No one really knows what to do with Instagram. It’s been cited as a key-contributor to the dubious clean-eating frenzy, denounced by influencers on the platform as harmful, and was recently found to be the worst app for mental health. As with all unregulated social media sites, Instagram managed to capture the attention of an entire generation, chew it up, and spit it back out addicted, confused, and with really weird eyebrows.
Despite all this, I quite like Instagram. Everyone gives it shit but when you want to watch 27 minutes of cake-icing videos at 1 AM, stoned, it comes thru. I’m also partial to a good selfie and I find it useful for food inspo, food, recipes, food, pictures of fried cheese, food, taco videos, and food.
Indeed, when it comes to food, Instagram is the epicentre of all tasty content, from bacon-wrapped-cheese-battered-crack-porn to turmeric nut milk. Knowing this, and having a low-key respect for the app, I wanted to see what would happen if I placed myself in the firing line of the most Instagrammable eateries of 2017—like a war reporter on the ground, except with basically no personal peril. I wanted to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the locations that dominated my feed all year. Those cafes and restaurants almost ethereal and unattainably perfect in their social media presence.
Would I feel fulfilled, driven by purpose, and exhilarated by the beauty of it all? Or would I be duped by good lighting into eating food that tastes like plasticine?
It was all to play for.
Breakfast: Palm Vaults, Hackney
Breakfast is really important on Instagram, friends. The avocado’s epoch of fame basically began on the ’gram, and everything I know about eggs originated at the age of 20, when I first downloaded the app.
With this in mind, it was important—nay, crucial—I picked the right spot to begin my journey through 2017’s most Instagrammed restaurants. Which is exactly why I ended up at Palm Vaults, a cafe in London’s East End.
To the serious Instagrammer, Palm Vaults should probably have its own section on PornHub. Imagine, if you will, merging the aesthetic of your grandma’s bathroom with the Glossier showroom, transposing marbled pastel nail art into furniture, and hanging half a botanical garden from the ceiling, and you come close to the interior of Palm Vaults.
Arriving at the cafe on a freezing Tuesday morning, I fuck up almost immediately by ordering a normal coloured—albeit weirdly flavoured—rose latte, as opposed to one of the garish pink ones that are everywhere on Instagram. Falling at the first hurdle, I see an opportunity to really establish myself as an influencer-fashun-blogger-foodie, informing the waitress in a loud voice that, actually, I specifically need the pink one, for my brand, and of course, an avocado on toast.
Once the food is delivered, the real work begins. You know that moment when your friend pulls out their phone to take a picture of your meal before you eat, and you sigh and say, “Did you really eat it if you didn’t take a picture???????” like the insightful, original commentator you are? Well, take that feeling, and times it by a thousand and you can probably understand the sheer disgust aimed at me by my fellow diners at Palm Vaults. As soon as my food arrives, I pull out a DSLR the size of my forearm and start arranging and photographing the plate, climbing onto the seats and giving absolutely zero shits about using strong flash at 10 AM in a quiet cafe. This lasts for about 25 minutes.
At one point, I ask one of the intimidatingly good-looking staff to help.
“Can you take the most obnoxiously Instagrammable photo of me possible?” I ask, hiding the chili jam I’ve spilled all over the table and pulling out my notebook to pose with.
“Of course! It’s my forte,” the kind and unsuspecting victim answers.
But what would my trip be if I didn’t Instagram my food? I upload a picture of the avo toast with the caption “✨✨✨one of the prettiest red velvet rose latte i've ever seen !!! ✨✨✨✨ , despite the fact I have only ever seen one red velvet rose latte in my life.
By the time I start eating, I’m ravenous. The smashed avocado, is, against all my cynicism, actually very tasty. The same cannot be said for the rose and red velvet rose latte, which taste like someone melted rose lip balm in hot oat milk. Officially, not the one.
Lunch: Grill My Cheese, Holborn
Despite my desire to spend more time in the pastel cavern of Palm Vaults, I actually get kicked out because staff from the Hello Kitty company are taking over the space for their Christmas party (no, really), so I head towards the Leather Lane food market in Central London.
My lunch spot is the place to explore another great, wonderful corner of Instagram: food porn. Burgers dripping fat, nachos smothered in guac and chili, and of course: melty cheese. After looking extensively for the meltiest, gooiest, grossest cheese establishment, I came across Grill My Cheese, which claims to “bring London the best grilled cheese sandwich of all time.”
Grill My Cheese talks a big game, and for that, I respect it, because it has fooled me. From its online presence, you’d think that it was a dominating food truck with lines down the block, customers jonesing for a bite of their grilled cheese. It is, in fact, a small food stall with two staff, a tiny stove top, and three sandwich options. Instagram 1, Ruby 0.
But I'm not here for the company, I'm here for the cheese. The grossest, ooziest grilled cheese I can find, which, out of the three options on offer, ends up being the mac ’n’ cheese one. Emotionally and ideologically, I’m quite on board with this, despite the fact I had a very large breakfast about 50 minutes ago.
Although I’ve become almost inanimate standing in the cold, I have a nice chat with a man about his Christmas party while my sandwich begins its grilling journey to my mouth. Once it’s ready, I speedily take some photos with the camera, then whip out my phone to get the money shot.
Up it goes to Instagram with the caption “I can’t brie-leave how good this is!!!”. There is no brie in this sandwich.
Friends of mine start to get worried by my sudden shift in tone online. “Send a sign if you’ve been kidnapped,” one message reads. Someone comments on my story, “Works at MUNCHIES for two weeks.” I think they hate me.
Snack (yes, snack): Ahi Poke, Fitzrovia
It’s 1 PM and I’ve eaten enough for the day. I know, I know, I should have held back a bit when it came to pasta inside a cheese sandwich, but why would I be writing an article that required me to eat four meals in a short space of time if I was that kind of person? Luckily, my next stop is a boujee #cleaneating hot spot: Ahi-Poke.
I only know of this place because I once got sent a discount code because it was near my office. Other than that, it has existed in my consciousness as a mysterious healthy bowl cafe that seems entirely unappealing for anyone not on a diet plan.
Poke is essentially a bowl of raw fish with rice and other healthy accompaniments, like avocado, pickled ginger, carrots, and cabbage. I start to order my Poke at the counter: rice, mushrooms, ginger, cucumbers, edamame, and sweet potato. Ritualistically, I pull out my camera and start taking photos.
“Excuse me, are you a blogger?” the manager asks.
“Erm, sort of,” I answer.
I have won.
“Well, you’re not allowed to take pictures of the customers. Or the serving counter. Or the floor.”
“Oh,” I say, continuing to take pictures of the serving counter, customers, and floor. Their attempts to silence me are futile.
By this point, I am losing enthusiasm. It’s really lonely going around and eating at places without a friend, and cold brown rice is hardly inspiring my joie de vivre. This is starting to show on my Instagram feed, as all I can muster for this meal is “Wow, healthy food!!!!!”
Dinner: Pastaio, Soho
What fresh hell is it when the prospect of handmade pasta somehow becomes painful? A few hours have passed, but I’m nowhere closer to wanting to eat after today's earlier meals. I push on, however, knowing that only a full day at London’s most Instagrammable restaurants will bring me closer to learning the true meaning of the app and reaching total fulfilment and purpose. I think.
Pastaio, my final stop. is located next to the famous Carnaby Street in Soho, and I have to thrash my way through Christmas shoppers to find the entrance. Amidst the crowds, my loneliness becomes acute, reminding me of how much I hated to eat alone as a child. When I was very young, I used to beg my siblings to stay with me at the table, partly from loneliness and partly from boredom. Here I am, 18 years later, still extremely unnerved by the thought of having dinner by myself.
I order the wild mushrooms and garlic tagliatelle. I take some photos of the speckled marble tables. I stare lifelessly out the window at the passing shoppers.
By now, my Instagram posts are doing numbers, but inside, I feel dead. Full, but dead.
By the end of my journey through the culinary wonderland of Instagram, I yearn for human company. Sure, I had gained some fulfilment from the aesthetic details I’d observed—the cheese, the rose gold fork, but what had I become? Who was I anymore?
My poor, loyal Instagram following had by now divided down the middle: those extremely on board with the new and improved food coverage, and others genuinely worried for my safety. At final countings, Palm Vaults’ breakfast and garish latte wins with 33 likes. Grill My Cheese’s “Mac Attack” is second place by two points.
But in last place is not Pastaio or a bowl of nicely arranged cold vegetables, but me. At the end of day, uncomfortably full and a sad, it is I who lost.
At least I gained some followers, though?