From Salt Bae to Sketch’s Restroom: How Instagram Changed Restaurants


FFrom Salt Bae to Gloria’s monstrous lemon meringue pie, from Sketch’s egg-shaped toilet to Bob Bob Ricard’s “press for champagne” button, from Farm Girls acai bowls to Dominique Ansel’s cronuts, Instagram a made a celebrity in the food world. Whether it’s the grammatical gravity of the food itself or the snap-fitting interiors, a new echelon of infamous restaurants has sprung up in recent years thanks to the social platform focused on the image.

The formula was simple; choose a signature dish that would stir the tongues when its photo inevitably pops up all over Instagram, make it brightly colored (or extravagantly decadent, in the case of the freakshake phenomenon of the early 2010s), add a good photo spot – a floral wall, or a neon sign – and you have all the ingredients for culinary virality.

You know the one – the restaurant that suddenly seems to be splashed all over your news feed. The bathroom selfie that becomes the pic of the day (until the next location opens, of course), the super-sized food plate that makes diners grab their iPhones faster than a voucher sunset, indulgent interiors that give Versailles a run for its money. It’s all good marketing – there’s no faster way to fill reservations than the idea that a place is the place to shoot and be photographed – but does the food match the facade?

A quick Google search for “Instagrammable restaurants in London” produces numerous list style results, each describing the friendliest places in the city and their benefits; “Go for her award-winning afternoon tea, camera ready,” one reads, “it’s a content lover’s Insta dream,” says another. It must be said that some of these places serve basically good food. The Big Mamma group, for all their tongue-in-cheek menu references (pizza Em Rata Burrata pays homage to famous Instagram model Emily Ratajowski) and more decor, leaves the gimmicks aside when it comes to food. What you get on the plate is as good as it looks on camera.

Others, not so much. Many places in the city center seem to believe their visual designs meant the menu could stay by the wayside, with their Instagram geotags being spooky of anything close to a photo of food. This never seemed to affect their popularity – until the recent pandemic, these places were regularly booked, the promise of a good photo drawing crowds regardless. “You see restaurants that were clearly built to reach this Instagram crowd,” says Tom Rogers, founder of Crab Communications and Instagram foodie Gourmand. “I don’t see a problem in adapting your restaurant / café / boutique concept to target a really large clientele, as long as behind the facade hides a great offer – good food, a passionate chef, a happy team, everything what drives the company.

Another foodie Instagrammer, Kar-Shing Tong (better known as @ks_ate_here) regularly shares photos of almost viscerally drool-worthy food with its 130,000 followers – the kind of photos that define the concept of eating with your eyes. He describes what he looks for in a restaurant as a place that “does something interesting or ambitious.” It’s not necessarily the most complex thing – I’d much prefer something simple, but it’s done with a lot of heart and thought. In terms of recommendations, Tong has a golden rule: “Would I be happy to spend my money here? When I asked him if he had noticed that restaurants were being developed for Instagram, Tong replied, “I have it and I understand; but I don’t necessarily like it. Adding that “food should always be based on taste and that nothing should be done to the detriment of that”.

The parent company behind Gloria and Circolo Popolare in London is one of those restaurant groups popular with crowds clinging to cameras. “Instagram has never been a major factor,” says Victoria Lugger, co-founder of the Big Mamma group, when I asked her if photography affects the way they design their restaurants. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously, and during the creation process we constantly ask ourselves: is this fun? Does it make us laugh? Perhaps it is this exact approach that sets the Big Mamma group apart from other places that are gaining popularity on social media – this fame has come as a by-product of their design philosophy, rather than being the center of the game. plan in the first place. Their main priority, however, remains food. “Our goal is to stay true to our values. Showcase our remarkable Italian producers, whether it’s our burrata from Salvatore Montrone in Puglia, or the 24-month-old Parmigiano Reggiano from Paula Gennari. All of our dishes are homemade, using the creative ideas of our crazy chefs. This is what is important to us. “

By comparison, The Ivy Group recently opened its second Ivy Asia outpost in Chelsea, London. As extravagant and photogenic as its St. Paul counterpart, the opening has drawn criticism on the now-deleted Instagram posts for the radical amalgamation of several Asian cultures by the chain and the perpetuation of harmful and ultimately uninformed stereotypes. Whether it will remain as booked and busy as the original iteration remains to be seen, but this is a prime example of what can happen when a restaurant focuses on trying to grab that elusive social media fame. . Owned by Caprice Holdings, the company is also responsible for other “gram-friendly spots” including Sexy Fish and Brasserie of Light.

The opening of Salt Bae’s Nusr-Et steakhouse in London earlier this year seemed to sum up this concept of social media food most vividly. Almost as soon as the restaurant doors opened, social media was inundated with two starkly contrasting ideas; people sharing photos of exorbitant receipts (one widely shared photo showed a meal totaling £ 1,812.40, another raised a meal in excess of £ 37,000, according to a receipt shared on Reddit) and people recording Salt Bae himself cutting off of meat, salting it with his now – an infamous hand gesture and sometimes putting it in people’s mouths like some sort of scintillating, sunglasses-clad torture machine. The reviews were extremely bad; Jimi Famurewa described it as “a atmospheric, one-room business lounge where most of Frankie & Benny’s home cooking is served at insulting prices.” Jay rayner didn’t even bother to enter, instead opting for a kebab from Fulham’s Kebab Kid and eating it at a table outside the infamous Knightsbridge restaurant. Currently, the restaurant has 358 reviews on Google and a 2.5-star rating.

“There are restaurants that were created just for Instagram needs and you can see it very quickly,” says Rogers, “they have lighting that isn’t too yellow, or that avoids directly touching the trays. table – the destroyer of the perfect apartment lay – the layout of the space does not leak and the most obvious indicator, food and drink lack real passion. He adds, however, that this doesn’t always have to have an impact on the quality of a restaurant: “It doesn’t mean that some places haven’t really done a good job. You can tell the concept was created to appeal to Instagram, but they were thorough and created a really great food and drink concept as well. Tong adds to this, saying, “The presentation is nothing new – people have been making presentable food for a long time. Look at the old royal banquets!

Instagram, however, is changing. The way users interact with the app adapts. When the culture of influence began to peak in 2017, the emphasis was always on perfection – filters, high-quality photos, meticulously curated outfits – and the perception that your life was wonderful. Now, the younger generation no longer feels the need to present themselves in such a false light. “Photo dumps” – the process of sharing multiple candid images from the past few weeks in a carousel format – have grown in popularity as a method of sharing. This is reflected in the statistics, with the software company Social insider reporting that Carousels receive the most engagement of any type of post on the app – more than individual videos and images.

“Over the last year or so, there has been a distinct change in the way we all use social media; sometimes this has been our only contact with the world outside of our salons, ”says Alice Schulz, social media manager at FEED social. This accelerated the growing popularity of this type of lo-fi content – with all the props of a “perfect” life removed, people were forced to share in a more real and authentic way. Change has inevitably had a ripple effect on the restaurant and food industry. This is already having an impact on how these companies post to their own feeds. “I really feel like restaurants are starting to move away from the ‘perfect’ corporate Instagram feed, where they post a predetermined, agreed-upon image every day at the same time,” says Rogers. “Restaurant Instagram needs to have a personality now, it’s an extension of the place and the team, rather than just a billboard or clinical showcase. “

Will that ring the death bell for physical, photo-oriented restaurants, however? “There will always be a place for restaurants like this,” says Alice, “they will follow generations on different social platforms where their social media presence is perhaps more important than the restaurant experience.” She adds, however, that “with a shift towards authenticity and” reality “in all media, it feels like places that focus on quality of food and service have more hope. of longevity. ” When I asked what he thought was a good restaurant, Tong replied, “I see a restaurant as a three-circle Venn diagram of service, quality of food and price. This perfect place where the three intersect is a value and for me it is the perfect restaurant.


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