For Your Consideration: Restaurant Merch

Welcome to For Your Consideration, a new series about things we love and love to do — and we’d like to give you permission to embrace your authentic self and love them too.


Restaurant shirts are basically the same as band shirts — spread the word.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a near-perfect memory for the meals I’ve eaten. I have a vague memory of seeing the Golden Gate Bridge on a family vacation to San Francisco when I was 14, but I can viscerally remember the snow crab legs I ate on a restaurant patio there. One of my favorite home videos ever is one of me trying calamari for the first time. An entire page of the scrapbook I made about my life in middle school is dedicated to photos of me and food. My sense of direction is horrendous, but in the years since I’ve moved to New York, I’ve mapped the city by the places I’ve eaten.

I will never understand the vitriolic attitude toward Instagram food pics. It seems to stem from the belief that food should be a private, solitary, isolated experience, that there’s something inherently vain or performative about posting meals. But the thing about a great meal is that you eat it and it’s gone. A photo can be a souvenir, a reminder of not only how it tasted but how you felt when you ate it, who you were with, why you were there.

Restaurants have actual souvenirs, too, and you shouldn’t sleep on them! At a certain point after college, I realized how much I loved to rep my favorite spots, to quite literally wear my regular status. A lot of restaurants and bars have them: t-shirts emblazoned in their logo or in a corny food joke, often hanging up behind the bar or high up by the entrance, sometimes gathering dust because there’s something outdated and tacky about restaurant merch, often associated with mid-tier restaurants. But fuck a fancy restaurant and their lack of wearable swag.

They’re rarely hip; the colors are jarring, the design rushed, the puns ridiculous. There are, of course, exceptions, like the awesome queer diner in Madison, Wisconsin that sells extremely cute shirts that I knew I would be buying before I even finished my brunch. Or the taphouse in Burlington, Vermont with a hoodie with a super clean tulip glass design on its front. Jeni’s Ice Cream consistently puts out the cutest shirts ever (and this retro travel bag that I 100% need).

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Just like more and more restaurants now cater to Instagram with stunt dishes, some restaurants are trying to put out Instagram-ready swag for maximum exposure — but tbh as cute as some of these shirts are, I like the ugly ones more, like the blindingly lime green shirt from a Brooklyn taco truck that was given to my girlfriend for free because she ordered late-night veggie burritos from them so often over the course of three years. Or the one with a somewhat terrifying anthropomorphic pickle that my mom got me from a bar we went to in Hawaii. Give me those horrendous typefaces and clunky logos. Do I have a tacky t-shirt from the bar in Adams Morgan where my second secret college girlfriend broke up with me for the second time? You better believe it! And I’ve held onto a t-shirt from high school that barely fits anymore from the neighborhood coffee shop in Nashville I’ve been going to for nearly a decade.

We buy merch at concerts even though we can get similar products for less online because we want to remember the evening. We want something more than a photo or a video — something we can literally wear on our body and touch and hold. No matter how many times I do it, eating at restaurants never ceases to feel special to me, to spark something in me that reminds me of when I would do it with my family for special occasions growing up. Or when I started going to restaurants alone during college, a much different but still special feeling.

I have non-wearable merch, too, like mugs and koozies and pint glasses. But there’s something extra special about this collection of mostly not-cute shirts from the places I’ve eaten and drank and been on dates and cried at. I have my mental map of everywhere I’ve ever eaten, but the shirts are my wearable memory, something that lasts beyond the food eaten but also isn’t just about the food but about the experience, about my relationship with that time and place.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a writer and critic currently living in Miami. Her fiction is upcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. Her pop culture writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 239 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. Picture it: 2007, rural Ohio college village dorm apartment. A carefree young student is invited by a good friend to a slideshow of the friend’s summer internship in Germany. The carefree student goes, expecting to see pictures of whatever Germany looks like. Instead, she is greeted by a picture of every single meal her friend ate that summer. The young student makes it through 3 hours of slideshow before undiagnosed lactose intolerance graciously releases her from her social obligation.

    That young student? Me.

    The friend? Almost certainly has an insufferable Instagram.

    The moral of the story? While okay in moderation, sometimes food pictures can be TOO MUCH. Restaurant shirts are okay, sans slideshow.

  2. This article makes me feel very sad that I no longer own two restaurant shirts I bought back in college – the one from Popo’s Mexican Food in Roswell, NM and the one about the Cinnamon Buns at Frontier Restaurant in Albuquerque. Why did I get rid of those??? Dang.

  3. I love restaurant merch so much. Also brewery/bar merch, but I feel like that’s a little ~more acceptably cool~ and thus needs less reclaiming. Still though, shoutout to pretty much any Maine beer-related shirt, especially this one: https://shop.shipyard.com/collections/tee-shirts/products/copy-of-sea-dog-portland-maine-short-sleeve-tee-shirt.

    My gf has this shirt from a diner/deli and it’s not cute and/but I love and covet it: https://store.grouchos.com/product/grouchos-helping-hangovers-short-sleeve-tee/. Helping hangovers since 1941! What a slogan.

  4. I’ve only been there twice(at the old locale), but there is a Pink Taco in my(area along with the og one in Vegas). The slogan on their shirts has been Eat Pink Tacos because they offer pink taco shells. In fact, they had a location in Arizona(second location after Vegas) that was shut down because of the slogan. I forget what city it was in, but people complained the name was too suggestive or something. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart even went to the Arizona location because of how silly & funny it was. The food is good last I remember and priced fair, but I did find their pink house margarita to be tasty.

  5. I’m going to think about this article the next time I eat out at a restaurant. I have a few important memories of certain times I ate out at a restaurant that holds significance. I actually wish I had a couple restaurant shirts now.

  6. I have a shirt from a hot dog place, and one from a restaurant where I used to work. My favorite one is probably from a now-closed ice cream store, that had good ice cream, but the owners were always mean, so you had to prepare yourself to go and order.

  7. this makes me wish I had a T-shirt from tios when it was just a little place on Huron street instead of what it is now bc those shirts were real cute but not on purpose u know??

    remember when Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts were so cool

  8. we used to get t-shirts from all the seafood places we visited on vacation in florida! and the vaguely offensive/sexist shirts from joe’s crab shack were a real look in high school.

    kayla i want to thank you for creating a space where i can reminisce about this seafood-adjacent merch and also, where i can complain about the fact that my mother never, ever, bought me the stuffed shoney’s bear from the enormous cardboard tree display behind the cash register, even though we went to shoney’s no less than once per month, and even though i repeatedly made it very clear that i would die if i didn’t have that bear. i’m sorry to say that a bitterness this sharp really stays with you.

  9. one of my favorite shirts is from a punk bar called clash in berlin that my best friend and i went to probably three or four times in the week that i was there. i remember seeing a vision of my future self in the elderly woman sitting in a dark, loud, smoky punk dive past midnight quietly sipping a beer and reading the newspaper. it’s a gray shirt with a cute monster holding a sign that says “WE HATE NAZIS!” on the front and a menacing face with “CLASH: FOOD, BEER, MUSIC IN X-BERG 61.” i wear it all the time — it’s a conversation starter and it reminds me of good times

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