Where once restaurants may have been reluctant to admit to making choices based on 'gram potential, many are now openly embracing the platform as a strategy driver.
Media Noche
Credit: Molly DeCoudreaux

At Heartwood Coffee Roastery in Hudson, Ohio, white subway tiles, cool chevron-patterned reclaimed wood, and concrete countertops provide the perfect backdrop for photographs.

Owner Jim Sanders says he didn’t plan the shop’s clean, crisp, neutral color palette around Instagram, but in an age of “snap first, eat and drink later,” Sanders knows it doesn’t hurt.

“We knew that having a really cool space was important, because a lot of the coffee shops in our area are, well, grungy,” Sanders admits. “We wanted a very clean, bright atmosphere.”

Heartwood Coffee Roastery accomplished its goal: Architectural Digest recently named it the most beautiful coffee shop in Ohio, and it's easy to see why. Instagram photos abound of white coffee mugs popping against its natural wood table tops; Greek avocado toast topped with Kalamata olives looks even more delicious set beside a fuchsia Phalaenopsis orchid; and industrial-chic pipe shelves have inspired #designdreams.

“Sometimes you do things and you don’t know why you do them—it just feels natural,” says Sanders, who also has a background in wedding photography. “Our intention was to build an incredible store visually, and we knew we would be able to display that on Instagram. Even before we had the café finished, the way we got the word out about our product was Instagram. We were able to really build up our business with really good photographs.”

Of course, Heartwood Coffee Roastery isn’t unique in this respect. If you miss serene, dimly-lit restaurants, you'd better get used to the bright lights and splashy wallpaper. Instagram continues to impact both restaurant design and menu choices. And where once restaurants may have been reluctant to admit to making choices based on 'gram potential, many are now openly embracing the platform as a strategy driver.

New York City’s Bar Belly recently underwent a big renovation, for which owner Tommy Mendes considered Instagram when choosing everything from the placement of the restaurant's upright piano to its white plates and vintage glassware.

The list goes on. Christopher Klapp, general manager of Petrossian in West Hollywood, acknowledges that the space enjoys a lot of a photo-friendly natural light—which the restaurant plays up to Instagram perfection with all-white walls, curtains, tablecloths, chairs, and even flooring.

At Cha Cha Matcha in New York, bubble-gum pink painted walls—inside and out—beg to serve as backdrops for photos of lime-green soft serve cream cones, while its matcha lattes are designed with palm trees, seasonal figures like gingerbread men, and Instagram-worthy text like “good vibes.” NYC's new eminently Instagramable healthy spot Broken Coconut quite literally instructs people to “eat pretty” with a bright neon pink light hung on a black-and-white wallpapered wall.

Even bathrooms aren't spared. At Media Noche, a Cuban restaurant in San Francisco with an “impossible-to-ignore tiled floor" that is “certainly one of the most Instagrammed features of the restaurant,” co-owner Madelyn Markoe explains, “Another shameless selfie addition is our metallic banana wallpaper in the restroom. As many restaurant restrooms are neglected, we wanted to carry the design and vibe of the space through in every detail and create this element of surprise that's unexpected in a fast-casual establishment.”

When even restaurant bathrooms have even become Instagram stages—ripping one of the last remaining moments of privacy from our cold, hard, phone-clutching hands—the platform's influence becomes as crystal clear as the glassware picked for its photo-readiness, because Instagram's influence doesn't stop at interior design, either, but extends onto the table, too.

Bar Belly uses Nick & Nora vintage glassware because “the etched lacing makes the glasses photo-friendly and the perfect accouterment to any botanicals or garnishes,” Mendes says. “We’re big fans of using white ceramic plates. Whatever is on your plate should shine. A white plate allows the creativity and vibrancy of the dish to come through.”

At Petrossian “the white tables and beautiful natural lighting makes for the perfect Instagram backdrop,” Klapp says, because “every dish that passes across the table is perfectly lit and is instantly ready to be photographed.”

Media Noche even has what they've dubbed the "gram table," named for its frequent appearances on Instagram. The white-washed vintage table was an inexpensive flea-market find, Markoe says, that is worth every penny “due to its photo popularity and vintage flair.”

And why not? “It’s like word of mouth on steroids. With the right picture, you can reach thousands of people," Klapp says. With the increasing challenges restaurants face these days to stay afloat, it's no wonder they're embracing (mostly) free publicity.

Markoe admits “the clear [Instagram] benefits can be challenging to observe when you're slithering through a crowd of 'grammers with hands full of Cubanos—but that is also perhaps its greatest perk, too. Instagram has paved the way for restaurants to remain instantaneously relevant and connected within a network of frequent dining neighbors to foodies who may have never been to our restaurant, let alone the city it's located in.” She adds that being Instagram-popular is “the visual equivalent of business volume by word-of-mouth, which makes the national and international market reach powerful and effective.”

And then there's the food. Media Noche, for one, created a dish specifically for Instagram: moon bars, house-made ice cream bars that co-owner Jessie Barker describes as “round like a full moon, dipped in chocolate, with a popsicle stick that has an illustration of a palm tree and a crescent moon burnt into it. The picture to take is it against the background of our pink and green tile.”

While presentation has always been important, and Instagram started to factor in here years ago, in some cases it's now the driving factor for menu choices. Klapp says that every dish on Petrossian’s menu is designed to be Instagram-friendly. And if it’s not, it’s reworked until it is. “Rather than removing a menu item if it’s not photogenic, we just rework the plating until we are happy with the overall design visual,” Klapp says.

And Petrossian’s chef, Carlos Cabrera, doesn’t mind at all. “It is very exciting to work in an Instagram-popular restaurant,” he says. “These days, dining has become an experience you share with not only the people you’re with but hundreds—if not thousands—of your social media friends.”

Plus, Cabrera adds, “It’s an honor when someone comes in and says, ‘I saw the food pictures my friend posted last week [from your restaurant], and I had to try it too.”

In the end, however pretty the dish (or bathroom) is, the food will speak for itself. Instagram might get people in the door, but it won't keep them there.

Though Media Noche chef Casey Rebecca Nunes admits being an Instagram destination can be a bit bizarre, she believes the overall trend is a good one for restaurants.

“I know there seems to be a divide between those who post pictures of what they eat and those who are vehemently opposed,” Nunes says, “but I can think of nothing better than having free, fun press. I think we need to be able to see ourselves through others' lenses in order to better serve our customers and market ourselves—even if they aren't adept at food photography.”