rumination 15: update, please…

I haven’t ruminated out loud in a while.  But a recent post on a food forum, chiefly, a complaint therein about the failure of restaurants to update their menus online, spurred me to write. Time was (and I remember those days) when restaurants weren’t on the internets. You showed up, you ordered from what was […]


I haven’t ruminated out loud in a while.  But a recent post on a food forum, chiefly, a complaint therein about the failure of restaurants to update their menus online, spurred me to write.

Time was (and I remember those days) when restaurants weren’t on the internets. You showed up, you ordered from what was offered, and you left happy or sad, or somewhere in between.  Other than certain categorical assumption about what kind of food the restaurant served, you either relied on word-of-mouth or adventure for details.

But then Al Gore came along and spun his world-wide web and diners now have the ability to scrutinize menus, plan their meal, and even decide to go elsewhere days – weeks – in advance, if the food fails to flag their fancy.

Of course, this only works if online menus are accurate. For some restaurants, this requires that they change their online content seasonally, or bi-quarterly. For others, it means uploading daily updates.

If you’re a regular visitor to restaurant websites, you’ll know just how rarely this is done.

On the one hand, I find it absurd – shocking even – that restaurants can be so sloppy with their online content.

It’d be unacceptable – ruinous, even – for a movie theatre or airline to fail to update their shows and schedules online. Some might argue that the consequences of inaccurate information in those industries are more severe than with restaurants.  But,with the ever-increasing hype surrounding restaurant dining, and often, dining out for specific dishes, I see the difference narrowing.  Whether or not restaurants realize it (I think the ones that should, do), people now eat out with higher expectations and anticipation of certain aspects of the restaurant experience; food being not the least of them.

Eating out can cost diners a considerable amount of time and money, so why shouldn’t they be given the benefit of knowing exactly what they’ll get for their investment?  This seems like a very reasonable expectation.  And, given how easy it is to update a website (if it’s not, then I recommend that the restaurant work with their designers to make their website administration more practical), keeping online menus current seems like an easy way for restaurants to provide good service and put a good foot forward even before the diner arrives at their door. It seems like a no-brainer, right?

On the other hand, it might just be silly of us to care so much about what, exactly, we’ll be having for dinner.  I suppose this is easy for me to say – I’ll eat just about anything. And, I eat out enough that a disappointing meal one night is surely to be chased away by a great one soon thereafter.  I know this isn’t the case for many, so let me not be the voice of strict reason here, rather a different perspective to be considered.

I used to canvass restaurant websites, comparing menus, examining dishes.  But in the last few years, I’ve lost interest for such audits.  Instead, I now mostly skim menus, if at all, and choose restaurants based on the restaurant or chef’s cooking style, only drilling further when I’m in unfamiliar territory.

As I mentioned in my elBulli review, I don’t care to know too much about the food before I arrive at a restaurant for the first time.  And after I’ve been once, and have decided that a restaurant is worth another visit, I’m less likely to care what’s on the menu altogether.  And I’ve found joy in this carefree flexibility.  I’ve eaten in restaurants enough and have been surprised far too many times to pin my hopes too high on food based on the way it appears on a menu.  Many times – especially when I trust the chef implicitly – I’ll just ask the kitchen to send out what they want. Rarely am I disappointed.

So, where does that leave me?

Even though I’ve become less reliant on online menus, outdated ones are my pet peeve. If you’re going to put them up at all, make them right.  And if you haven’t the time to update them properly, make sure you note, conspicuously, that the menu is merely a sample one, and that it is not current. Date-stamping your menus is also helpful, especially during transition periods, where there can be an androgynous meeting of foods from two different seasons. (Take note, As impressive and comprehensive as your online directory of restaurants and menus is, it would be helpful to date-stamp those menus so we know just how long they’ve been up.)

And as a last order of business, in defense of pastry chefs everywhere: Restaurants, please post your dessert menu. It’s the one part of the menu that’s most-commonly missing online. What kind of message does that send to the public about the way a restaurant views its staff and the food they’re making?

Just this week, I called a (Michelin-starred) restaurant to ask if they had a tasting menu.  They said that they did.  But it wasn’t published or mentioned online (and neither was their dessert menu). You want a higher check-average?  Help yourselves.

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7 replies on “rumination 15: update, please…”

Agreed wholeheartedly: If you’re going to have it on the site at all, make sure it’s right. If it’s merely an exemplar, then make that fact clear. I don’t mind going into a restaurant blind, but there’s nothing worse than getting excited about a certain dish from an online menu, only to find out it’s not on the current menu. It gets the meal off to a disappointing start.

if you own a restaurant & you’re reading:

– create a mobile version w/ *only* a phone, address (w/ cross-st), & link to a map & menu. if you don’t want us to use Yelp, give us a reason not to go there.

– put your phone & address at the top of your regular web site – ON THE HOME PAGE – why give me a reason to give up?

– unless you’re Guy Savoy, ditch the Flash. a Flash video has never made me want to go to a restaurant – BUT it has made me decide, quickly at times, “i don’t want to go there.”

– try to put your menu in HTML, not PDF.

– put a Facebook Like on your homepage w/ face pictures. yes, FB is evil; but it is more convincing when people i trust have liked your place.

– i’d prefer email reservations & not dealing w/ your stuck-up receptionist and/or phone system that works 50% of the time. if OpenTable is highway robbery, build your own, it’s not that expensive – go in w/ a few peers & split the cost.

– self-serving but – link to both reviews and blogs. professional reviews are nice, i read them. but i trust bloggers more – seek out good reviews & link to them from your site – it’s much more compelling.

If restaurants have the coin, they should absolutely, positively invest resources (time and talent) into creating, and more importantly maintaining, a digital presence.

Websites are about quality, not quantity and certainly not about flash. They are a place where you can manage your diners expectations, a huge opportunity to set the stage. Forget the bells and whistles, avoid the exhaustive descriptions and be smart. All you need to do is show a little leg.

Your advice is sound, if the desire is for contemplative, informed diners. Sadly the majority of restaurant marketing and PR is “not for us”. The press agent’s advice is likely to be 100% opposite of Chuck’s, and still likely to be quite effective, for a certain definition of “effective”. The population of savvy diners doing the type of legwork you describe is increasing, but it’s far from the majority. Can the restaurateur have it both ways? I think so, but…oh, shiny!

I agree with all of Chuck’s suggestions (except for the facebook idea, I should say–I just find its constant intrusion in life to be annoying).

The one thing I would add is that even if when restaurants do not have a menu online, they really should include pricing information. As alluded to above, dinner out is a fairly significant investment, and it is frustrating when you have to undertake extensive research to figure out just how much it costs. For example, Ledoyen has no menu or pricing information online. I suppose one might say that if you have to ask, you can’t afford it, but the truth is that Michelin 3 star restaurants actually vary greatly in their cost and it is obnoxious to the customer to assume the difference is immaterial.

Basically, restaurants should, at a minimum, give a sense of the price range for each course (if a la carte) and for a tasting menu.