[T]here’s an attempt at signalling going on. All you’re realistically going to need from a restaurant Web site is a few pages worth of basically static information, and maybe some reservation functionality, which is probably outsourced to OpenTable anyway. People probably aren’t going to be interacting with the site for more than a couple minutes. That means there’s limited ability to cue the user via the site that this is a higher-end joint, if that’s what you’re trying to do. (Design still works surprisingly well as a status marker, I’ve noticed—compare even a relatively kludgy major publication site with something like WorldNetDaily.) So you end up with a sort of Veblenesque “conspicuous consumption” on the splash page—lots of sound and graphics that actually detract from the functionality of the site, but broadcast that you’ve got money to burn on your Web presence.
As someone who worked fulltime as a graphic designer in a former life, I think this is probably closer to the truth than his other theory (which is that restaurant websites exist in a feedback loop where every new cafe makes the same mistakes as the other restaurants it’s cribbing its web design from).
I think it’s easy to forget that good, clean design — outside of web savvy circles — is hardly a given on the internet. And people who are unfamiliar with the tenets of design aren’t going to discriminate between something flashy and something good. After all, one could argue that flashy and nonfunctional is better than plain and nonfunctional.
Also, I theorize that the people making a restaurant website — both the business owner and the designer — don’t actually visit restaurant sites, just as Julian says, because of the existence of Google Maps and OpenTable. So if you’re not a regular visitor to that kind of website, it’s very unlikely that you’ll know or care about how awful that intro, the automatic music, or the PDF menus are. (And you’ll think your site is a special snowflake, what with the fancy Flash swirls and cursor effects and music that your brand manager picked out Just For You.)
And yes, speaking of PDF menus, my friends know I’m really bothered by them, but that’s not because I’m unsympathetic to the fact that it’s a pain to change the code every time the menu gets updated. I just think restaurants owners are actually going about things all wrong when they’re building sites. There’s no reason I can think of why every single restaurant website in the world can’t just be a fairly static Tumblr with an easily updated page that links to the menu. Unless, that is, you think you’ve got to spend a ton of money on a designer. And again, web design hasn’t yet crossed over from “spendy, but unnecessary” to “not spendy, but basic” in most circles.