The rise of the Instagram restaurant — how the photo-sharing app reshapes physical spaces

The rise of the Instagram restaurant — how the photo-sharing app reshapes physical spaces
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Beautiful decor and thoughtful plating and presentation aren’t novel concepts in the restaurant industry. But the rise of Instagram’s photo-sharing influence is driving more restaurants to create strategically irresistible photo ops from over-the-top food to eye-catching physical spaces.

At French brasserie La Belle Helene in Uptown, our #1 ranked most beautiful restaurant in Charlotte, a branded bathroom mural is deliberately painted backwards so that it reflects correctly in mirror selfies.

La Belle Helen’s unisex bathroom mural via Instagram

The owners of The Manchester, a newly opened English-style pub and speakeasy in South End, turned dead space in the entryway into a selfie station situated under a landmark neon pink sign that reads “You are exactly where you need to be.”

And in the bathroom at Rosemont, a casual party bar on the light rail, painted angel wings in front of an ornate gold framed mirror beg for a photo op almost as enticing as their cupcake-topped milkshakes and hashtag-branded juice pouch cocktails.

“The trick is to make the installation or idea a genuine means of connecting with the audience but also true to brand,” said Corri Smith, owner of local creative marketing and PR company Black Wednesday. “It can’t be cheesy. It can’t be a knock-off of something someone else did.”


Smith was the driving force behind that backwards bathroom mural at La Belle Helene and took home a 2018 Queen City PR Award for integrated communications surrounding the restaurant’s buzzworthy opening.

The idea came to her during the buildout when she snapped her own selfie in front of a blank white tile wall in the bathroom and realized there was a marketing opportunity in leveraging that space for such a predictable behavior. She suggested painting a reverse mural as a selfie backdrop and two weeks later it was on the wall.

“I was floored,” Smith said. “They took my idea and made it happen. That was a cool moment. And we’ve seen a ton of social engagement on it.”

Corri Smith scouting La Belle Helene’s mural wall

Of course, not all Instagrammable restaurant moments are quite so literal.

You’ll note more subtle influences in the overall photo-friendliness of general on-trend design features like eye-catching tile patterns, bright white spaces with pops of color, statement walls that double as backdrops, abundant lighting, elaborate plant displays, neon signs and immaculate bars.

The end result is a space that makes staging pro-quality, shareable photos a no-brainer for anyone with a smart phone.

Sukoshi, the playful new fast-casual sushi spot from the ownership team behind O-Ku, is a prime example of an Instagrammable restaurant — intentional or not. The bright space with pops of bubblegum pink is a young, trendy diner’s dream.

The same goes for The Lights, an organic juicery and cafe in south Charlotte with a cool West Coast minimalist vibe dripping in plants and branded neon signage.

Both locations are uniquely their own but with a similar aesthetic that’s undeniably photo-worthy — even without a designated selfie station.



The Lights

That’s not to say all restaurants that look great in photos were designed specifically to appeal to Instagrammers.

“If a restaurateur wants to create a memorable restaurant, they are thinking about more than Instagram,” said commercial interior designer Carrie Frye. “That said, I think that the prevalence of restaurant photos on Instagram has forced owners to up their game when it comes to making sure their spaces are well-designed.”

Frye has led design on some of Charlotte’s hottest restaurants, including La Belle Helene, The Crunkelton, Living Kitchen and Sea Level. “Ultimately, when you tell a strong brand story with your space, the Instragrammable shots will follow,” she said.


La Belle Helene

Frye says Instagram isn’t so much driving new design trends as it is making existing design trends more visible, which can help non-designers see the power in every detail.

“I do believe the Instagram phenomenon helps designers convince clients to complete a space more than they might otherwise,” she said. “It causes you to look at every surface twice and never underestimate the impact of a wall, floor, table top.”

And more people are appreciating that work — or at least sharing it.

Elevated bathroom design, for example, has been around for Frye’s entire 20-year career but it feels like a fresh trend because it’s being amplified. That’s because rather than return to the table to tell a few friends about a cool light fixture in the restroom, diners can now share it with thousands of followers on Instagram.

“In the past, word-of-mouth, Yelp, magazine profiles and reviews produced the same outcome in terms of elevating design, but on a smaller scale,” said Frye. “The visual impact of Instagram and its reach has simply turned the volume up on the importance of design and getting every detail right.”

Katy Kindred, co-owner of Kindred in Davidson and Hello, Sailor in Cornelius, is known for her attention to design detail and has two of the most photogenic restaurants in the area, but she says she didn’t create them with Instagram in mind.

“When I was designing both spaces I was obviously very thoughtful of the moments in the restaurant that can create memories,” Kindred said. “Those also tend to be typically pretty photogenic, but I definitely would not say that I make decisions based on, you know, whether or not I think people are going to take a photograph there specifically.”

Kindred via Instagram

Still, thoughtfully designed spaces attract cameras and can take on a life of their own on Instagram. “I did not know that, for example, at Sailor that that little orange couch would be this thing,” Kindred said. “I really did not.”

The little orange couch and wooden screen wall at Hello, Sailor were, for Kindred, a practical albeit beautiful way to conceal the bathroom doors and create a waiting area for guests. She pulled the inspiration from mid-century homes in Joshua Tree and Palm Springs as a way to divide space while keeping it airy and open without a bulky wall.

“Never in my mind was it like, oh I’m going to spend $2,000 on a screen wall so that people can take pictures in front of it, you know what I mean?” Kindred said. “That would never cross my mind.”

And yet, the orange couch has become something of a photo landmark at Hello, Sailor.

photo by @emily_mcalliard via Instagram

There was one aspect of her restaurant design that Kindred says was created specifically with Instagram in mind. The menus at Hello, Sailor, designed by Blake Pope, feature a banner logo strategically placed to frame overhead food shots.

“That’s the only time I ever considered specifically whether or not a photograph would look good,” Kindred said.

Although Kindred took a more organic approach to her restaurant design, she sees the opportunity in a more deliberate Instagram-centric approach so long as diners aren’t being baited to take photographs at the expense of the overall experience.

“As long as it’s done in a way that’s tasteful and cohesive with the overall design, that is really smart marketing. It’s very inexpensive and very good way to promote your brand,” she said. “It can be a little gratuitous sometimes, like some people don’t do it well — but when it’s done well, that’s a good idea. You’re using influencer marketing without paying any influencers. That’s not a bad tactic. I think it could get abused. That’s my only concern. I don’t want design to then take a back seat to marketing.”

To Kindred, design is as critical to a restaurant’s success as the food. “You want people to crave being in your space,” she said. “It’d be pretty difficult to get people to drive from Charlotte all the way up here to Davidson if it was just because the pasta was decent. It’s because the whole experience gives you the warm fuzzies. That’s the goal.”

If Instagram helps push the trend for more holistic restaurant design, Kindred is all for it.

“From a design perspective, all restaurants should be thoughtfully designed,” she said. “I am pro Instagram because I think it is encouraging people to be more thoughtful about their space, which I think is a good thing.”

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