Over the last few years, it has become a habit for many of us to check out restaurants on food and restaurant discovery app before we choose where to dine. Be it photos of the place or the reviews and recommendations posted by people, we check it all. Of course, some of us suspect that a few reviews might be paid and not authentic. But have you ever thought that a restaurant itself could be fake? That is exactly what Oobah Butler did on TripAdvisor. He created a fake restaurant called “The Shed at Dulwich” supposedly based in a garden shed. And soon enough, within six months of getting listed, it became the top eating place in London on travel and restaurant website TripAdvisor, which then hit back at the hoaxers on Thursday.
In an article published in Vice, Butler says that many years ago, he would write fake reviews for TripAdvisor. He then moved on to other jobs, but was wondering if all the reviews on TripAdvisor are paid for. That, of course, wasn’t the case, he admits, as most reviews are genuine. But could one fake a restaurant? This was a question he pondered over. One fine day, when he was sitting in his shed, he says he had a revelation. With the current climate of misinformation and people’s willingness to believe “absolute bullshit”, Butler writes that maybe a fake restaurant is possible. That was the genesis of The Shed of Dulwich.
Based in a south London back garden, the restaurant offered invited guests conceptual dishes named after moods, including “Lust – rabbit kidneys on toast”, “Empathetic – vegan clams in a clear broth” and “Contemplation – a deconstructed Aberdeen stew”. Butler also ensured that the menu was accompanied by delicious looking photographs of the dishes. But the pictures actually comprised bleach tablets, shaving foam, gloss paint and even a fried egg rested against a human foot. The restaurant, which started out from 18,149 as the worst restaurant in London, slowly improved its ranking with the help of fake reviews that were sent from different computers to avoid suspicion. “With the help of fake reviews, mystique and nonsense, I was going to do it: turn my shed into London’s top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor,” said Butler in the Vice article.
Reviews for the restaurant includes comments such as, “Many restaurants get it wrong nowadays by trying to set too much of a mood. Here you order the mood and the mood is always right” and “As the sun was setting we were offered blankets — we politely declined (one had a stain on) but a nice touch, adds to the al fresco feel!” Booking demands, PR and media requests soon started trickling in. Eventually, the restaurant opened its doors and diners treated to ready meals from budget supermarket Iceland.
In a media statement, TripAdvisor said, “Generally, the only people who create fake restaurant listings are journalists in misguided attempts to test us.” It added that most fraudsters are only interested in trying to manipulate the rankings of real businesses — so naturally that is what the content specialists are focused on catching. “As there is no incentive for anyone in the real world to create a fake restaurant it is not a problem we experience with our regular community — therefore this ‘test’ is not a real-world example,” it said.