Restaurant Websites and Menus

Usability is a term that must be absolutely foreign to most restaurateurs. I’m so often amazed, although I really should be inured to it by now, at the terrible websites and menus many restaurants offer their patrons and potential patrons. To illustrate, let’s talk about what most people want and need, first from a restaurant website, and second from a menu.

When the typical customer visits a restaurant’s website, she’s looking for four main things:

  1. Menu
  2. Hours of operation
  3. Location(s)
  4. Phone number

Now, there are probably a few extra pieces of information that might also come in handy, things like:

  • Do they require or even take reservations?
  • Do they accommodate kids?
  • Do they have private dining rooms?
  • Do they cater special events?
  • Do they serve alcohol? And if not, do they offer a corkage service?

But the first four are the ones everyone wants. So what do we actually get when we visit a restaurant’s website?

A beautiful “hero” image that takes up the entire width and the top third of the page. It could be an image of the building, a stock image of a chef cooking something, some kind of landscape, a stock image of some food, maybe even a custom shot of something the restaurant serves, or a stock image of a smiling couple clinking their wine glasses. This image will have a text overlay in some kind of fancy script either with the name of the restaurant, or with some prosaic nonsense about romantic dining.

The navigation for the website will have items like “Locally Sourced”, “4 Star Staff”, “Reviews”, “Historic Architecture”, “State of the Art Kitchen”, blah, blah, blah, but will be missing the very 4 things the patron is looking for. However, after some trial and error, the patron might find a PDF of the menu under “Locally Sourced.” Of course, the link for it will be at the very bottom of a lengthy page describing the relationship the restaurant has with a family farm in the Poconos where they get all their free-range pork, and wild-grown dandelions. After the patron downloads the menu, she will discover that it’s two years old, but very nice.

You know what else is missing from the menu? A phone number. There’s probably a link to an email address that gets checked once a week. You’ll have to look up the phone number in the directory. And really, all the patron wanted to do is look up a menu, share it with her friend(s) and call to reserve a table in the next week. Why should that be so difficult?

So our intrepid diner found all the information she needed and successfully made a reservation. Now she and her party have arrived at the restaurant on the appointed night, and are escorted to their table. The waiter distributes the menus, then takes his leave to bring water and bread for the table.

The menu is an interesting item. This being a fine-dining establishment, the lights are dim; it adds to the ambience. However, it makes it difficult to see, and especially to read. But fear not! The restaurant has taken that into account by having their menus printed in a light gray text on an ecru background with a nine-point, script font face. That should do the trick!

The patron has now leaned over the table, so she can get the menu close enough to the candle to see there is actually text on the page, and she’s pulled her reading glasses out of her purse to assist in the effort and what does she see? Descriptions like this:

“Locally sourced, grass-fed, wild-roaming, free-range fillet of cullotte pork, pan roasted on a bed of whole-grain, jasmine quinoa pilaf with andorran curry of carrots and haricots vert.”

Our patron chooses this item. When her friend asks “What are you having?”, she responds “The roast pork.” But her friend looks for that and can’t find it. Why? Because it doesn’t say “Roast Pork” anywhere on the menu. But that’s what it is. So why not call it “Roast Pork” and follow that with a nice description?

Here’s the thing – this is not rocket science. It’s EASY to develop a website your customers can navigate and understand. It’s EASY to create a menu that’s easy to read and imparts the information efficiently. And just because you’ve made it easy doesn’t mean it has to be unattractive. For instance, I’ve always been impressed with the website for “Restaurant Nora”. They have all the extra, unnecessary garbage, but it comes LAST, after they’ve provided all the crucial information. The navigation is super simple, and the menu is black on white, in a plain font face, with easy to understand descriptions of the food.

Like I said, this isn’t hard. But if you run a restaurant, you are a restaurateur. Or maybe a chef. But you’re probably not a plain language specialist or a usability expert. Hire one to help you with your website and menu. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Pay a professional to help you communicate with your customers; it will pay off in the long run.