Would you like a few sentences with your steak, Sir? Why content shouldn’t stop at the restaurant door
Content is king. It’s always said, widely known and largely true.
Certainly, it’s hard not to see the benefit to a business of great content when it comes to descriptions on a website, tantalising newsletter copy, social media images and video, or powerful marketing materials.
For a restaurant or bar, this content should be an extension of the dining or drinking experience. It should whet appetites, tell stories and evoke a certain atmosphere — be it super-chilled, incredibly luxurious, classic or experimental.
Why, then, would all this stop when customers come through the door?
Sure, no amount of text can replace the know-how of a good waiter, and we’d like to think diners are there to converse with each other rather than a menu. But a few clever, creative touches can still significantly enhance an experience and leave a lasting memory that sets a venue apart.
Take Mayfair’s Sexy Fish, for example. If you pop into the bar for a cocktail, you won’t be given a menu but a magazine.
To show off the season’s fashion-themed drinks list, the team have crafted a glossy of their own, complete with fashion mag-style features on what’s on offer, articles about cocktail ingredients and descriptions of what to drink.
There’s no need to look at it for any longer than you would a normal menu if you simply want a drink, but if you happen to be waiting for someone then it’s a good read. And you can always take it home with you.
Whether you think of it as an elaborate garnish to go with your drink or carefully curated brand extension, the fact you’re thinking about it at all probably means it’s working.
At Soho newcomer Disrepute, creativity has also been poured into the cocktail menu. Here drinks descriptions come in the form of short stories rather than a list of what’s in them. It’s silly, perhaps, but also a laugh. And best of all it’s designed to make a point — cocktails should be about mood, style and circumstance not just ingredients.
It’s not all about words, either. The new menu at The Blind Pig, set above Jason Atherton’s Michelin-starred Social Eating House in Soho, uses drawings to add a little extra.
Each cocktail is named after a children’s book — from Peter Pan to Harry Potter — and is described next to a beautiful drawing inspired by the story, by illustrator Masha Karpushina. These add nothing to the flavour of the drinks (which are exemplary, do try them) but add lots to the process of ordering. The drinks list all of a sudden goes beyond the call of duty and conjures a little of the same magic that the books it refers do have done for generations past.
Elsewhere, a sprinkling of sentences, images and inventive fabrication can help set a tasty scene. Think of it like a backdrop in a theatre; it doesn’t distract from the acting but it does complete the experience.
At Dishoom on Carnaby Street, we’re told a tale of a young man who returns to India after studying in London during the 60s, and misses it so much he sets up a cafe in Bombay inspired by its scene. It’s corroborated by family photos and artefacts, and plays into the restaurant’s decor.
Similarly, at the Zetter Townhouses in Clerkenwell and Marylebone we are told the story of Great Aunt Wilhelmina and her Wicked Uncle Seymour to bring to life to the surroundings.
It’s not fundamental, and it really shouldn’t be a focal point, but it is fun. Given the best restaurants and bars go above and beyond to create a stand-out experience for their guests, perhaps content should be a more commonly used ingredient.
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Instagram is the glossy mag of social. A picture speaks a thousand posts, which means unlike other platforms space is limited. Think back to traditional print media, to those bygone days when the competition for coverage was like the queue outside Bao on a Friday. Then online came along and suddenly there was room for everyone: websites, blogs, social feeds: the platforms were endless.
Instagram has evolved into the go-to space social food content, but the secret to its popularity is its quality. Users go to Instagram because they want to see sexy food pictures, where to find this food and where the people in the foodie-know are eating (and insta-ing). Popular and influential instagrammers use their accounts to cherry-pick the best of their experiences, the most exciting and interesting, but also practically the most photogenic.
It might sound cynical, but think about it: would you buy a glossy mag full of out-of-focus photos? If your restaurant was featuring in a website, magazine or newspaper you would make sure that your dishes were presented in the best angle, light and setting. Editors need photos, we all know that. It’s very difficult to get coverage without them.
It is no secret that foodies on instagram are a significant weapon in any restaurant’s arsenal, whether you are a Michelin-starred stalwart or a tiny pop-up. It’s a low-cost way to engage with potential customers, introduce yourself to the wider food community and to show the world what you can produce without even having to get them through the doors. It’s essentially a direct-line to a feed full of food and drink influencers and editors; each well-followed social feed is essentially its own publication. Think of Instagram as an ‘editor’s picks’.
Despite this, restaurants are suffering from a severe case of light deprivation. Yes, in an ideal world instagram would be populated in the natural light of the afternoon, but mostly people come in the evening and the trend for table-top photo lighting has not quite taken off -- watch this space though!
We are not suggesting that restaurants are fitted out with professional lighting, but do we really all need to sit in the near-dark? The move away from the stark-white settings of the noughties is a welcome one, anyone who applies makeup remains eternally grateful. But would it really hurt to turn the lights up a little?
On several occasions we have been in genuinely interesting restaurants, eating beautifully-presented dishes, but the resulting photo of a greying/brown squidgy blob just doesn’t scream ‘insta me!’. With most Insta accounts knowing that less is more, your low-lit dish is competing with the menus of the well-lit elite. Your menu may well have more flavour and ambition, but it will still be left in the dark if nobody can see what it has to offer.
It is not just the press, foodies and influencers that restaurants are missing out on, there is real value in encouraging customers to share their dining experience too. But only if it makes people want to try the food. Faced with the prospect of excluding your business from Instagram’s food feeds and poor-quality, unappetising customer pictures of dishes floating around the internet instead, maybe it’s time to turn the lights up a notch?
Bet that table-top lighting system doesn’t sound so silly now...
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