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The existential angst of the Instagram restaurant

At the Pastagram, everyone was eating, and no one was taking pictures of it.

Would you gram it?
The Pastagram/Facebook

It is difficult, these days, to be a fast-casual pasta restaurant. You can’t just be a fast-casual pasta restaurant, quickly serving low-key bowls of carbs. Now you have to be a fast-casual pasta restaurant fit for influencers. Or at least that’s what the Pastagram seems to think.

The Pastagram is a fast-casual pasta restaurant that is designed for weekday lunch breaks, but also Instagram. “Every single detail is thought of as to be the most photogenic as possible,” the press release promises, “catering to a customer base that — today more than ever — seems to give aesthetics as much importance as food quality.”

The “trendy spot” in New York City’s Financial District features “trendy teal blue décor” and also many shapes of pasta, handmade daily, to be paired, mix-and-match style, with many types of sauces. In the press release, the word “trendy” is repeated many times. Is New York City’s Financial District trendy? No, I would say, with all due respect to the New York Stock Exchange. Then again, millennials are the largest generation in the US workforce now, so maybe even workday lunches must be fit for Instagram.

This is how we live now. Restaurants aren’t just experiences; they’re experiences that are supposed to live forever online. A space does not just have to be attractive; it must be photogenic, which is different, which you know if you have ever watched America’s Next Top Model or seen a photo of yourself. This is true even if the space in question is located in a claustrophobic business district filled with angry people wearing lanyards with keycards on them.

Technically, anything you post to Instagram is “Instagrammable,” in the same sense that anything that will eventually break down in your body when you consume it is “food.” But saying a restaurant is “Instagrammable” means it tends to follow variations of the same script. The Verge identifies the necessary elements: neon signs “bearing modestly sly double entendres”; elaborate painted murals of wild animals; artistic custom floor tiles, often bearing “branded greetings.” Other frequent tells: whimsical paper products printed with twee phrases in custom fonts; distinctive patterned tiles or wallpaper; a strong signature color; great light. The Pastagram has many of these things, or at least gestures toward them.

There is something alarming about this homogeneity, but it’s also perversely heartening, how we are all the same. Deep down, we just want to post a picture of a vegan cupcake on a gently distressed table.

“It’s a young place, in a way,” explains Luigi Porceddu, who opened the restaurant, the younger, faster sibling of the more upscale Sola Pasta Bar, with partner Andrea Pedrazzoli. The name came from Pedrazzoli’s 19-year-old brother. “Pastagram, it sounds like Instagram,” Porceddu tells me, “but for us, in Italy, a gram is a unit of measure as well, that we use for pasta.” Originally, they were going to call it Yes We Pasta!, only that seemed too political, and anyway, “you can’t use something that is not around anymore.” So now it’s the Pastagram. “It’s catchy,” he says. “People, they remember the Pastagram.”

But did they originally set out to build an Instagram restaurant, or did that come later, once they had the name? Who can say. “That’s the most beautiful part when you create a restaurant,” Porceddu tells me. “You might have an idea, but then you shift the idea on the go, even before you open. So it was, like, many ideas coming at the same time.”

He is excited about all the Instagrammable details at the restaurant: pop-art-covered chairs, “ceramic art with spaghetti inside,” a pair of hanging monkey lamps, an intense proliferation of the color turquoise. Turquoise is elegant, Porceddu explains, and also universally appealing. “Everyone can love a turquoise, I think,” he says.

But at the Pastagram, as far as I can tell, nobody is ’gramming.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, I eavesdropped as two businessmen discuss one of their son’s ADHD diagnosis. Should they try medication? His wife thought no. He wasn’t sure. One table over, a post-teen man and woman were engaged in an animated conversation about what I eventually figured out was a dog with separation anxiety. I wondered if they were also considering medication. They really should, I thought but did not say, just in case they were going to start Instagramming. They did not.

It was not for lack of tools. Everyone had a phone, either in hand or on the table. A trim man neatly ate Alfredo and checked baseball scores. A different man with neon headphones ate spaghetti and meatballs while watching videos about food, but not the food we were eating. He Instagrammed nothing. On his screen, a hot pot sizzled.

In the corner by the window, under a neon display of pop-arty lips, a round-faced woman kept holding up her phone and gazing at it. She’s totally about to Instagram, I thought, but then it turned out she was Facetiming with her boyfriend, who wasn’t Instagramming either. It was like she didn’t even know this was an Instagram restaurant.

It would be up to me. The problem is that, despite the name, and despite the neon lips, the Pastagram is not very Instagrammable at all.

a hanging monkey sculpture holding a working lamp
It is hard to capture the monkey lamp without also photographing the top of someone else’s head.
Rachel Sugar/Vox
six illuminated sets of pop art-style lips on the wall
The requisite neon sign!
Rachel Sugar/Vox
A ceramic wall vase shaped like an anatomically correct heart, with real spaghetti noodles coming out of the arteries
The aforementioned ceramic heart with spaghetti is an unsettling ode to pasta.
Rachel Sugar/Vox
A close up of pasta in tomato sauce
Yes I Pasta’d (fusilletti with pomodoro sauce).
Rachel Sugar/Vox

It’s true that I am not very good at Instagram, that my phone is old, that I am generally embarrassed, despite my generation, to take photos in public. It is also true, I think we can agree, that even with these caveats, none of these photos are great. They feel extremely attainable. The light is cold. The textures are flat. It’s hard to get a picture without accidentally capturing someone else’s head. Nobody looks casually glamorous at the Pastagram. They look like frazzled people eating pasta.

Like Porceddu said, there are a lot of “fun” details at the Pastagram. The monkey lamp is fun. The heart with spaghetti: also fun. The lip display is fodder for Instagram, although the extremely visible wires perhaps undercut its impact somewhat, and my fusilletti with pomodoro sauce and extra tomatoes was quite tasty. What you cannot see in the picture is the white, square, plastic-feeling table it was served on, or the plastic fork I ate it with, which came wrapped in further plastic and did not strike me as very ’grammy.

“The pastas that do well on Instagram are creamy and cheesy,” a colleague told me gravely when I told her about my troubles. “Fusilli is not an Instagrammable pasta.” For the purposes of documentation on the internet, I had ordered wrong. But the light was still the light, and the table was still the table, and there is only so much cheese can do. I searched Instagram for photos taken at the Pastagram. I found four, all of bowls of pasta.

I am not alone in my assessment: The opinion of the New York Post’s restaurant critic is that the Pastagram is tasty but, appearance-wise, “isn’t worth a click.” If anything, he sees that as a victory against the scourge of social media: “Although millennials might howl, it’s excellent news that Pastagram is more successful at serving decent, inexpensive Italian dishes than it is at reaching social-media ‘influencers.’”

It’s true that the Pastagram is much better at making pasta than it is at being a backdrop for Instagrams. What is fascinating is that it wants to try. It is a normal little quick lunch spot, with some good details and ugly floors and mediocre light and a weirdly sexy Instagram, and it wants to be a photogenic star.

It is uncanny to see a restaurant strive and miss on Instagram; it’s like seeing a casual acquaintance post thirsty selfies in ill-fitting jeans. Mistakes reveal effort, and effort is the antithesis of Instagram success. The Pastagram hasn’t put in the effort to look effortless, and the result is that its wires show; it is too much and not enough at once.

It is relatable, in a way. I also would like to be an influencer, and am not. I also like pasta. I am not, I think, alone in either of these beliefs. And so perhaps the Pastagram is exactly the restaurant we need right now, a metaphor for 21st-century urban life. The Pastagram would like to be a very specific type of cool, and isn’t, and still tries anyway. Soon, it’s getting a special “backdrop” for shooting better photos, according to the Post. Probably, it won’t help. It is who it is, and like the rest of us, it is not an Instagram celebrity. It is a pasta restaurant.

And isn’t that okay? Can’t we just eat our lunches, sometimes, and remember them in our minds? Maybe. Certainly, a lot of fast-casual restaurants are harnessing the power of Instagram, to great effect, and it makes sense: It’s great to have your customers do your marketing for you, reminding their friends of your existence when you pop up in their feeds.

At the same time, the truly Instagrammable restaurant remains the exception, not the rule. There are only so many By Chloes and Cha Cha Matchas, restaurants whose Instagrammability alone is a selling point. Even in the age of Instagram, a lot of restaurants mostly just serve food, which is good, because even in the age of Instagram, a lot of people mostly just want to eat it.