Picture Perfect? How Instagram is Changing Restaurant Design
Nowadays, diners are not just hungry for great food, but for a great photo too, and of course as many likes as possible. With more sophisticated visual palates, it’s not uncommon for people to seek out the brightest table in the restaurant, or even base their choice of eatery solely on where is best to capture an enviable #instafood snap.
The documentation of the restaurant experience has become an integral part of eating out, and while amateur photography isn’t always welcome, with some restaurants going as far as to enforce a ban, other restaurants actively court this new breed of valuable customer, the Instagrammer.
Saavy eateries have recognised that unlike its social media peers Twitter and Facebook, the content on Instagram is usually positive; who would want to taint their perfectly curated feed with a picture of an ugly dish or dingy cafe? And so, Instagram has begun to influence not only chefs, who create visually striking food, but designers also, who hope to design an Instagrammers dream restaurant; flooded with light, with pops of color, and on-trend marble table tops.
Of course, it’s not that every single photographic detail has been designed with the view of creating a really cool picture, after all considered design of restaurants and thoughtful presentation of food and drinks has been important for a lot longer than the existence of the picture sharing app. But it’s hard to separate current trends of modern restaurant design and people documenting it on their smartphones. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Does Instagram inspire design, or is it design that inspires Instagram?
It’s a bit of both says Darragh Breathnach, director of architecture firm DUA, which has formed “complete design packages” for places such as Bear Market Coffee, in Blackrock and IFSC, and COCU on Baggot Street. “I don’t think we design with social media in mind. However, when we are working out the details and choosing materials we are looking at how the design looks from various different angles and thus would be photographed. Every designer will be able to tell you the 3 or 4 best locations to take a photo in their restaurant. So I suppose this is designing with the photography in mind and thus social sharing.”
John Farrell, owner and designer of some of Dublin’s most striking restaurants (Super Miss Sue, Luna, Cervi, 777, Dillinger’s and The Butcher Grill) says he can see the value of Instagram, but believes preconceived ideas in design tend to stand out like a sore thumb. “I’ve been told by a very animated customer at the bar in 777 “I’m Instagramming the shit out of this place!”” John says, adding: “For the record, 777 was designed in 2010-2011 before Instagram had achieved verb status.”
“I think at the heart of Instagram is noticing something photogenic and wanting to share it. Designers generally want to create spaces that are aesthetically pleasing and photogenic. Maybe designers take Instagram into consideration, but I think most create from the aesthetic anyway.”
Ali Dunworth, a restaurant consultant, who advises clients on “everything from practical kitchen design to menu layout to sourcing the ingredients and marketing,” says Instagram’s influence starts in the kitchen, particularly in the US, Australia and London, where there is fierce competition to create something worthy of sharing online: “You increasingly see people adding Instagram friendly things like extreme milkshakes and raindrop cakes to their menus.” Though Ali questions the longevity of this approach, and believes a food business should focus on getting the fundamentals right. “If you are picking design features because they will look good on Instagram I think you’ll end up with something bland and no personality.”
“Make gorgeous honest good food and then it will naturally have a story. Respect that food by presenting it in the best surroundings you can and you’re going to have something your customers want to share.” Sitting in Rathgar cafe Fia, Ali uses her exact location to make her point: “pretty much everything in my eyeline is Instagram worthy, but they didn’t plan it for that reason. Everything in here is a practical feature that happens to look great because it’s well chosen like their food, menu, coffee.”
Ali would never encourage her clients to prioritise social media friendliness over functional and beautiful design: “You should be choosing tangibles to reflect your food and ethos. Think about wonderfully designed places like Luna; it’s near impossible to get a good shot on your phone because of the lighting but if you changed that you’d change the entire atmosphere.”
Food Stylist Jette Virdi says “it’s not just a case of saying ‘oh look we have cool tiles on our floor, let take a picture’.” She encourages restaurateurs to dig a little deeper to encourage a natural stream of sharing: “Think about the lighting, is there a shadow? give us a reason behind the tiles, maybe they are some old ones you found. People love a story, a connection.”
Taurean Coughlan, one of the two ‘boys’ behind one of the most ‘grammed cafes in Dublin, Two Boys Brew in Phibsborough, says Instagram was at the forefront of their minds when designing their cafe. “When Kevin and I lived in Melbourne we would spend each weekend visiting the latest cafes opening up, to see what was being done and it was evident that the owners were pumping vast amounts of money into creating interesting spaces that were both inviting and fun; but also ‘Insta-friendly’.”
“When we designed the cafe, we wanted it to be a space that people wanted to visit; to relax in; to socialise in with their friends and family; and I feel we’ve achieved that by picking great pieces of furniture and using high quality materials. When choosing the table tops and bench tops it was always on my mind how great they would be as a backdrop for social media pictures.”
A beautiful dish can become instantly Instagram-worthy when plated on a white plates, finished with fresh herbs and a scattering of elaborate garnishes (hello pommegranate seeds on everything). But beyond the plate, table surfaces, focal point art, lighting, and even a bright, playful menu or photo-enhancing place mat can act as an interchangeable backdrop.
Heavily influenced by Australian cafe culture, Taurean says the two large sharing tables they integrated into the design are among the of the most ‘grammed spots in the cafe. “When full of coffees and food, they are great for flat lay photos and promote the idea that the cafe is perfect for large gatherings. The woods and finishes were all chosen because they were what we loved but also they all work so well in photos.”
Taking into account popular Instagram angles, like overhead shots of dishes on interesting surfaces, or food held up in the air, designers are implementing into their plans eye-catching features like white tile walls, quirky wall art, and whitewashed wood, slate, and concrete floors and tabletops. There’s even an #Ihavethisthingwithfloors hashtag, which sees ’grammers highlighting artful tilework through “selfeets.”
All of our experts agreed, however, that a restaurant can have all marble table tops and mismatched china dishware in the world, but without great lighting their efforts may be null and void. “One of the most important things is light,” says Domini Kemp, chef, and co-owner of Itsa bagel, Alchemy Juice Co., Joe’s Coffee and Hatch & Sons. “Check out Alchemy; it’s all about the light; the contrast, the white and the green. I love that clinical yet natural look we have in there; it was always supposed to look like a food apothecary.”
More obviously, considered infiltration of a restaurant’s logo can make the location of a great photo instantly recognisable. “It’s important for a cafe’s identity and branding to resonate through all social media and this can be achieved by making sure that their logos and brand colours are accessible throughout the cafe,” says Gary Reddin, of Reddin Designs.
“This means that images taken by customers will no doubt contain brand imagery to be shared on Instagram and other platforms.” “We are all familiar with the branded coffee cup in the well-manicured hand picture; so branded coffee cups are a must,” says Gary, “and having branded items on the table too is great, like branded napkins, menus, deli paper, condiment holders etc.”
Instagram is influencing designers in a more obvious way too, acting as source of inspiration for designers. “Along with Flickr and Pinterest, it’s a huge image bank for references and examples. We can learn a lot from the world around us, and Instagram gives us greater access to this world,” says Dublin based architectural photographer and designer Ste Murray. Jette agrees: “If designers, and restaurant and cafe owners aren’t looking around the world to see what works they’re missing out on a huge tool, and that’s really sad.”
Likewise, architect Darragh says from a design point of view Instagram has made the world a lot smaller: “In the past, it was always considered beneficial to surround yourself with talented people in your studio in order to push yourself forward, to inspire you and bounce ideas off. Now with Instagram, the world is a lot smaller, you can surround yourself with all the talent your feed can allow for from your bedroom.” Though he adds that’s not always a positive thing: “the one negative thing I would say about Instagram and social media now, is that you get a lot of copy cats and people ripping off ideas and claiming them as their own.”
Domini says Instagram has modernised the design process. “Instagram has replaced that big folder with lots of cut outs from magazines and hard copies of menus that I have. I still like to cut out things I see in travel magazines or newspapers, but assembling a mood board is something we couldn’t really do in such a quick and economical way, ten years ago.”
Ali agrees with Domini’s mood board analogy. “They are just modern day scrap books,” she says of picture sharing apps like Instagram. “This isn’t a new phenomenon, designers always worked like this, but Instagram just makes it so much easier!”
Whether done so consciously or subconsciously, there are eateries all over Ireland that have created ‘foodstagramming’ environments that encourage social sharing. “I think Designgoat have done some nice work in places like Brother Hubbard, with a mixture of indoor and outdoor seating. Their design decisions even come down to the salt and pepper holders, enhancing the overall experience,” says Ste Murphy. “The Fumbally cafe has great natural light flooding in, ideal for those overhead photos of #WhatImEating,” he adds. “Just last week I saw a Japanese tourist drop his phone into his falafel plate while taking a photo!”
Gary says the customers at Shells Surf Cafe in Strandhill, Sligo, can’t help but “flood Instagram with pictures of meals in the cosy cafe.” “Their branding runs throughout the cafe brilliantly and subtly, and when three breakfast specials land on that blue polka dot tablecloth, you can’t not take a picture and share!”
Taurean thinks Meet Me in The Morning, just of Camden Street in Dublin, has “hit the jackpot with their table tops.” “The design of the table top as a backdrop is pure gold. Obviously their food looks sensational too, but the addition of the table top brings an added pop to their photos.” Elsewhere, he says “the spaces that really excite me are the ones that immediately make me want to take out my camera are the likes of Established Coffee in Belfast, Lost & Found in Coleraine, Eastern Seaboard Bar & Grill, in Drogheda.”
Jette and Ali both name check Kai in Galway, where Ali says the cake display is one of the most photograph worthy things she has seen – and, more importantly, says it tastes incredible too. Another place where Ali thinks has got “the entire package right” is coffee shop 3fe: “the coffee is right from conception to when it lands in front of you, with perfect latte art, you can’t help but share that.”
Even the experts who we spoke to, some the most influential people in Irish restaurant design, admit they are susceptible to the power of Instagram. Darragh says the design features are just as likely to influence him to visit a restaurant as the food: “If I see some interesting venue on Instagram or tasty looking food, I will more than likely check it out the following week.”
Jette relies on Instagram rather than reviews when choosing where to eat: “On Instagram, you only post things you absolutely love instinctively and that’s why it’s so much more reliable than a review.” Trust is also why Ali says Instagram is her “first port of call for research” when travelling. “There are people I follow that I trust completely. If they post from somewhere I haven’t been or a dish I haven’t tried I’m adding it to my list. You only have to look at the phenomenon of Clerkenwell Boy to see the power Instagram can have.”
Foodstagramming might be a divisive trend, but now that every dish served has the potential to be broadcast, and to influence their next customer, it’s natural that restaurants would want to put their best, picture perfect, plate forward.
So, not quite as eye-roll-inducing as the headline leads you to believe, this trend is resulting in more and more thoughtfully-designed, unique restaurant spaces – let’s just hope the increase in flash photography doesn’t ruin the effect.
For a feast of food photography and snaps from foodie events across Ireland be sure to follow TheTaste on Instagram @thetaste_ie.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.