clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Instagram is pushing restaurants to be kitschy, colorful, and irresistible to photographers

When it came time to design their first restaurant, Media Noche, San Francisco entrepreneurs Madelyn Markoe and Jessie Barker found themselves lacking inspiration. Their designer had asked them for ideas and they felt like “deer in headlights.” Ultimately, Markoe says, they came up with a single instruction: “We wanted to be Instagrammable.”

For years now, Instagram has sat at the center of trends in food and beverages. Rainbow-colored “unicorn foods” are often designed with Instagram in mind, and entrepreneurs responsible for popular treats like the galaxy donut and Sugar Factory milkshake often see lines around the block after images of their products go viral. Firms like Paperwhite Studio specialize in turning restaurants into Instagram bait by designing twee sugar packets, menus, and coasters bearing slogans like “hello, my sweet” and “hug more.”

Now some entrepreneurs are taking the idea a step further, designing their physical spaces in the hopes of inspiring the maximum number of photos. They’re commissioning neon signs bearing modestly sly double entendres, painting elaborate murals of tropical wildlife, and embedding floor tiles with branded greetings — all in the hopes that their guests will post them.

“That’s how you know millennials are starting to open restaurants,” says Hannah Collins, the San Francisco designer charged with bringing Media Noche to life. Collins’ firm has been responsible for some of the city’s most Instagram-friendly designs in recent years, including Roman-style pizzeria Delarosa (featuring striking pendant lights), airy pasta bar Barzotto (bathroom wallpaper that recalls an Italian village), and local burger chain Super Duper (bright-white interiors punctuated with neon).

To be sure, restaurateurs have always wanted their spaces to look attractive. But in the era before social media, a designer could concern herself primarily with the space’s effect on its occupants. How a room looked in photographs was, at best, a secondary concern. Ravi DeRossi, owner and primary designer of 16 bars and restaurants, including the pioneering New York craft cocktail bar Death & Company, says he has never used Instagram, preferring to design by instinct. “I want my places to feel transportive,” he says. Death & Company, which opened in 2007, exemplifies design in the pre-Instagram age: dark wood, dim lighting, and a muted color palette. The bar has a sophisticated interior, but it’s kryptonite for Instagram — good luck getting any likes on that underexposed shot of your $16 Dixieland Julep.

When the older generation of restaurants were designed as visual experiences, they generally came across as kitsch: think of the mid-century hot dog stands and donut shops shaped as the food they served. Those made for good photographs, too, but their primary aim was to entice drivers to pull off the highway and eat there.

“There’s definitely been a pivot and swing,” says Eddy Buckingham, co-owner of The Good Sort, a vegan tea and coffee shop in New York’s Chinatown district. The Good Sort is Buckingham’s third restaurant, but his first to offer Instagram-friendly rainbow lattes and pastel-pink coffee cups. “Even predating social media, you’d see the places that were thoughtful about their aesthetic, cohesive in their brand identity,” he says. “That wasn’t invented simultaneously with the explosion of Instagram. Good operators did that previously. I just think it’s more important than ever.”

Media Noche’s Collins first remembers Instagram entering the conversation in San Francisco several years ago, when someone working on the marketing for a new restaurant asked how it would photograph. At the time, a design’s social media potential was far from her mind. “I’m a tech degenerate. I was pretty against Instagram in the beginning,” she says. “And then eventually you’re like, I give in. Now it’s one of the first questions we ask clients — what’s going to be your hook?”

For Media Noche, a fast-casual Cuban restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District, the hook was the floor. Searching through old Cuban designs, Collins found beautiful old tiles with a dramatic pink-and-green floral designs. She had similar tiles custom-made for the restaurant, and they provided a visual anchor for everything that followed. Other Instagram triggers include banana-print wallpaper in the bathrooms, an old-fashioned white board menu with removable black plastic letters, and an exterior mural of pink flamingos, their heads bowed into the shape of a heart.

When it opened in March, Media Noche was an immediate social media magnet, drawing visits from a small army of San Francisco’s Instagram influencers, who promoted the restaurant to tens of thousands of followers. And while Media Noche’s food gets plenty of attention from Instagram users, it’s the physical space that seems to inspire most of the geotagged posts. Since June 1st, guests have posted 19 shots of the banana-wallpapered bathroom, 36 of their feet artfully contrasted with the signature tile, and 131 photos posing in front of the flamingo mural.

Markoe says that the restaurant’s early social media success has attracted tourists from as far away as China and Japan. “They saw the photos and they say, ‘I want that for my Instagram,’” she says. The average guest takes pictures for 10 minutes before ordering anything, Markoe says. Many bring tripods to better frame their shots. “It’s just really insane,” she says.

For many restaurants, Instagram-centered design means moving to physical spaces that are flooded with natural light, so as to permit more beautiful photographs. Markoe and Barker chose the location for Media Noche in part because of how much sunshine it let in.

Cafe Pierre in Manhattan Beach, California, had been in Sylvie Gabriele’s family for 37 years when they decided to start over. As a French restaurant, the space had been dark and intimate. But in 2014, the family reimagined the business as a California-Italian restaurant with an open kitchen and much brighter lighting. “The lighting was super important,” Gabriele says of the redesigned restaurant, which the family named Love & Salt. “We wanted people to really feel that they had that openness, and that lightness, that we’re all living in. We had thoughts of, this will be a great Instagram moment.” (Designer Ana Henton contributed another Instagram moment: a three-dimensional sign reading “LOVE” in an enormous font, the letters filled in with salt shakers.)

Instagram can even dictate which sorts of bars and restaurants are built. Last year, a friend told me she suspected that Instagram was behind the resurgence of tiki bars in New York City. We were drinking boozy red slushies out of ceramic shark heads at an East Village joint named Mother of Pearl. The server set them down in front of us and then bloodied their mouths with red food coloring. (The drink, the Shark Eye, would go on to be named the Most Instagram-Worthy Cocktail of 2016 by Time Out New York.)

With their campy decor and over-the-top cocktails, few establishments more reliably produce the kind of aspirational lifestyle content Instagram runs on than tiki bars. And they really are growing more popular: the number of self-identified tiki bars in New York City rose from four to nine last year, and foot traffic was up 21 percent, according to data from Foursquare.

DeRossi, who owns Mother of Pearl, insisted he had never considered social media in designing the space — or the cocktail program, which he built with a collaborator named Jane Danger. And yet within months, he says, people were walking into the bar and, without even glancing at the menu, ordering the Shark Eye. They saw it on Instagram, they told the bartenders. “I would imagine it’s had a pretty large effect on the business,” DeRossi says.

San Francisco entrepreneur Jen Pelka decided to open a champagne bar, The Riddler, in part because the concept seemed likely to inspire many celebratory Instagram posts. “The restaurants that I see that are the most successful, specifically in San Francisco but I think overall, are really concept-driven,” says Pelka, who also runs a public relations agency and advises restaurants on social media strategy, “a place that has a very specific point of view.”

Everything at The Riddler is designed around shareability, including the exterior of the building, on which Pelka commissioned a mural of an upside-down champagne bottle with its cork just popped. (Geotagged Instagram posts featuring the mural since June 1st: 20. People reliably pose with the cork appearing to fly at their heads.) A sign out front reading simply “champagne bar” advertises the vibe, as do serving dishes that bear the friendly slogan “Hello, old friend.” (The slogan has appeared in 51 Instagram posts since June 1st.)

Nearly everyone in photos posted from The Riddler looks as if they are having the time of their life. It’s hard to imagine a better advertising campaign; indeed, most of the photos on The Riddler’s own Instagram account were first posted by customers.

The menu helps guests along with a “chambong” — a beer bong, but for champagne, that doubles as a powerful conduit for Instagram likes. “It’s nearly impossible for a guest to order one and someone not to post about it on social media,” Pelka says. I went to The Riddler for a friend’s birthday party, and he declined the chance to swill rosé through a V-shaped glass tube. But the object is featured regularly in posts about The Riddler, and its own Instagram account has more than 4,300 followers.

Few restaurants have taken photo-friendliness as seriously as Bellota, a Spanish restaurant that opened in San Francisco last year. The entryway is enclosed, creating a pleasing shadowbox effect as you look into the dining room. The kitchen is open, and encourages patrons to take 360-degree videos of the space. Many Instagram posts feature pictures of “the ham wall,” which is just what it sounds like: a window that looks into the temperature-controlled room where Bellota stores $50,000 worth of Spanish jamon ibérico.

The most striking thing about Bellota may be the custom lamps at its 25-seat bar, which let patrons adjust the lighting in order to get the perfect shot. “I’m probably the most avid Instagram user of the group, so I kept bringing it up,” says Ryan McIlwraith, Bellota’s chef. He wanted the lighting to do justice to the restaurant’s tapas plates and signature paellas. “It turned out these lamps we got were just perfect for it,” he says. The lamps can be tilted or turned 180 degrees, and the light’s intensity can be adjusted up and down. An “advanced feature” allows patrons to rest their phones on the lamp’s neck so as to take a selfie. (I did, and must admit the lighting was lovely.)

For entrepreneurs seeking social media glory, no detail is too small to consider. The Turk’s Inn, a $3 million labor of love due to open in Bushwick, New York, early next year, represents an elaborate effort to re-create a beloved northern Wisconsin supper club. A standard American midcentury steak and chop house with a vaguely East Asian inspiration, the original Turk’s Inn had walls full of kitsch — live peacocks patrolled the grounds. When it closed in 2013 following the death of its owner, entrepreneur Varun Kataria and his best friend purchased as many of its relics as they could and set about bringing the concept to New York.

Kataria says Instagram is never far from his mind. He stalks his space like an old-time movie director, making Ls with his fingers to frame each corner in his mind. “We literally think about framing our photographs, and how we can capture the essence of our experience within the square frame of Instagram specifically,” Kataria says. The physical space is a standard square, but Kataria and his partners have carved it up with little walls to make nooks and other hidden corners. “It’s not just for Instagram,” he says, “but it lends itself really well to a lot of eclectic photographs.”

What, in the end, do entrepreneurs get in return for their social media savvy? Nobody I spoke to had determined an exact return on their investment. At four months old, Media Noche’s success is gauged primarily in how many foreign tourists come in each week. The Riddler has experimented with Instagram-only promotions, and “a huge percentage” of guests will mention it when they come in, according to co-owner Pelka.

Restaurateur Mark Barak, who owns La Pecora Bianca in New York City, said Instagram is useful primarily as a marketing channel. The restaurant accrues followers over time, and it posts every day in an effort to lure those followers back in. “The way Instagram is important for us is it helps us stay top of mind,” Barak says. When The Riddler goes a few days without a post, Pelka says, the decline in business is noticeable.

Even when bars and restaurants find their Instagram hook, they may find that it is swiftly copied. The Bay Area surge in message signs is often attributed to Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, a bakery that is home to a prominent message reading “I got baked in San Francisco,” scrawled on the wall in red neon. Now similar neon signs are everywhere, blunting their impact. Similarly, San Francisco’s Hawaiian-themed Liholiho Yacht Club scored an Instagram hit with its floor tile, which spells out the word “Aloha” — only to inspire copycats across the city. Some imitators are more transparent than others: the floor of Le Marais, a new French bakery in the Castro, reads “Bonjour.”

For entrepreneurs, the risk is that their Instagram-driven designs will begin to look stale or inauthentic. “Some things feel like they were cooked up in a social media lab,” says The Good Sort’s Buckingham. “I think people can feel when it’s a bit thirsty.” Shortly after I spoke to Buckingham, a neighborhood in Brooklyn saw the arrival of a “boozy sandwich shop” named Summerhill; its owner promoted the Instagrammability of its “bullet hole-ridden wall.” The owner later admitted that the holes were not created by bullets, though somehow I don’t think the influencers will mind.

Ultimately, restaurants are in the business of making memories, the Old Turk’s Kataria says — and photos are the place where we store them. On Instagram, “we basically trade memories of commodities,” he says, showing off the places we’ve been like so many collected pokémon. Restaurants supply the raw material, and we come in to collect it with a smartphone lens. Kataria is sanguine. “We know that ultimately that’s the game that we’re playing.”

Before I visited Media Noche, I perused photos of the restaurant on Instagram. Individually, many of the posts are charming. Taken together, there’s an unsettling sameness to them. Triggered by hyper-specific features, diners were taking the same five photos over and over.

I was one of them. Waiting for my food there last week, I dutifully took a shot of my feet against the tile. Despite having seen so many feet in those photos, I was still somehow curious how my own shoes would look. As I waited for my pollo bowl, I saw that a friend of mine had been to Media Noche just a few hours earlier — and posted an identical shot to his story.