Why Are Restaurant websites So Often Awful

Tommy's Grill - Lomo Fuji
Tommy’s Grill – Lomo Fuji

I’ve ranted about this for a long time – for the majority of restaurants, their websites are horrible. Especially in the era of smartphones and iPads, restaurant owners that have Flash-only sites are deluded, at best.

Farhad Manjoo reports:

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.

(click here to continue reading Restaurant websites: Why are they so awful? Which ones are the absolute worst? – By Farhad Manjoo – Slate Magazine.)

and brief parenthetical note: I started using Menupages about 6 months ago, and now I find myself going there first before or soon after looking up a restaurant’s URL. Menupages also has an iPhone app and an Android app which is handy when I’m hungry outside somewhere since the app has a geo-locational feature.

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.

Veerasway to Change to a Burger Joint

Urban Archeology
Urban Archeology, 846 W Randolph.

I did eat at Veerasway once, and I thought it ok, not great.  Nothing had much flavor, and I never returned. I’m not adverse to a good hamburger now and again, but how many new “organic” hamburger joints can the West Loop support anyway?

Last weekend at Lollapalooza, Veerasway owners Chris and Angela Lee set up shop as Juhu Beach. Little did anyone know that the tent setup would be the modern Indian restaurant’s new form as the Lees shuttered the Michelin Bib Gourmand-stamped Veerasway on Sunday and now will begin transforming it into Grange Hall Farm Burger.

Despite getting recognized by Michelin, Veerasway just wasn’t pulling in the business. “Not enough people gave Indian a chance,” said Chris Lee. “In other words, everyone who had the food thinks it’s great, but not enough people were willing to try the food.”

The new approximately 55-seat free-range burger joint will open sometime this fall to, as the Lees feel, fill a quality burger void in the West Loop. They were inspired to open Grange Hall after seeing the popularity of DMK Burger Bar. “There are many restaurants with good burgers, but the point is that there are no dedicated burger places in the West Loop,” he said. “We want to do it to Angela’s style.” Lee does recognize that Epic Burger recently opened not too far from their location, but considers that more in the Loop.

The restaurant will grind all the hormone-, drug- and antibiotic-free beef in house. They will source all the products—meats, vegetables, fruit—from family farms as close to Chicago as possible and plan to use only in-season ingredients. The menu, which is still being worked out, will also feature turkey and veggie burgers, as well as just-baked pies and hand-churned ice cream. And on weekend mornings, they’ll hold farm breakfasts.

(click here to continue reading Veerasway Closing, Grange Hall Farm Burger Will Replace; Juhu Beach to Carry on Legacy – New Beginnings – Eater Chicago.)

Three Hearts Better than None
Three Hearts Better than None, 844 W. Randolph.

update, walked by here this evening:

Future Home of Grange Hall Farm Burger


Fear, Not Radiation, Seen As Risk to Japanese Sushi

Open Sushi

I’ve noticed that the Japanese restaurants I frequent have been much less busy recently. I wondered if the Japanese earthquake and subsequent Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant disaster was effecting the fish, and this was a danger I should pay attention to. Apparently, not so much, instead, irrational fear of the unknown is a bigger reason why people are not eating sushi this spring.

Kai Sushi White Tuna appetizer

NPR posed the question to Masashi Kusakabe, director of the Nakaminato Laboratory for Marine Radioecology not far from Tokyo. The research center is devoted to figuring out precisely what happens to radioactive material that gets into the ocean.

Kusakabe says what’s been getting into the Pacific Ocean near Fukushima is mostly radioactive iodine. It dissolves in water, and experiments have shown that the iodine tends to concentrate in algae. Then it gets even more concentrated as it works its way up the food chain.

Kusakabe says that might sound bad, “but the iodine we’re talking about now is iodine -131, which has a very short half-life at eight days.”

Every eight days, half of the iodine goes away. So after a few weeks, there’s not much iodine-131 left in a fish. Kusakabe says radioactive cesium is a lot worse: Its half-life is measured in decades, not days. But so far, much less cesium has gotten into the ocean at Fukushima.  Also, the ocean is so vast that radioactive materials are heavily diluted by the time they travel even a few miles.

So the Japanese fish most likely to become contaminated are the ones that spend their entire lives right near the Fukushima power plant. And the government isn’t letting fishing vessels anywhere near the place.

But what about the ocean-going fish that show up on sashimi platters — fish like salmon and tuna? Might they be contaminated by radioactive material from the power plant?

“I don’t think so,” he says, “because tuna move everywhere. They travel, you know, maybe hundreds of kilometers, so they never stay there.”

A tuna might swim by the Fukushima plant. But it wouldn’t hang around long enough to become seriously contaminated.

Kusakabe says the biggest threat to the Japanese fishing industry right now isn’t radiation. It’s fear.

(click here to continue reading Sushi Science: Fear, Not Radiation, Seen As Risk : NPR.)

Fresh Copper River Sockeye Salmon

Union Sushi on Erie

Transcended by Tea

I’d try this place, sounds interesting. Probably won’t like changes to the menu, but we’ll try anyway…

Working on business partnerships for Visa, Mike Schatzman journeyed all over the world. “I’ve been a traveling buffoon for the last seven years of my life,” he says. After eating at Japanese restaurants in London, South Africa, and, of course, Japan, Schatzman looked at the Chicago Japanese landscape and saw nothing like his forthcoming Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar (230 W. Erie St.). The 70-seater is scheduled to open in May with the chef/partner Worachai Thapthimkuna (known as Chao), formerly of Sushi Wabi. The barbecue in the name is kushiyaki, skewered fish, meat, and vegetables cooked on a robata grill. The sushi will include smaller rolls than the Godzillas we’ve come to expect, so that diners can try more items. The menu reflects influences from everywhere—which shows its own kind of authenticity. “People tend to think that in Japan, they are traditionalists, and that’s not the case,” Schatzman says. “There is more innovation than we imagine going on in Japan.”

(click to continue reading Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar Coming to River North – Dish – January 2011 – Chicago.)

Mayor Daley pretending to be an Epicure

The Rise of the Creative Class

Find it hard to imagine Mayor Daley as a gourmet, but what do I know. I haven’t spent enough time in Bridgeport to know if there has been an influx of modern cuisine in the last couple years; my previous trips to the area encountered more hot dog stands and pizza parlors than anything else.

In the Chicago of Mayor Richard M. Daley, the most celebrated foods are more likely to be Kobe beef burgers, a Stanley Cup fashioned from chocolate and sashimi-grade Hawaiian ahi tuna with what Mr. Daley once described as “glacamole.”

The mayor’s pride in Chicago’s growing stature in the world of haute cuisine was on display again this week. After Mr. Daley spent much of last week in Idaho at a conference of the nation’s news media moguls, his next two public appearances in Chicago involved promoting the local gastronomy scene.

The mayor made a stop at the French Pastry SchoolFrench Pastry School on Monday to promote its expansion into new teaching kitchens at the City Colleges of Chicago. The school’s chefs had recently visited City Hall to present the mayor with a chocolate replica of the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup trophy. The mayor beamed below the brim of a tall chef’s hat.

On Tuesday, he joined about 50 chefs from many of the city’s fanciest restaurants at a news conference to promote the third annual Chicago Gourmet event, which will be held Sept. 25 and 26 at Millennium Park, a sort of Taste of Chicago for connoisseurs. Admission to the event, which attracted 3,000 people last year, is $150 a person.

“These chefs, to me, represent the creative class of society,” Mr. Daley said. “We have to realize how important they are to the city.”

The mayor clearly shares the theory, expounded in Richard Florida’s 2002 book “The Rise of the Creative Class,” that cities must attract people whose livelihoods involve imagination and innovation.

The culinary convention, Mr. Daley said, fits well with the city’s strategy of promoting itself as a destination for those seeking fine food and wine.

(click to continue reading Chicago News Cooperative – On Display, the Mayor as Epicure – NYTimes.com.)

Mayor Daley aside, there is certainly a large number of deliciously innovative restaurants in Chicago, which is probably why the Michelin Guide has added a Chicago edition, due for sale in November (not pictured).

Michelin Guide

Michelin will expand its exclusive restaurant and hotel guide series in North America to include Chicago. The MICHELIN guide Chicago 2011, the first-ever MICHELIN guide for a Midwestern city, will be published in November 2010.  The announcement was made today by Jean-Luc Naret, worldwide director of the MICHELIN guide.

The MICHELIN guide, whose rating system is internationally recognized as the height of culinary success, is already published in 25 editions covering 23 countries, and additionally includes North America guides to New York City, which was introduced in November 2005, and San Francisco, launched the year after. The MICHELIN guide also recently launched titles in Asia, including two guides in Japan (Tokyo and Kyoto & Osaka) and Hong Kong & Macao.

The guide will provide a selection and rating, in all categories of comfort and prices, in a reader-friendly layout made especially for the American market and which reflects the region’s distinctive culinary and hotel landscape.

Harold's Chicken Shack #39

“The diversity, breadth and depth of Chicago’s restaurant and hotel scene, coupled with its rich gastronomic history, clearly mark the city and surrounding areas as the logical choice for the next North American title in the MICHELIN guide series,” commented Naret. “As with our recently updated guides to New York City and San Francisco, we are making every effort to produce a comprehensive selection that does full justice to the region’s exciting restaurant and hotel culture and also meets our readers’ expectations.”

During the announcement, Naret described Chicago as unique among American cities, citing its reputation as a world-class tourism destination and stressing the importance of its treasured culinary traditions.

“We are eagerly anticipating the MICHELIN guide’s entry into this wonderful city known for its cuisine, culture, beauty and innovative spirit,” said Naret.

As part of their meticulous and highly confidential evaluation process, Michelin inspectors – both European and American – are currently conducting anonymous inspections to Chicago restaurants and hotels. They’ve been in Chicago for two years. As with all MICHELIN guide inspections, the process involves test meals or overnight stays at each establishment, in order to assess the level and the consistency of the establishment. And as for all the other guides and all the other countries, the inspectors pay all their bills in restaurants and hotels.

“The Michelin inspectors are the eyes and ears of the customers, and thus the anonymity of our inspectors is key to ensure they are treated the same as any guest would be treated,” commented Naret.

Hawaiian Snapper

(click to continue reading Michelin North America Newsroom.)

A tourist with discerning tastebuds could certainly spend significant time in Chicago, sampling food in different establishments, and not repeat any restaurants. There is so much to choose from, including even some scrumptious offerings from hot dog stands and pizza parlors. Food doesn’t have to be expensive to be good.