Monday, November 30, 2009

Restaurant Websites: Stop the Madness

I know this post is a bit off topic for this blog, but I've seen a bunch of comments on Twitter complaining about various restaurant websites and I think it's time we all have a talk. I've searched and searched and found little to nothing in terms of written guidelines or best practices when it comes to restaurant websites, so no wonder everything is so messed up. Thankfully, most restaurants are simply small businesses, so a simple, static website should cover the essentials.

Web-enabled smartphones (like the iPhone and Blackberry) have changed the game. A large percentage of my frustrations come from badly formatted or poorly programmed sites on my Blackberry. Finding a specific restaurant's address, hours, or menu can sometimes be infuriating. Don't feel bad. Try navigating most e-commerce websites on a Blackberry, and they spend a fortune.

First, let's address the most important question: Do I even need a website?

YES you absolutely need a website

This isn't meant to sound like an ad for a web marketing company, but you really do. Take my example from above: if a user is quickly searching for a specific restaurant, they will type the name of your restaurant into Google, with perhaps the city. For those restaurants without websites, you'll probably get a local city guide site at the top of the list (i.e., Yelp, Citysearch). For those WITH sites, I guarantee you'll be the first one in the Google search list because each and every local city guide will link to your website. With Google, the more links to your site, the higher your ranking.

In my research, I used Textile as an example partly because they redesigned their site a few months back, but also because they did a lot of simple things right. Try typing Textile Restaurant Houston and check the results. Without a site, a user would probably visit Citysearch. Jenny's overview is nice, but it's followed by the three latest reviews, none of them very complimentary. I'm not criticizing Citysearch, but promoting your restaurant is not their top priority. They're not officially representing you, so why let them?

Nobody likes music on a website

Maybe I'm being too harsh. Let me rephrase: sound has a purpose for certain websites. Your website is not one of them. Trust me. There are few things more annoying than coming across a site with blaring music, especially at work. It basically eliminates any doubt as to whether you're working on that spreadsheet or researching a place to eat for the weekend.

List your location, hours, and phone number...

These three elements—along with your menu (more on that later)—are the most important things to include on your site. The Textile site has this information front and center, right under the main navigation (minus their hours; BOO!). Unless your restaurant is ridiculously hard to find, embedded maps aren't necessary. Link to a Google map instead.

...and make sure it's TEXT

When a site is animated in Flash or generated as a fancy graphic, all site content is inaccessible. Smartphone users depend on simple HTML in order to interact with elements such as a phone number. Even better, phone numbers should be tagged as a link in order for an iPhone to see it as clickable. Equally important, Google indexes the content of your site. If it's text, it'll show. As a smartphone user, I can get all the important information without even visiting your site. How cool is that?

Textile result in Google on my Blackberry

Make the title of your site relevant

Each of the pages in your site have a title. It's what displays at the top of your browser bar, and it's also the first line of each Google search result (see Textile Restaurant above). I suggest including the name of your restaurant, the city, and a (very) brief description of your restaurant. For example, Textile Restaurant | Houston, TX | Modern American Cuisine. If your restaurant is trying to market itself as family friendly, go ahead and put that in the title. Google gives the most weight to the title. Putting something descriptive increases your chances of being found by someone searching.

The "best" restaurant in Houston?

A few months ago, I had a back and forth twitter conversation about the website of RDG, the new Del Grande restaurant in the Galleria. Someone noted that their title included the phrase "Best Restaurant in Houston," a claim so boastful I called it conceited (my exact words). A friend commented that this was most certainly the work of a SEO (search engine optimization) specialist. SEO reminds me of Economics 101, with concepts so ridiculously common sense that it's hard for me to take it seriously. True, this concept initially worked; the new RDG site ranked towards the top of the "Best Restaurants in Houston" search results. This may work for a few visitors on expense accounts, but I never believe self proclaimed bests of anything. Unless this is backed up by an actual award (say, a Houston Press best of award), I'm not biting. So perhaps "conceited" is too strong. I'll go with unnecessarily boastful. Two months later, RDG is stuck in the upper teens of search results, on page two of Google (the equivalent of Siberia).

Include a menu

I think it's important that every restaurant site have some sort of menu, preferably in text format (see above for reasons, they still apply). I know this will probably be difficult for restaurants that regularly change their menus, but there are ways around this. Include a sample menu, especially if it's a tasting menu. PDF menus are annoying for smartphone users, but they're quick and easy, and satisfies the inquisitive wine dork types that research everything. It's a different persona (researcher) than the smartphone user (just the essentials, please).

Don't let your web designer self advertise

You know what this looks like: the designer puts a "designed by..." hyperlink in the footer or a restaurant's website. I'll probably catch some flack for this, but I think it's lame for a design firm to include a link to their home page on your site. It's YOUR site, not a vehicle to deliver them more sales.

Use Twitter!

Twitter is one of the best ways to promote your restaurant, and it's easy to include a widget on your site that broadcasts your tweets. In Houston, the foodie community is downright fanatical about supporting and following local restaurants. Heck, I follow places I don't even like! Go get a Twitter account, and use it. Start off simply: just tweet your weekend specials. Even better, engage in two way conversations. Best of all, it's free.


Whew. Even though I intentionally left out graphics and photos as topics, this was by far my longest post. There's a lot to digest here, although I'm fairly confident that there's a lot more. Any disagreements? What have I missed?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Stanton's City Bites

I would normally consider Stanton's outside the Heights, but hey if Heights Blog considers it part of the Heights, that's good enough for me. A couple of my friends went to Stanton's for the first time and were fairly impressed, so Stanton's has been on my mind today. I originally wrote this review for the Fearless Critics, but it didn't make the cut. I think that's a damn shame, but Stanton's is starting to get the following they deserve. The burger market sure is crowded in Houston, but I truly believe Stanton's serves one of the best burgers in town. Here goes.

Houstonians are used to finding some of the best hamburgers in the dingiest of locales, and Stanton’s certainly qualifies. Stanton’s City Bites occupies a non-descript grocery store in the shadows of downtown Houston. The tattered storefront is reminiscent of a classic New Orleans neighborhood convenience store, complete with a well worn interior and uneven foundation. It’s the kind of place where a handful of dropped marbles would congregate in the front corner. Your instincts may say “stay away,” but if you stick to your guns, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best burgers in this burger crazed city.

Stanton’s cheeseburgers are a tour de force. The meat is fresh ground and (thankfully) cooked to order, although they tend to overcook (order medium rare for a pink medium burger). The hand-formed burger patty is substantial, thick, juicy, and well seasoned. Ordered all the way, the burgers come with a slice of tomato, crisp romaine (not iceburg) lettuce, and fresh sliced red onions. Condiments (for flavor only) include a small swipe of mustard and mayo. As with every great burger, the sum is greater than its individual parts.

Regrettably, the sides don’t live up to the burgers. The French fries are previously frozen, with an unfortunate manufactured crunch on the outside. The tots are a slight improvement, but are still only school cafeteria quality. The onion rings are the class of the sides, which isn’t saying much. Like the burgers, all of the sides are served in to-go Styrofoam containers and will turn soggy if not opened within a few minutes. Drink options are surprisingly good, with various bottled sodas (including Mexican Cokes), teas, and other pedestrian beers. Also present are an assorted selection of questionable 40 ounce beverage options, all individual selections chilled, many available in cases to go.

Run by a hospitable Asian couple, the restaurant does an admirable job of fulfilling orders. While all items are cooked to order, there is usually little wait. Keep in mind that there are no tables to eat inside the store and everything is strictly To-Go. Burgers this good are best enjoyed super-fresh, so we suggest taking your order to a nearby park, or better yet, just go to it in the comfort of your automobile. And remember, take plenty of napkins.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Flying Saucer Pie Company

I must confess: I'm a pie guy. I love cake too, but if I had to choose, it would totally be pie. True, bad pie is an abomination (if you've ever had a crappy apple pie from a grocery store, you know what I'm talking about), but unlike bad cake, bad pie can sometimes be saved. I once resurrected a crappy pecan pie from Kroger by taking a slice and slapping it upside down on a hot cast iron skillet a la Camellia Grill (even better with vanilla ice cream). Cake tends to get churched up in all sorts of whacky, crazy dessert lists, but pie always reminds me of the holidays.

If your preference for pie leans more towards the Good Housekeeping Illustrated vs the French Laundry cookbook, then the Flying Saucer Pie Company is for you. Fruit pies are thickened with cornstarch and cream pies are layered with an inch of whipped topping. These are the pies your mother and grandmother would make if she still made pies. All pies are supported by a uniform crust with a great crumbly texture, and just a hint of salt.

In November, any discussion about Flying Saucer absolutely must include the madhouse that is the few days before Thanksgiving. For those who haven't experienced it firsthand, think mad dash to Space Mountain when Disney World opens its gates. The line inevitably winds down Crosstimbers, and nerves begin to show. Last Thanksgiving, I watched a view of the line from the local news helicopter and laughed at the play by play tweets from those in the trenches.

A few words of advice from my wife, who has experienced the line every year from the last decade: DON'T attempt to cut the line or fistfights will occur. DO wear warm clothes if the temps drop. DON'T wait for an hour plus and buy one pie. That's just stupid talk. Best to draw straws and have one person buy for your group of friends/family. DON'T have your heart set on one kind of pie. Have a backup plan in case the pie(s) you want sell out. It will happen, so be prepared. DO bring your patience.

436 W. Crosstimbers
Monday, November 23 7:00am to 7:00pm
Tuesday, November 24 7:00am to 7:00pm
Wednesday, November 25 7:00am to 5:00pm