06 April 2009


Since the circa 2001 advent of the restaurant website, you could say that every restaurant that created one gained a new--and a new kind of--front room. The restaurant website is certainly a space of anticipation. Any decent antechamber is. It offers prospective diners a peek into the restaurant environment and its cuisine. It goes further than your average waiting room, allowing you to inspect the other guests' plates in close-up and for as long as needed. It may tell you something about the restaurant's staff members' professional histories and, if the site is set to share, their personal passions. Importantly, it gives us would-be diners the chance to opt out if we're not interested--we've made no commitments at that juncture--without embarrassing anyone involved.

Above all, the restaurant website tends to make the restaurant-going experience more egalitarian. It removes the social awkwardness or intimidation that used to come from staring through dark glass or hoping to find a menu posted outside. Restaurant reviews have always had a unique role to play in informing consumers. But the restaurant website allows the restaurant to present itself as it would like to be seen. Restaurant-goers have a way of independently gauging what the restaurant itself wants from its consumers straight from the source. Does it insist on a prix-fixe menu? Can you expect large portions?

In pajamas-on comfort, one can open as many restaurant doors as one can stand to, peek around, often at close range, inspect the decor and dishes, and decide if one would like to physically trek to any. The restaurant website offers unprecedented accessibility and a way of educating the consumer.

Of course, there is a range in the richness and the content of restaurant websites. So their actual effects vary greatly. And not everything about restaurant websites has been positive. So much pre-viewing of the restaurant's cuisine can lead to a loss of surprise. It can hold the restaurant experience captive to comparison with photography-induced expectations. This effect was once described by the still-relevant theorist of photography and culture, Walter Benjamin, as a loss of the uniqueness of time-and-place experience. In a famous 1936 essay entitled "The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility," he argued this was the effect photography had on works of art. It applies here as well. The trade off of for this unique physical experience, as Benjamin too would admit, is social egalitarianism. Photography may have damaged what Benjamin called the "aura" of painting, but it also made it accessible.

More recently, some restaurant websites have added on a still further structure--the social-networking site. What was an antechamber has, with blogs and Twitter, stretched into a community center. In the case of the renowned Chicago restaurant Alinea, those who bought the Alinea book can join www.alineamosaic.com and carry on discussions with the other enthusiasts as well as the staff of Alinea, who answer questions and give insight into the cuisine and the backstage life of the restaurant. Another noteworthy phenomenon is the Kogi BBQ taco truck in Los Angeles (see pictures). It built a following through the application of a media-savvy team to a taco truck business that combines the Mexican formats of tacos and burritos with the Korean flavors of kimchi, spiced meats and tofu. Their web team uses Twitter to keep fans constantly apprised of their two Kogi trucks' locations. People catch up with the truck, add their own tweets, and stand in line for as much as two hours to dig into their street-friendly, ethnic-fusion munchies.

Thus we have arrived at Restaurant Websites 2.0 (Community Building). This phase in restaurant website design helps to cultivate sub-cultural communities, which transcend, as all websites do, particular places and times. And yet, it does so in a way that creates anticipatory community. For, when finally meeting at the particular restaurant, or taco truck location, the online socializing results in reinforcing and compounding those social bonds. It literally cashes it in--in the case of Kogi, for scrumptious tacos and the swell sight of people who followed the truck as you did standing in line trading knowing smiles and chatting.

Benjamin could never have anticipated that the loss of uniqueness of experience in space and time created by mass media could come full circle and become an actual generator of it.

Copyright Alison Pearlman 2009. All rights reserved.

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