Back in January 2015, vegan restaurant By Chloe announced its presence on social media with an image of a burger, fries, and drink, all painted white. (Its founder Chloe Coscarelli had already achieved TV fame, but the restaurant itself wouldn’t open for months.) The next dozen-plus Instagram photos adhered to the same all-white color scheme. There was food, but none of it appetizing in the traditional sense, and none of it what you could eventually buy at By Chloe. A series of orange photos (a neon sign that reads “STAY;” birthday candles stuffed into a coconut held against an orange wall) followed, then blue (more painted fruit; a couple precariously stacked smiley face mugs).
By Chloe’s Instagram account has since cycled through all the colors of the rainbow multiple times. There are consistently fruits and vegetables in striking arrangements (a pair of beets cut to resemble rubies; an eggplant strangled with string) alongside images culled from the internet that make only oblique references to eating: a sardine tin filled with pills; an eyeball wrapped in a cellophane candy wrapper. By Chloe’s photo strategy worked in two ways — it effectively presented the then-new restaurant as the “cool,” youth-oriented brand that it is, and more effectively encouraged Instagram users to click away from their own feeds to see By Chloe’s color blocking in full effect. At this point in time, one could happily scroll through the By Chloe rainbow for quite a while; the brand would go on to become an international fast-casual sensation.
Instagram’s mere existence spawned an entire category of visually appealing, gustatorially questionable restaurant foods — foods that are designed to drive followers to seek out their own post-worthy shots (or at least drive them to unhealthy levels of FOMO). Instagram can also serve an everyday, practical purpose. Even restaurants that don’t cater to influencers with over-the-top dishes usually aim to give potential diners a sense of what to expect if they choose to visit: Almost 100 percent of the time, they do this with beautiful photos of the food and space, often paired with captions that clearly spell out what the restaurant has to offer.
Most restaurant Instagram accounts, then, occupy the middle of a spectrum: one end includes outrageous Instagram foods, the other, like By Chloe’s, don’t showcase the food on offer at all. For those of us who see countless appealing food photos monotonously scroll across our phone screens, it’s Instagram accounts on this latter end of the spectrum that stand out. And at a time when even Instagram influencers are abandoning their sparkly facades, restaurants are increasingly trying on aesthetics outside the grid.
In March, Bon Appetit’s “Food on the Internet” column called out D.C. restaurant Spoken English for its “weird and wonderful” Instagram, which puts images from pop culture (Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in Ghost; Yoko Ono throwing up a peace sign) on the same brightly colored background. Almost always, food appears as well — there’s Marty McFly photoshopped to hold a plate of meat, and Miley Cyrus swinging on a Spoken English dumpling instead of a wrecking ball — but no one is going to the Spoken English Instagram to see the actual food. Chef Erik Bruner-Yang told Bon Appetit that the goal was for the restaurant’s social media presence to reflect its non-traditional spirit. Spoken English is a tachinomiya-style, standing-only restaurant and so the dining experience, and the restaurant’s Instagram, are meant to feel like a party. It does.
Still other Instagram accounts stray from food photos to create their own unique visual moods. Boston restaurant Trina’s Starlite Lounge has an entire Instagram dedicated to its fridge, which sits behind the bar espousing advice and clichéd phrases via alphabet magnets. Some accounts venture outside their restaurants’ space entirely. The Instagram for Tacos del Mar, an upcoming “fish taco side hustle” from former Vogue writer Marjon Carlos trades entirely in vibes — vibrant, beachy, hot girl summer vibes.
When I clicked on the Instagram page for Montreal Plaza, a somewhat avant-garde Québécois restaurant in Montreal, I was initially put off, even when told to expect something off-kilter and decidedly not about the food. The feed showed freeze frames of a teddy bear hanging out among piles of ingredients; fruits and vegetables covered in googly eyes; and most intriguingly, videos of brightly colored clay figures on countertops, in baking pans, and on servingware. I clicked on one — 17 seconds of three pink claymation characters swaying in a pot of boiling water, “singing” in French. Then, I spent many, many more seconds clicking on just about every video post on the grid. It was clear that the food on the menu — whatever it is — had nothing to do with the restaurant’s Instagram presence.
On Montreal Plaza’s Instagram an orange shape with three eyes, fittingly named Gros-Orange, stars often, singing or acting out dramatic scenes that seem to exist in a whimsical, alternate-reality Montreal Plaza. Some of the videos do make direct reference to what’s happening at the restaurant — a papier-mâché man sings to his mother to promote the restaurant’s Mother’s Day brunch, for example. But for the most part, the restaurant dishes don’t appear in the claymation universe and, I imagine, the Instagram’s delightful clay characters don’t creep into the dining experience. I would, however, go to the restaurant just to find out.
These restaurant Instagrams may not inspire social media users to put down their phones and go eat, but they do serve a purpose. They contribute to a distinct brand identity for restaurants, of course. More than that, they create a mood that Instagram followers can experience without visiting the restaurant; one that trades less on FOMO and more on on-platform entertainment. Through nostalgic pop culture references and quirky vignettes, restaurant instagrams that venture outside food transport their followers elsewhere — just like the best dining experiences are supposed to.