A friend and reader who remembered my diatribe about bad restaurant websites
forwarded me yesterday's edition of the MUG (Manhattan User's Guide) email newsletter. MUG is published by travel writer Charlie Suisman. In the June 20 newsletter
Suisman nominated his favorite restaurant websites. It appears that, to some degree at least, Charlie and I have different criteria for what makes a good website. Suisman's picks are all graphically impressive, but several exhibit the same usability pitfalls that I railed against. Most were sites I had not visited before, as they tend to be for places that are outside my humble price range. All these sites were obviously designed by well-compensated pros, but the problem is that graphic design considerations almost always trump usability. There's no reason a website can't be both beautiful and user-friendly, but the design really has to be responsive to usability. In my opinion, graphic designers shouldn't even be allowed to think about a site until the information architects and usability engineers have established the framework.
I'll go through Suisman's picks in sequence and respond to the sites themselves as well as his glosses.The Stanton Social
We're immediately treated to what I consider a capital crime, the useless splash page. We get a page that doesn't even offer us basic information, like address or phone number, just a logo and the dreaded words "Enter Site." As I've said before, I thought that's what I was doing when I typed the URL and hit the enter key. Why do I have to go through hoops to enter a site? When I enter the site what do I get? I get shitty music that I didn't ask for. Luckily by now I know I can turn the music off by clicking the thing that looks like a sound meter. But I found that trick out by trial and error on other sites. There's nothing that says "off." Three little letters. Is it so difficult to include them on your site?
Now that I've gotten to the flash site I'm presented with a motif of vintage mirrors. I guess that would mean something to somebody who has visited the restaurant. As far as a navigation menu is concerned, it appears that there are only four fairly useless choices: bookmark, invite a friend, mailing list, and contact. What about menus, location, reviews? Well, by now I've learned that restaurant site designers assume that users want to be treated like detectives. I'll bet the stuff I want is available, just cleverly hidden. So I start wiggling my mouse, moving my cursor all over the screen. Aha! That unlabeled yellow bar is hiding the links to all the information I really want (I was actually betting on the mirrors). I click on "Menu," and I get a menu of menus and each entry says "click to download PDF." I click, but my popup blocker has blocked the PDF. Maybe somebody should tell them that popup blockers are the norm these days. I give up.
What does Suisman say? "A gorgeous site that doesn't look like every other restaurant website." Yes, simply gorgeous, dahling.La Grenouille
This one is promising. No splash page. The homepage shows me what all the options are. I click on cuisine and learn that they have a prix fixe lunch for $59 and a dinner for $95. If anybody out there would like to treat me to a meal at La Grenouille, I'm game. Clicking on any of the menu links brings up a small window, not blocked (by Firefox at least) that sits atop the main page. I think this is a reasonable solution to the menu issue. The Wine Cellar page works differently: you click a category of wines, and the list expands out on the same page. Reviews employs a different strategy. There is a little text box that you have to scroll through. I'm not a fan of scrolling, and you're stuck with the reviews in the order presented. I think they should provide links to the individual reviews. I do like the way they handle the wine lists, and I think a consistent approach across pages would be welcome. Overall, though, this site is not a major offender.
Suisman's take? "An old guard restaurant that gets the web exactly right with an elegant but unstuffy site." "Exactly right," I wouldn't say, but I'll agree it's elegant and unstuffy.Tao
The first thing you get on this site is an intro animation of origami assemblage, with some minor sound effects. It doesn't last too long, and they do give you the "skip intro" option. The homepage tells me about all the celebrities who frequent the place, but it doesn't list an address or phone number. If I ran a shop or restaurant, I'd want to tell people where it was, not make them search for the answer. At least the navigation bar doesn't have hidden text. I click on "Menu" and am given a choice of menus (e.g. food, dessert, wine). I click on the basic menu link and what do I get? A nice photo of a shrimp dish and the instruction to "click to view menu." Silly me, I thought that's what I was doing in the first place. So I click, and I get a menu. All right, I have to scroll, I can live with it, at least they list prices. Also, there's a link for a printable PDF version of the menu. The "Decor" section offers photos of the interior.
It's quite possible that one of the practices I loathe, the multiple clicks to get you where you want to go, is intentional, a way to hit you with mouth-watering images that will make you wander like a somnambulist right over to the restaurant. Overall, the Tao site has some appealing design concepts and doesn't make me apoplectic like many restaurant sites do. The site also does a pretty good job of letting me know that this is a restaurant I wouldn't be caught dead in.
Suisman calls the navigation "clever." Is that a good thing?Sushi Yasuda
First, Suisman's comment: "Most designers wouldn't even consider a site that has no flash." Thank heaven, a site with no flash.
And thankfully the address and phone number are on the home page. The problem is, there's too much text, in large blocks. In fact, the site is all about text, and it isn't very useful to me. I don't have time to read all this stuff. Next.The Spotted Pig
I'll occasionally grant an indulgence for a cardinal sin if there are mitigating circumstances. The Spotted Pig does the hidden links thing, but they do it cleverly and in a fairly easy to figure out way. The homepage consists of a butcher's diagram of a pig, and each section is a link, the text of which is revealed when you scroll over it. Clicking on "Food" brings you right to the menus, lunch being the default. The menu is readable, and it's all on a single screen. To the left of the menu is a no-nonsense navigation bar, and to the right are a few nice, simple food photos. The "Press" section is nicely organized, with links to PDFs that pop up in small windows atop the original page, so you don't lose your place. The "Info" section gives me just what I want: hours, address, phone number, a map including subway coordinates and other potentially useful information in an FAQ section. Finally, a restaurant website I can endorse.
I haven't been there, but Suisman claims the site captures the spirit of the place, and he correctly praises the site for its lack of "moving parts."Mas (farmhouse)
The first thing you see is a slab of wood. Then after a few seconds a photo of the restaurant entrance appears. You're stuck waiting for this photo. You can't go anywhere until it appears. Then you can enter the site. Yes, the site you were trying to enter when you clicked the link or typed the URL. Once you're there you get a fairly clean layout, with a clearly marked navigation bar. Clicking on "Food" gives you a narrative in one of those little boxes you have to scroll through. No menu. OK, they tell me they change the menu daily, but some sample menus would be nice. If you click on one of the food photos on this page it will pop up and obscure the rest of the page. It's not clear if the now hard-to-see links will still work, but they do. Something about this site freezes up Firefox and makes it difficult to swap tabs, a pain if you're trying to write a blog post about the site. Overall, I find the Mas site pretty useless
Suisman doesn't make much of a case for the site, except to praise the food photos and the lack of music (we agree on that one for sure).
In response to my original piece on bad restaurant websites a reader asked me for some examples of good ones. I couldn't come up with any at the time. I'd probably offer The Spotted Pig as an example now. As for some of Suisman's other picks, perhaps these are indeed examples of some of the best New York restaurant websites. A shame if it's true, though.