Virtual cooking is a hit on Facebook

Tom Byron’s restaurant, Pink Castle, is shaped like a giant nouveau castle, painted cotton candy pink and topped with blue fairy-tale turrets. The inside resembles an old-fashioned diner with comfy booths, checkered floors, balloons, video games and festive salsa music on the jukebox. Its most famous dish is a Pink Burger.

Pink Castle has been such a success for Byron that he says he’d like to franchise it. On Facebook.

“I think we all have harbored ideas of starting our own restaurant because it seems easy. Until you talk to the relative who opened a restaurant and owned a restaurant and you realize: Keep it virtual,” says Byron, devoted player of the 5-month-old Facebook gaming sensation Restaurant City.

Byron, 47, is one of more than 10 million monthly users of the game, and Pink Castle is one of 10 million virtual restaurants that have been opened since the game launched. Restaurant City was created by Playfish, a company that specializes in social games for platforms including Facebook, MySpace, Google and iPhone. The game is currently the second most popular in Playfish’s portfolio, and the fastest growing.


Restaurant City is profoundly basic -- so much so that its addictive qualities tend to sneak up on the casual interloper. The main goals are fourfold: Decorate your restaurant on the inside and out; keep your employees (whom you hire from among your Facebook friends) fueled on water, apples and sandwiches; arrange the furniture in your restaurant to optimize your workers’ swift, forward-moving progress; and keep the game’s mindless diners happy with a menu you have created by buying and trading various ingredients.

If you do all of this, you will make money and your popularity rating will soar, allowing you to advance to bigger and better floor plans and purchase exceptionally snazzy stoves, doors, tables, tiles, wallpaper, toilets, drink machines, plants, ingredients and specialized employee uniforms.

“The general theme of food is one of the most universal themes you can think of,” says Sebastien de Halleux, 31, chief operating officer and co-founder of Playfish. “We give people a chance to express their dream.”

Often those dreams take on an element of cheeky fun. Especially since you can hire your friends and put them to work as janitors, waiters or chefs and dress them up in whatever you want. Currently the employees of Pink Castle are wearing pink bunny suits.

Another Restaurant City super-user, Denise Wegis, 39, created a restaurant called Pig Tails that has more serious leanings. Wegis is a former professional chef with a specialty in classic Italian cooking. Her restaurant has a rustic look, with fireplaces, lots of wooden chairs and the requisite pizza ovens. She plays with her husband, who is also a cook, and laments the fact that his tacky restaurant is called Tackorama To Go."He has no eye for design,” says Wegis.

However, most Restaurant City users do. If you take a stroll down Gourmet Street you can gawk at star establishments that others have created.

There’s a place called Mystery Palace that is flush with marble pillars, red-velvet ropes and aquariums; or Bel Endroit, which has booming speakers, flat-screen TVs, an indoor river, video games and a mildly off-kilter Asian design scheme. The players in charge of these restaurants have generally amassed many of the ingredients necessary to serve some of the game’s more elaborate recipes, including Camembert baked in a box, lamb samosas, seafood paella and creme brulee.

The universe of Restaurant City -- unlike the real world -- favors function over form. An aesthetically beautiful restaurant will get you only so far in the game. It’s how you set up your restaurant that will score you points in the end. For example, putting your tables uncomfortably close to your stoves will mean your waiters don’t have to travel as far to run food and bus tables.

De Halleux says the game is constantly evolving, with the programmers at Playfish regularly responding to player feedback. “The most requested feature of the moment are doors for the bathrooms,” he says. Also, users like Wegis have been clamoring for a greater sense of urgency within the game (there really is no losing, only a messy restaurant) and for the ability to franchise.

Byron, a former game marketer, is on level 25 (out of 27 levels) but doesn’t mind starting over. “I’ve blown up my restaurant and reinvented it a couple of times.

“Once I had a place called Lord of the Wing but I couldn’t build a menu around that,” he says.