A confession: if you invite me out for dinner, I will Google the restaurant’s menu beforehand. I know, I know—this is unforgivably boring behaviour, like your home friend who got really into the Hemsley sisters and will now only eat at places that serve low-FODMAP risotto. I do it because I want to check that the vegan option extends beyond leaves (if the restaurant is trying to pass off salad as a 12-quid main course, then sorry, I am suddenly washing my hair that night), but also because I like to know the vibe of a place before I spend my money and a whole evening that I could have used to look at memes on my phone while half-watching old episodes of Mad Men.
Since TripAdvisor feels too fake news and I, a Millennial, am not going to speak on an actual phone with an actual human being, a restaurant’s website is the best way to do this. Pixelated shots of the dining room and a PDF menu from 2016? Probably a Soho institution that has no time for this thing called “online marketing” but will serve the best onion soup of your life. An Arial font banner that redirects to the restaurant’s Instagram, where you will find upscaled fish finger sandwiches and liberal use of emojis? Looks like we are going to eat somewhere in East London.
I’ve found myself marvelling at cute stencil fonts while reading opening times, and getting lost in infinite scrolls of tastefully lit artichoke hearts.
Recently, I’ve noticed a change in the kind of websites restaurants have. Gone are the Instagram redirects and janky WordPress templates with out-of-date menus, and in their place are sleekly designed homepages. In my pre-dinner research sessions, I’ve found myself marvelling at cute stencil fonts while reading opening times, and getting lost in infinite scrolls of tastefully lit artichoke hearts and well-executed white space. Between complimentary colour blocks of powder pink and muted yellow, I find “Contact Us” pages with line drawn maps that look like something you’d get stick-and-poked onto your forearm at a Dalston tattoo studio. I forget that I’m looking up a pasta place in Clerkenwell, not a Berlin creative agency. In short, restaurant websites have really glowed up lately.
To clarify, most of these websites belong to eateries that opened recently in London, many specialising in the kind of European-influenced seasonal cooking that is currently so popular in the capital. But there are a sizable number of them and, as critic Grace Dent notes, what happens in London restaurants is often replicated by eateries elsewhere in the country.
With this in mind, I began to chart the specific design features I saw repeated on these websites, and soon found that each had one or all of the following: square blocks of colour (usually pastel), infinite scroll, high-end photography (food, but also suggestive images of place settings, wine bottles, hands carving meat, etc), a distinctive logo or symbol, and sparse but welcoming copy. The font is a feature in itself, often custom-made and in either all caps or all lowercase.
Take the website of Levan, a recently opened restaurant in South London serving “contemporary European dishes,” with its pastel colour scheme and chunky all-caps logo. Or that of Brat, the celebrated new restaurant by chef Tomos Parry. It deviates from the pastels with a bold orange background, but the block element is still there, plus the arty photos of fish cooked whole on the grill. Then there’s Hackney eatery Jolene, with its immediately recognisable squiggly name tag, and Bright, a wine bar and restaurant that has both yellow blocks and an indecipherable but very cool-looking symbol. Visit the website of Lewisham restaurant Sparrow, meanwhile, and your cursor transforms adorably into a bird’s head.
At a time when running a restaurant is more costly than ever, why are owners spending so much time and money on website design? And where does this pastel-hued aesthetic come from?
Designer Arran Scott Lidgett, whose firm Everything In Between created the websites of London restaurants Two Lights, Luca, and Portland, says that the current challenges of the hospitality industry are precisely why restaurant owners are willing to spend more money on design.
“Yeah, it definitely feels like they are taking it a bit more seriously,” he tells me over the phone. “I suppose it is essential because the stakes are pretty bloody high for them all.”
Everything In Between, Lidgett says, has seen a rise in the number of restaurateurs enlisting them for website design services, often before they have even secured a location.
“Ultimately, people know that they’ve got to work a lot harder to sustain their business,” he says. “Mercifully for us, branding plays an increasing role in that and so websites become more of an engaging experience.”
Rathna Ramanathan, Dean of Communication at the Royal College of Art, also sees branding as a way for restaurants to stand out in a competitive market. Restaurateurs that create a clear “look” both online and in the IRL features of their eatery—such as the menu, decor, and food styling—are better able to communicate messages of welcome and intimacy. Plus, they look great on Instagram.
“Restaurateurs have to make their websites as well as presentation of food in the restaurant ‘grammable,’” Ramanathan explains via email. “You see increasingly more ingredient sprinkles on restaurant websites, brighter lighting in restaurants ensuring photos of food can be taken—it is food as lifestyle, forget what it tastes like! The typography focuses on style. You find no capitals and all lowercase, all in a way of wanting to convey intimacy, locality, casualness.”
"People know that they’ve got to work a lot harder to sustain their business. Branding plays an increasing role in that."
As the influence of print restaurant reviews declines, more and more of us now research new places to eat via social media, with a reported 30 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds saying they would avoid a restaurant if its Instagram presence was weak. Online branding has therefore never been more important for restaurateurs, meaning that their websites have a big job to do.
“Our approach [to designing a website] has to be really measured and quite paired back, because a it’s often the first thing that someone engages with when it comes to their experience of a restaurant,” Lidgett says, giving the example of the Two Lights site he and his team worked on. A classic of the Pretty Restaurant Website genre, it features a lot of pastel and evocative photography.
“This idea was to incorporate photography that suggested memory and was abstract enough so that it was completely open to interpretation, but alluded to Chase [Lovecky, Two Lights head chef]’s journeys and all these experiences that would inform his menu,” he explains. “When it came to the graphic side, it was about picking elements that you feel are going to be complementary to the photography. It could have been any number of colours, but pastels felt like they had a softness that went against the photography.”
“We just wanted something that felt effortless and modern, but not trying to do too much of the talking in terms of identity,” he adds.
Lidgett may see the website’s design as a perfect expression of Two Lights’ effortless modernity, but Dr. Alison Barnes of London College of Communication, UAL says signifiers like pastel and globe-hopping photography act as bait to a very specific group of diners: Millennials.
“At the end of the day, these restaurants are also trendy and experiences and eating out are what Millennials are after, so they are probably all going to use some similar elements of graphic language—colours, typefaces, imagery, for example—that signify an of-the-moment look that ‘speaks’ to that audience,” she says.
So, the images of jumping whales and European cinemas on Two Lights’ website may well represent the head chef’s travels, but they also promise an experience for those who eat here—and if anyone loves paying for an experience, it’s Millennials.
You can’t blame restaurants for wanting to attract this demographic group. Millennials spend more on dining than their parents’ generation, with one survey from the Money Advice Service estimating that they drop £6,589 a year on nights out, although this figure does also account for taxi fares and alcohol. Combine these stats with 2018 research from Zizzi, which found that 18- to 35-year-olds spend five days a year browsing food images on Instagram, and restaurateurs’ focus on pastel-heavy online branding starts to make sense.
However, much like avocado shortages and the death of mayonnaise, the growth of well-designed restaurant websites cannot be blamed solely on Millennials. Their aesthetic is clearly influenced by wider trends in design. Last month, Vox published a piece on the rise of minimalism as a rejection of the excess of the early noughties, and indeed there are similarities between these websites’ simple colour blocks and the stripped-back interior style that gave us Edison bulbs and exposed brickwork. Those pastels, meanwhile, have been kicking around in the design world for awhile.
“I think the pastel colours definitely reflect recent trends in design and link to things like the ‘Millennial pink’ phenomenon,” Barnes says. “Trend forecasters like WGSN produce several seasonal forecasts a year in various fashion contexts that focus on colours and graphic styles, and pastels have been a recurring feature for a couple of years.”
Sticking with a trend is also safe. If you’re opening a restaurant and notice that the pasta place getting great reviews happens to have a funky logo and nice photography on its website, why wouldn’t you take inspiration?
Adrian Shaughnessy, a senior tutor in graphic design at the Royal College of Art, puts it more bluntly. “Branding, we are told by the brand evangelists, is about standing out. In reality, it is about blending in,” he tells me.
To truly get to the bottom of the restaurants-with-pretty-websites phenomenon, I speak to someone who actually runs one. Mark Gurney is co-founder of Levan—the contemporary European place in Peckham with the squares of pastel and cool logo on its site.
“That colour palate came from looking at older Paradise Garage flyers, funnily enough,” he says. Levan, you see, is named after Larry Levan, the pioneering DJ who held a decade-long residency at the New York nightclub in the 1970s.
“Our [design] agency Breaks did a lot of research into what the place looked like—flyers, all the kind of memorabilia you get from events, music at the time, the style of artwork that was coming out,” Gurney continues. “They put together this pitch, which had this personality and pastel colours and lots of blocks because Paradise Garage was in this warehouse that had these lovely grid windows.”
While Levan clearly sees its design as influenced by New York’s early disco scene, rather than Millennial-baiting and design trends, Gurney agrees that websites are important for any new restaurant. And its most important job? To get people through the door, which means function and as well as style.
Gurney summarises: “It’s in our interest to have a booking through our website, so it’s a business consideration as well as an aesthetic one.”
After all, a restaurant website that doesn’t have a “Book Now” button is about as helpful as a one-star TripAdvisor review—no matter how good it looks.