In this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe consider whether the aesthetic of bars and restaurants is becoming as (or even more) important than the food and drinks they offer guests.
The industry is constantly undergoing changes in its style and patron experience, and the digital age is bringing about new hurdles. How are restaurants and bars adjusting their menus to the new standards of social media? And with Instagram as a significant tool for marketing, how do these spaces highlight photo ops of dishes, cocktails, and even restrooms to gain traction online?
Tune in to learn more.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” That’s right, baby, I’m back. Joanna, you’re not in the office.
J: I’m still at home.
A: It’s really nice to be back. Hopefully, you’ll be back next week and we’ll all be back soon. It feels like we’re trying to reopen again, which is a good thing. We’re getting there. Zach, how’s stuff in Seattle?
Z: It’s all right. We actually had some sunshine the other day, which was an unexpected January blessing. My wife is going back to work at quasi-full-time. So it’s a lot of time with me and my baby daughter, which is kind of nice. I went on some walks, some healthy January sh*t, which I’m sure will go out the window very soon.
A: I feel like I saw that you had some epic lunch recently on Instagram.
Z: Oh yeah. Caitlin and I were able to go out to eat with Lila at a restaurant that has been a Seattle institution and is in the process of closing. It’s one of these ones where they announced they were closing, there was a lot of like, “Oh no, it’s Covid, we’re here for you, just hang on.” But the owners were like, “We were actually kind of planning on this all along. This was sort of our timetable. We’ve been operating the restaurant for a long time, and we’re getting up there and we just kind of want to get out.” It’s a bummer, but understandable. It was a nice enough day where we felt like we could sit outside, which we generally want to do with the baby.
J: What restaurant is it, Zach?
Z: It’s called Café Presse in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. It’s a French bistro kind of vibe. So it was a nice little treat for the two of us before Caitlin is in front of the computer all day, every day. Which starts now, basically. What about you, Joanna? What have you been up to?
J: Not too much exciting drinking for me since our last recording, but we did go out finally. We went out to dinner this past weekend. This is the first time since early December. So that was very exciting. We went to the Odeon, which is just a local restaurant in Tribeca. But it also happens to be the place where what we know as the Cosmopolitan today was created by Toby Cecchini in 1987. So I had a Cosmo, and it’s not my drink, I think. It’s not that it was bad; it’s just not my cocktail,
A: Not your cocktail? It’s not mine, either. It’s fine, but I’m just not a vodka-based cocktail person. I’m sorry. I’m just not. I don’t love vodka, but now I’m going to get hate mail being like, “Oh, of course Adam doesn’t like vodka.”
Z: You went to a vodka bar for your brother’s bachelor party, right?
A: Did I?
Z: Didn’t you go to Kachka in Portland?
A: Yes, we did. But I didn’t think of it as a vodka bar. I think of it as delicious food from Russia.
Z: You went on and on about the flight of vodka.
A: The flight of vodka was very fun. That is true. Good memory.
Z: You know, I do pay attention.
A: But with the Cosmo, I don’t know. What do you think of the Cosmo, Zach?
Z: To me, the Cosmo is a cocktail that has a time and a place. I don’t know if I would necessarily like it. It’s a January drink for me. In its most ideal form, it has a refreshing element to it. And therefore, it’s a kind of cocktail I could see myself enjoying on a nice, warm spring day. It’s pink, it feels a little celebratory, it is refreshing. That’s kind of how I feel about a drink like the Daiquiri, which cocktail lovers go ape for. I enjoy a good Daiquiri. In some ways, those cocktails come down to their essence, which is spirit, sweetener, and citrus. Even a Margarita, and this might be sacrilegious, it’s not an anytime drink for me. I have to be in the right kind of mood for it or in the right kind of setting for it. The same would be true of a Cosmo, for me, because it’s a drink that I want to drink too quickly, which is the other problem. If I want to have a cocktail that I will really enjoy and appreciate, it’s probably going to be something that’s a little bit less citrusy and a little more spirit-forward. What are you drinking, Adam?
J: Is your January a little damper?
Z: I would say it’s getting damper and damper.
A: I visited my brother-in-law in Philadelphia. So I had a fun evening into the night with him, where we did a little bit of a bar crawl and then ended it at Laser Wolf for dinner. It’s Solomonov’s new-ish spot in Philly. I thought it was very good. It’s always hard for me with any of these restaurants that get so hyped. Then you get there, and it’s very good, but I don’t know if I would say this changed my world. It just can’t compete against my first and only love, which is Miss Ada in Fort Greene. I think that’s the best Israeli restaurant in all of the United States. It’s just hard to compete against Miss Ada.
J: I really like Zahav, though.
A: I love Zahav. This is very different. Zahav is also very fancy, very fine dining. This is supposed to be more fun and laid back. It was all about the appetizers and stuff, but it was a good time. I got to go to Philadelphia Distilling, which I’d never been to before, and that facility is insane. It’s really beautiful, and I had a really good Corpse Reviver No. 2. This week, I had to go out to a work dinner, and I had a bottle of Pierre Cotton “100% Cotton.” He’s a Beaujolais producer, and it was really delicious. It is crazy, though. Everyone has talked about it, and then I felt it as well, just how expensive Beaujolais has become. We have the piece by Jamie Goode on the site from last week, right? This was a $90 bottle of wine — on the restaurant list, but still. Beaujolais has just become so expensive. This wine would have been $65 three or four years ago.
Z: That wine would have been $35 when I started drinking Beaujolais.
A: Isn’t that crazy? This is one of those things where it’s always hard for me. The restaurant we were at, I won’t name it, but it’s one of these, like, trendy places. It’s a tavern, but it’s elevated, if that makes sense. It’s bar food but elevated, and it’s in New York and has gotten a lot of press. And the wine list was really expensive. This was one of the most affordable bottles, and when I’m saying $90 is affordable, that’s laughable. That was just kind of crazy to me. You’re doing burgers, roast chicken, and fish and chips, but then one of your more affordable bottles is $90. It’s always so hard for me to wrap my head around. But if you have the clientele coming who is willing to spend more, then I guess you do you, boo.
Z: We’re going to need to have a conversation on a different episode about restaurant wine pricing, and how it’s failing to track with wine pricing in other channels. I think it’s been a problem for the wine industry. I don’t know if this is the time and place to get into it. But I have noticed that same thing, and it is very shortsighted. Not that the restaurant industry operates in lockstep, obviously, as we’ve seen over the last couple of years. It’s tens of thousands of operators all doing their own thing. And that’s cool in some ways, but there is a little bit of a problem of wine pricing in restaurants that has gotten worse and worse.
A: Yeah, it’s crazy, right?
J: People are going to stop buying wine by the bottle, too.
A: We’re going to talk about this in a future episode, but they’re just going to order cocktails. There’s so much influencing why millennials are not drinking as much wine. And this is one of them. When the cocktails are $15 or $16 and an “affordable“ red is $90 and you’re dining with four people like I was, you’re probably going to order more than one bottle to make it through the meal. It’s just not going to happen as much anymore. The pricing in the restaurants, especially in the trendy restaurants where everyone wants to eat at because they’re getting covered by all the media outlets out there, including ours, it just means that they’re going to find other things. Because they want to be there, they want to experience why these oysters Rockefeller are supposed to be so good. It’s definitely for a different conversation, but something to start thinking about. The conversation we’re going to have instead today is sort of related. Is the secret to success right now, in terms of the restaurant and bar industry, simply design? What we mean by that is not just drinks design, but everything that goes into making it a place where you want to take photos and post it on social media. It could be the wallpaper, the furniture, or the glasses that the drinks are served in. I gotta say, a lot of me thinks “yes.” There’s starting to be a little bit of a return to old-school New York. Joanna and I were talking about this yesterday in the office. But even that, I think, is based on photography. This looks like a cool, old, gas-powered lamp that I’m going to take a picture next to. There’s all old drink vessels and things like that. That is all it seems to take. Is this just my observation? What do you both think?
J: Why don’t you go, Zach?
Z: There’s an element of this that feels cyclical to me, in that I think we go through these periods of time where the driving trend in bars and restaurants is aesthetic and design-oriented. I’ve been through at least one of these cycles in the industry previously. In the mid-2000s, I think you saw a different aesthetic and a different motivating factor. It wasn’t built around Instagram, frankly, because Instagram didn’t exist at the time. So it was a little bit more about the vibe of the restaurant. There was that industrial period, where everything was exposed metal, exposed brick, exposed wood. There were those god-awful stools that every single restaurant had that were the least comfortable thing imaginable. I don’t think it was that it photographed particularly well. This is maybe something that you guys were somewhat aware of, although I don’t know, you both were in New York City at this time, but it was really an attempt to take that Brooklyn aesthetic all over the country. And that remains a driving force for a lot of design around the country, either copying or riffing on what’s popular in New York. Even before that, you had a previous cycle of these really dark, “sexy” spaces. There was a period where I went into a bunch of restaurants in my early, early restaurant days where there were these candles everywhere. It was this whole thing. There’s always been this element that the design of a restaurant or bar is super important. This is the first time where it’s almost as if the design of the restaurant is centered around people who aren’t even in the restaurant. It’s not that someone walks in and they go, “Oh, I like the way this place feels. I want to come back here. I like space.” It’s like, “I like the way that picture looks on social media, and therefore I’m going to try and get in there.” Restaurants have been trying to create that kind of buzz forever. But it is very specifically tied to an aesthetic, a look, and the way it photographs.
J: I agree with this idea and I don’t, to a certain extent. Even when I’m going out, I unfortunately use social media as a tool to see new places. In a lot of instances, websites aren’t really up to date, and we definitely saw that over the course of the pandemic. So I use social media to see hours or if places are open. I also use it to see what the vibe is, especially for newer places. For me, the aesthetic of a place says something about the drinks that I can get there. If a place is really well designed, then I assume — and maybe this is incorrect — that they’re going to have really good drinks. Even if they look really good, maybe they don’t taste great. But I think that’s kind of a connection that I make in my head. Whereas if it’s a divey spot or a place that’s very bare bones, then I think it’s going to be a well drinks type of place.
A: I definitely look at Instagram before I choose a spot. But I definitely am much harder on places, too, that get a lot of Instagram traction. Like, is this the only reason that people are here? I’m also suspicious when I get to a place and they’ve been posted about a lot and then their cocktail doesn’t really make sense. Or, this is really overly sweet and clearly is made just to exist in this specific glass where a lot of people take pictures of it. But I am very annoyed that I’m paying $18 for that.
Z: It does kind of feel like the whole industry is moving towards this, or a segment of the industry is, almost like a perpetual pop-up vibe.
A: It’s a formula. It’s an easily executable formula. I don’t agree with it. I think you’re completely right about recognizing that. But it’s almost like, this is the package and here’s how you do this.
J: Where I disagree with this, though, is that a lot of these places aren’t really conducive for taking good photos.
A: Because of lighting?
J: Because of the lighting. I think of Temple Bar as a really good example of this. That place now has such a vibe and is so dark. It’s impossible to take photos there. And I know, because I’m the asshole trying to do it. But it’s so dark there. It’s just so hard. But it is a place that’s a lot about photo ops.
A: I guess I don’t think about Temple Bar when I think about this. I don’t want to name the names of any of these places, because that’s not nice. But I think about these places that are completely island-themed, and maybe it has the name of an island fruit. Or, this place is set in an airplane, and that’s more important than the actual quality of the drinks. But people don’t care because it’s super cool to feel like you’re sitting in a cabana with crazy coconut-shaped glassware.
Z: Why don’t people just go to Señor Frog’s or whatever?
A: First of all, Señor Frog’s doesn’t exist in New York City anymore.
Z: Oh, really? I definitely went there least once in college.
A: These places still feel elevated. It’s attracting a certain kind of influencer clientele; it’s expensive enough to feel like it’s high-end, but the drinks are never that good. It’s all about the kitsch, and these are places that are very buzzy. The problem with these places is what we’re all saying. To operate a place like this, to be a restaurant or bar owner, there’s a lot of rinse and repeat you have to do. So we try this concept, it gets a lot of buzz, it gets a lot of press, it exists for two to three years, it starts to wane. You clear out the space because your lease is actually 10 years, and you remodel and you reopen as a new concept as another thing that people want to take photos of.
J: It’s like the rooftop bar thing. You see that there.
A: We’ve written about this before, too, when rooftop bars create, encourage, and bring out the worst behavior in people. I think these kinds of places do, too. These places become so scene-y and everyone’s supposed to say they were there. And it creates behavior where the consumers are assholes to the staff. They’re just there for the perfect photo. So they’re also really demanding of how the drink looks when it first comes out. They’re looking for the angles, and all that kind of stuff. In the same way, I think it creates really bad behavior. I also wonder how much staying power the clientele has, right? I have to imagine at places like this, the tables must turn really often. Because you’re not going to sit there and have four drinks over the course of a few hours with friends. You’re there, you get your photo op, you have a drink, and you leave. There seems to be more and more and more of these places. And we get press releases every week about a place like this, like “come drink on what feels like a yacht in this city in America.” It’s interesting that that’s where we’ve come to. It’s really all about the photo.
Z: Do you think that element of being in a different location has increased in popularity because it’s been more difficult for people to travel over the last couple of years? There’s even more demand for this, whether it’s literally wanting a picture on your social feed that makes it look like you were somewhere else, or you just want to have that experience and also just take pictures. I wonder if some of this is just people’s wanderlust that has not been able to be fulfilled because traveling is, at a minimum, more complicated now than it has been previously?
A: I mean, I think we’re in the metaverse, Zach.
Z: Oh, good. We’ll be doing a podcast about drinks in the metaverse one of these days.
A: But I think that Instagram is a version of the metaverse. If you want to think about what the metaverse actually already is, it’s living a lot of your life online, and I think a lot of experiences exist so that you can portray a certain kind of life online. A decade ago, you had chefs and restaurant owners banning photos in their restaurants; they didn’t like it. Recently, I have not heard that at all. And I think it’s because a lot of these chefs and restaurant owners realized when they started asking their customers, “How did you find out about my restaurant?” the overwhelming answer was always social media. It wasn’t a huge New York Times review or whatever. They saw it on social media.
Z: Our chefs had to change the way they plated the dishes for Instagram. I’m not saying that the dish itself was composed all that differently, the ingredients were still basically the same. The previous eras of dining were all about how the meal and the plate was experienced by the guest, how it came to the table. That’s why tall food was really in. But in the end, most of the food that you see on Instagram is photographed top-down, right? How vertical it is did not matter. What mattered instead was lots of different colors, geometric shape disparities, interesting plates. If you were at a diner, you didn’t give a sh*t, you plated the food the same way you had forever. But any place that was, at least to some extent, going to be on Instagram had to reconfigure how they plated things, even if you weren’t relying on Instagram as your driver for traffic. This brings up another topic or question I wanted to ask you guys. We’ve also seen this proliferation, and these things are obviously very connected to selfie museums.
A: Places with ice cream and stuff like that.
Z: Places where you can go to take a picture of yourself or have someone take a picture of you posing next to some random sh*t. There’s a bunch of different rooms of themes and all that. Are we that far away from a prop cocktail bar?
Z: If people don’t give a sh*t about the quality of the drink, why don’t you just have a prop drink? No one needs to know if you drank it or not. If the motivating factor for an influencer or someone who wants to be an influencer, is to have the cool picture, why buy a drink? I’m making myself wretch as I describe this, but I think it’s coming.
A: This is so sad. I mean, you had Rosé Mansion for a while.
Z: Even then, you probably still got a glass of wine.
A: I don’t know. Joanna, do you think we’re close?
J: Oh gosh, I hope not. If this is all so terrible, then what is the formula for opening a bar these days and finding success without appealing to very Instagram-driven drinkers?
A: I don’t think there is. The key to a longterm bar is that you have a place that looks great and people would want to take photos at it, and then the drinks are also f*cking amazing so people continue to want to come back and drink. Or like you say, just f*ck it and open a dive and people will take pictures like, “Oh, we’re in a dive tonight.” This has always been about aesthetics and this generation being obsessed with it. This sort of brings me to my question that I’ve been sitting here thinking about. Again, I know we’re gonna talk about this in a few weeks, but do you think that’s why wine is not as popular, because every glass of wine kind of looks the same?
Z: And it photographs terribly.
J: I do think it’s why wine labels are going the way that they’re going.
A: I agree with that. At least when you Instagram the bottles, those look cool and fun. I think that’s why Champagne still works. I think that’s why rosé works, because it’s pink and fun, bubbles are fun. I don’t know the last time I ever Instagrammed or took a picture and shared the glass of wine I’m drinking. But you share the really fun labels, which are different to different people and different groups and demographics, etc. That’s why you’re 100 percent right, it has to be that way. Then you’ve got to hope that more people order by the bottle. The bottle I talked about, the Beaujolais that I enjoyed for $90 at the tavern, the label’s really cool. It’s a really cool label, and the bottle looks sick. When you post about it’s like, “Oh, this looks like a fun wine Adam’s drinking. He’s not doing something that’s snobby.” I think that people care about that, because that’s also all about your vibe.
Z: To add one last piece to this, Joanna, you asked what can bars and restaurants do? And I’m not sure that Adam’s hopelessness is completely accurate. I do think that it’s important to remember with whatever you are trying to open, that in some ways, whatever you are putting on your menu and on your cocktail list, how you’re having your space designed, you’re really designing for people who are not there. Hopefully, you want the experience to be enjoyable for the people who are dining with you, drinking with you, and you want them to come back. But you just can’t dodge the fact that people are going to be taking pictures. One of the biggest tells of this is how much more design goes into restaurant bathrooms than ever before. Where do people take pictures? For whatever reason.
A: You get a good selfie in some mirrors, man.
Z: Because it’s better lit than any other part of the restaurant. But we all know that this is a thing that people do. And that is why restaurant and bar bathrooms are designed like that now. They’re not just a place where you go to use the bathroom; they’re not just toilets and urinals and a sink. They’re a whole vibe themselves. I just don’t see those things going away. Because, as Adam said, even if we’re not fully in the metaverse yet, a person’s real life and digital life are so linked. Even something that you would think is as rooted in the real world as eating and drinking is still connected to all this other stuff. If you have certain aspirations, you just can’t really deny that.
A: We all know that most of what we see online isn’t real. It’s a version of ourselves, but it’s not the true version, right? You could have ordered that drink, taken that picture of it, and then gotten into an argument with your partner. And maybe you did not have a great night, but no one has to know that, because drink looks cool. That’s what happens all the time. No one posts the pictures of the screaming baby. It’s the same thing. That’s also why it has become so important to people that the stuff looks cool because you want to show, “Here’s what I’m doing, and here’s what I’m doing that’s so great. Doesn’t this look amazing?” It matters, even in the bathroom. You blew my mind with the changing the plating of food, Zach. I should have assumed that, but the fact you guys did that is just nuts.
Z: You have to be aware of what that top-down angle looks like on the plate. Like I said, previously, chefs and people designing food thought about what it looked like horizontally, what it looked like as it came to the table, what it looked like sitting in front of someone. Not to say that that totally went out the window, but there’s a lot of emphasis on what it looks like from that classic Instagram angle.
A: Crazy, y’all. We live in the metaverse. Well, I will see you on Friday.
J: See you then.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.