fellow web designers to this post. Thanks again!

  • Marina

    An excellent site for a simple place…a brewpub of all things! http://www.wunderbeer.com is very clean, easy to navigate… everything you want to know about the beers (what’s on tap today!), food, menu etc. is right there in front of you, yet the design/layout is sleek and chic and very well done. No annoying flash or bad music.

  • Janna

    I was recently looking for a location for a company dinner in North Beach, and a friend recommended Mangarosa.

    http://www.mangarosasf.com/menu.htm

    No formatting makes the window about 7000 pixels wide. Terrible.

    I agree that I’m completely turned off by a bad website. A good website (and good food) will have me dreaming of dining at said restaurant.

    One of my favorite restaurant websites (of course) is The French Laundry.

    http://www.frenchlaundry.com/

    Granted, it’s flash, but it’s very well executed.