Why are restaurant websites so awful?

The best restaurants in the world deliver exquisite food, impeccable service and wonderful attention to detail. And, almost without fail, they have websites which would embarrass a first year web design student. They serve as a warning to other businesses. Here is a sampling of a few problems.

I have an offer to make: I will provide one day’s free site consulting and copy editing to any restaurant that has two or three Michelin stars in return for a free meal for two. (In the case of El Bulli, I’ll even pay for the meal if they give me a reservation!)

The French Laundry

Arguably The French Laundry is the best restaurant in the USA. However, the Flash site opens a new page that fills the entire screen, takes minutes to load and then the first page has an error on it – a visible <br>. Even after you’ve preloaded the Flash file, changing page takes a few seconds because it has to load a new image then scroll around a bit. Oh, well, I guess they won’t let me book a table in October, when I visit San Francisco.

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The Fat Duck

Just one sin here. When you go to The Fat Duck website, it displays a startup screen, which is always annoying. Why not go straight to the actual site. But worse, there is no obvious button or link that explains that this is only an intermediate page. Three stars for the restaurant. Only one star for the website.

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Guy Savoy

Guy Savoy is quite probably the best restaurant in Paris. (See my review on Golf Hotel Whiskey.)Certainly the concierge in our hotel thought so. We’ve been there twice and the food is extraordinary. Last time we went, M. Savoy came out of the kitchen to greet the diners personally. I’m not even sure if Gordon Ramsey is in the country, let alone in the kitchen when you go to his restaurant.

However, the website is abysmal. It plays music. Worse, there is no ‘mute’ button. Going from page to page requires several seconds of pointless animation. And annoyingly, all the menus are written sideways making it very hard to read. I’m pretty sure that the contrast is below minima for accessibility too.

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Les Maisons de Bricourt

Les Maisons de Bricourt recently achieved a well-deserved third Michelin star. (See my review.) But the website is pretty grim. Flash-based sites seem to be de rigour for fine dining restaurants (why?) but this one has a Flash intro that just plays and plays with weirdly scrolling still images. When you get past that, there is – yes – more music and more animations. A video plays with the owner talking in French, whether or not you want to watch it. The address is virtually impossible to read – white text on a pale, animating background:

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el Bulli

Another site that requires Flash in a pop-up window. Before you get it, though, you have to choose between ES, CA or EN. I don’t understand why people don’t just spell out the language choices.

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You have to click through a page with a catalogue. (A catalogue? For a restaurant?) Then you get the site itself. Clicking on reservations opens up a third window which plays a video and then you get the reservations page. But, of course, it is fully booked throughout 2008 and there is no waiting list.

Noble exceptions

Gordon Ramsay is easy to navigate and dispenses with all the usual Flash nonsense. (It’s just a shame he didn’t also register the near-mispelling of his name with an ‘e’ in it.) I’m going there for my wife’s birthday on Thursday. Hopefully the food will live up to the website!

The Waterside Inn at Bray. Keeping the British end up, this has no Flash, no music, no videos – just a simple website that is easy to navigate. Bravo! (Site good. But despite three stars and a stellar reputation, my wife got food poisoning when we ate there.)

16 Responses to Why are restaurant websites so awful?

  1. Peter July 7, 2008 at 7:45 pm #

    Great pitch! ;-)

    I must say, I nearly fell off my chair when I read about the food poisoning incident. I think I’ll stick to MacDonald’s.

  2. richard July 8, 2008 at 1:08 am #

    Hi Matthew,
    Spot on! The French Laundry site…jeez, you’d think they would know better. I cannot believe how many designers keep selling flash to their customers. Enough already!

    One thing I’ve also noticed is how hard it can be to find a restaurant’s site because a lot of half-baked “tourist/hotel/sightseeing/city-life” type sites publish mini posts on these restaurants and they are often the ones that rise to the top in Google searches.

    Check out these two:
    http://laurokitchen.com
    http://vindalho.com
    These are run by my good friend David Machado a chef in Portland, Oregon – who you might be interested to know, trained in San Francisco.
    cheers,
    rp
    I helped rescue the copy from near disaster.

  3. David Bradley July 8, 2008 at 6:54 pm #

    Ramsay was obviously well advised in terms of design, but any web designer worth their salt should have snapped up that Ramsey spelling like you say. He may actually have a case for passing off though because the people who have parked it are so obviously trying to cash in on his name by theming the parked page on food

  4. Andrew Denny July 13, 2008 at 11:13 am #

    Never mind restaurants; what about architects?

    I’ve yet to find *any* decent website for an architectural website. They are all flash-based and almost all use animation, which is ironic for a discipline based around an art set in stone.

  5. Edwin Arneson July 14, 2008 at 6:57 am #

    I’m not a fan of Flash sites. I actually like the brief music associated with the top menu items on the Guy Savoy web site. The vertical text on the bottom menu wasn’t obvious, but in the end, the site was interesting enough to poke around on for a few minutes.

    There’s a restaurant around here that has an ad in the paper and they say “go to our web site,” but they don’t list the URL. Unbelievably, if you happen to find their web site and look at the source code for the only page (it’s a Flash site), you won’t find the restaurant’s name. Hence, even though Google has indexed it, you can’t find the restaurant’s web site using the restaurant’s name!

  6. Goro July 16, 2008 at 5:16 am #

    Personally, I like Flash, but I agree that it has its time and place, and for restaurants, can easily lead to an unmaintainable, seo-killing disaster.
    While this isn’t necessarily the answer to these problems, I thought you’d find my new web application to be an interesting solution (at least for smaller restaurants): http://www.LetsEat.at
    It’s a simple CMS for restaurants that allows them to create an SEO-friendly website just by filling in some text fields, a la WordPress or Blogger. I was originally going to use it as a backend for local restaurant sites here in Portland, Oregon, but decided to just make it free and open it to the public. It’s currently beta testing, so may still be a little buggy. :)

  7. Flash4All October 1, 2009 at 7:39 pm #

    Flash is taking over the restaurant website industry. I have a hard time finding any high profile restaurant now days that doesn’t use flash. Its easy to create a user friendly, deep linked site now that is search engine friendly.

  8. Shawn October 20, 2009 at 12:31 am #

    Great reviews. Seems like some of the best eateries have some of the worst websites.

    We’ve recently launched a startup in San Diego called MassPublisher.com (http://www.masspublisher.com) that enables restaurants to build their own SEO-optimized menus, wine lists, Google maps and directions, news, events, jobs and more. We’re still in Beta, but we have sites up now like Panera Bread Aliso Viejo (http://www.panera-alisoviejo.com), which runs entirely on our platform.

    Thats said, I like Goro’s Let’s Eat application too — good to have alternatives out there to Flash.

    Thanks again for the great reviews.

  9. restaurant January 16, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

    Yeah, I totally agree with you and I think your article is very good, mate!

  10. Andrew February 6, 2013 at 4:58 pm #

    It amazes me how these ‘top” restaurants have such poorly executed websites. With the number of tools that allow you to a create website for a small fee or even for free there is no excuse to have such a poorly executed website. Restaurants need a beautiful website both in looks and in functionality, and most just don’t meet the bar. Get rid of flash, PDF menus, and clutter. Give me clear opening and closing times, ability to make reservations, and both a PDF menu to print and non-PDF to view online.

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