Like many last minute males, I spent last night searching online for restaurants in the Washington DC area to plan that perfect last minute romantic evening out with my wife for Valentine’s Day. As I surfed online, I recalled my dot-bomb efforts to launch almost ten years ago (the design stinks, it hasn’t ever been updated, but it still lists #1 on Google for "dc restaurants"). Canvassing the entire sum of restaurants that were online at that time, I came to the conclusion that they were a sea of crap. With ten years of innovation and maturity behind the Internet, restaurant websites have come a long way in one regard.  Now they constitute an ocean of crap.  To my frustration, it seemed there were basically only three types of restaurant websites out there today:

  1. The "My Web Developer Only Knows Flash" Site
  2. The "Look What I Did With Frontpage" Site
  3. The "Washington Post Template" Site

Flash-based sites often overlook common functional elements such as allowing users to cut and paste details, and making pages printable.  Other types of sites fail to convey the true sense or elegance (in some cases) for restaurant websites.  In a day when there are wonderfully insightful online tools and advice for restauranteurs (like the Top Shelf Consulting Blog), there is no excuse for a crappy website.  Calling upon my ill advised desire to build websites for restaurants back in 1997, here are a few of my thoughts on things that every restaurant can do to improve their website, and make it a better marketing tool:

  1. Give them the details first.  Most people are visiting your site to see the location, get your phone number, or see your opening hours.  Are these on your homepage?  Can you get to them from every page?  Put those front and center, and customers will be more likely to call or visit.
  2. Get listed in local online restaurant directories.  There are lots of them in every metropolitan area, and usually it is pretty easy to get listed.  They need restaurants in their database.  It just takes an afternoon searching Google as if you were a customer, finding the sites that you’re not listed on, and submitting your site.
  3. Show what your best customers say about you. Chances are, you have your regulars.  What do they love about your restaurant?  Work to find people who say you’re good, and then publicize their opinions on your site.  Oh, and don’t forget to get your mileage out of any positive reviews from critics online too.
  4. Pay for professional photography.  Your cousin might have a great new digital SLR, but you can tell the difference between professional and amateur images.  A good photographer can make something average look mouth watering, and something good look divine.  It’s the best investment you’ll ever make.
  5. Help your customers pass it on.  Put the URL on your menus. Include a Send this link to a friend.  Let customers send an evite to others in their party with details on a reservation.  Try anything to get people to tell more people online.  A single voice can amplify many times further in the online environment.
  6. Make it printable.  Everyone wants to print menus, directions, phone numbers, etc.  You can’t print from a flash presentation.  Sometimes PDFs are a turnoff because they are too much work.  Just make it easy for customers to print pages, and you’ll reduce the chances that they get to your site and leave.
  7. Understand your stats. Chances are, you know what’s working and what isn’t in your business. How else can you improve?  Your stats can tell you where people are finding your site, what they are searching for when they get there, and what they are never seeing.  Analysis this information (or get someone to do it for you), and then take action to improve your site.

As for us, my choice for this evening was Rasika’s – a wonderful Indian restaurant with an original design for their flash-based website.  The site worked as a sales tool, mainly because of the luxurious imagery of the decor and food (the two things I really cared about).  Now the only question is if the actual experience will live up to the website …