Sometime in the latter half of 2013, Midtown Manhattan steakhouse Quality Italian became the most sought-after reservation in New York City. What? Midtown isn’t cool. Steakhouses aren’t cool. But if you were an Instagram user, particularly if you were a millennial, and your feed didn’t include a photograph of the pizza-shaped chicken parmesan at Quality Italian, you were doing it wrong.
I raced there, and yes, it was delicious. Chicken parmesan tends to be delicious. This was certainly a good version, but- and not to ruin it for you- it was chicken parmesan. What makes it special is the fact that it’s in a circle (and the oh-so-delicious honey. But we digress).
This is New York. There are a ton of delicious restaurants. And when I was 23, and Quality Italian came into my life, I only wanted to be below 14th street. But this circular shaped pile of chicken, cheese, and breading had taken over my social media. I was a woman on a mission, and I went. And I sent tons of snapchats, because if I didn’t, had I even eaten the chicken at all?
Fast-forward two plus years, and social media, particularly Instagram, and now Snapchat has completely overhauled the way we eat. Ten years ago, looking for a restaurant meant finding the most recent Zagat edition we had in my parents’ car and scouring the short, pithy reviews for something that looked acceptable. Now, it’s a process that generally takes longer than the actual meal. First, something on Instagram catches my eye. If there’s a geotag on the photo, awesome. If not, I’ll find it. I’ll scroll through the Instagram archives, looking at pictures (often all of the same dish) until I’ve had enough. Then I’ll go to The Infatuation, which, if they’ve reviewed the place, tells me which menu items are worth getting and which to skip, and then I’ll head over to Yelp, where I’ll search each of the items and scroll through the pictures that accompany the reviews that mention them. Then it’s back to Instagram until I actually get to the restaurant and eat the thing. It’s exhausting. Is it necessary? Probably not, but in 2016 it’s how it works.
As of this posting, there are 191,870,685 photos on Instagram with the hashtag #food, and millions more with hashtags like #foodporn, #foodphotography, and #foodpics. The most popular food Instagrammers, with accounts dedicated to just pictures of what they’re eating, have hundreds of thousands of followers. It’s changing the game for restaurants and customers alike. For one thing, we’re all trying more foods than we were. If an Instagrammer we trust has posted a picture of it, it must be good. Uni, an acquired taste that’s never acquired by many, is having a moment thanks to social media, where before it probably wouldn’t have.
People are also seeking out foods they wouldn’t otherwise. Seriously, what is avocado toast? At Cafe Gitane, the OG spot for the insanely popular item, it is, and I quote the menu, “avocado, lemon juice, olive oil, chili flakes on seven grain toast.” I can make this at home for the price of about $3.00, but I didn’t feel like a true New York City woman until I had spent $7.25 on the version I see all over my Instagram feed.
Restaurants have changed as well because of social media. They’ve had to adapt, because #foodporn = customers. Joanna Stachon, Executive chef at Ada Street in Chicago told Thrillist earlier this year:
“When I’m designing a dish, one of the first things I ask myself is: how is this going to look? How would it look in a picture? Everyday people who might not consider themselves foodies are becoming passionate and caring about pictures of food, so there is definitely an added importance on the way things look — now, more than ever.”
Social media is great for certain foods’ PR, though, while others get no love. The Sporkful’s Dan Pashman discussed the Professor Krishnendu Ray explained that some foods that “taste fantastic” don’t do as well with restaurant customers because it “does not make a very pretty picture.” Stews, and saucy dishes, and other foods that fall flat in photos are not as popular right now because they’re not as attractive to the eye. Avocado toast, on the other hand, is having a day. Every chef is making his or her own version of a chicken sandwich right now, and you can’t pretend that the fact that it looks like this has nothing to do with it:
Social media is also the reason that breaded and fried chicken between two slices of bread covered in sauce can be popular in the same world that juice cleanses are. Today’s most popular food is bacon, and somehow it is also kale. If those sound like two opposing ideas, it’s because they are. But while health and fitness are trending at an all-time high, you cannot possibly fight how delicious this looks:
The shift is mostly positive. Chefs are forced to step up their game, and people are branching out and trying new things based on what they see. Some foods, however, get lost in the shuffle. For what it’s worth, social media isn’t going away. Maybe some of the less Insta-popular restaurants could stand to invest in a few of these light boxes. No, just kidding, don’t do that.
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[Image via Instagram]
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