Once upon a time, long before I began selling my face by the acre for features on VICE dot com, I worked other jobs. There was one in particular that really had an impact on me: writing fake reviews on TripAdvisor. Restaurant owners would pay me £10 and I'd write a positive review of their place, despite never eating there. Over time, I became obsessed with monitoring the ratings of these businesses. Their fortunes would genuinely turn, and I was the catalyst.
This convinced me that TripAdvisor was a false reality – that the meals never took place; that the reviews were all written by other people like me. However, they're not, of course – they're almost all completely genuine. And there was one other factor that seemed impossible to fake: the restaurants themselves. So I moved on.
And then, one day, sitting in the shed I live in, I had a revelation: within the current climate of misinformation, and society's willingness to believe absolute bullshit, maybe a fake restaurant is possible? Maybe it's exactly the kind of place that could be a hit?
In that moment, it became my mission. 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.
SETTING UP "THE SHED AT DULWICH" – APRIL, 2017
First of all, let me introduce you to my site: a shed in a south London garden.
To get started, I need to get verified, and to do that I need a phone.
One £10 burner later and "The Shed at Dulwich" officially exists. Now, I need to list an address – but doing so makes easy work for any skeptical fact checkers. Plus, I don't technically have a door. Instead, I just list the road and call The Shed an "appointment-only restaurant".
Onto my online presence: I buy a domain and build a website. Hot spots are all about quirks, so to cut through the noise I need a concept silly enough to infuriate your dad. A concept like naming all of our dishes after moods.
Now, some soft focus images of those delicious dishes.
You'd eat this, wouldn't you?
Probably best not to.
No, OK, how about—
This sponge covered in paint, with quenelles of shaving foam.
You’re getting it: this isn't what it looks like.
It's an egg resting on my foot.
With the concept, logo (thank you, Tristan Cross) and menu nailed down, it all comes together.
I submit my TripAdvisor forms; the rest is up to God.
On the 5th of May, 2017, I wake up to an email:
We’re excited to tell you that your listing request has been approved and is on our site for everyone to see.
Thank you for giving us this opportunity to let the TripAdvisor community know about The Shed at Dulwich.
The TripAdvisor Support Team
No, TripAdvisor, I want to thank you for giving me this opportunity to let the community know about The Shed at Dulwich.
GETTING THE SHED TO NUMBER ONE
I start out ranked at 18,149, the worst restaurant in London, according to TripAdvisor. So I'm going to need a lot of reviews. Reviews written by real people on different computers, so the anti-scammer technology TripAdvisor utilises doesn't pick up on my hoax.
I need convincing reviews, like this one:
And not like this:
The celebrity endorsement Shaun Williamson sends me after I meet him in a pub, thoroughly explain my concept and ask for a photo of him eating fancy food in a fancy place, but instead receive one of him eating a roast dinner with a side of chips.
So I contact friends and acquaintances, and put them to work.
CLIMBING THE RANKS
The first couple of weeks are easy: we crack the top 10,000 in no time, but I don't expect much in the way of inquiries quite yet. Then, one morning, something extraordinary happens: The Shed's burner phone goes off. Startled and hungover, I pick up.
"Hello? Is that The Shed?"
"… Yes?" I sound like a radiator that needs bleeding.
"I've heard so much about your restaurant... I know it’s a long shot, as you get booked up so quickly, but I don’t suppose you have a table tonight?"
Panicking, I abruptly respond: "Sorry, but we're fully booked for the next six weeks" and slam down the phone. I'm stunned. A day later, I feel another vibration: a 70th birthday booking. Four months in advance. Nine people.
Emails? I check my computer: tens of "appointment" requests await. A boyfriend tries to use his girlfriend's job at a children's hospital for leverage. TV executives use their work emails.
Seemingly overnight, we're now at #1,456. The Shed at Dulwich has suddenly become appealing. How?
I realise what it is: the appointments, lack of address and general exclusivity of this place is so alluring that people can’t see sense. They’re looking at photos of the sole of my foot, drooling. Over the coming months, The Shed's phone rings incessantly.
THINGS ARE GETTING A BIT OUT OF CONTROL
By the end of August, we’re at #156.
And things are starting to get a little out of hand.
First, companies start using the estimated location of The Shed on Google Maps to get their free samples to me. Then people who want to work at The Shed get in touch, in significant numbers. Then I get an email from the council, which wants to relocate us to a site in Bromley they’re developing. Then an Australian production company gets in touch, saying they want to exhibit us across the world in an aircraft company's inflight videos.
And then, finally, I have a Skype meeting with a "results-hungry" PR agency that promises to get The Shed onto the Mail Online with a Batman-themed launch and a £200 Lizzie Cundy appearance. The representative calls me "obviously pretty cool", which is nice, but ultimately I decide to handle promotion myself.
THE FINAL PUSH
Winter has arrived, and we're at number 30.
But that position won't budge, no matter how many reviews I throw at it.
Otherwise, though, things have taken a turn.
People approach me on my road to ask if I know how to get to The Shed, and the phone rings more than ever before.
The tone of the emails shifts, with people from all over the globe asking to visit.
And then, one night, I get an email from TripAdvisor. Title: "Information Request". Fuck – the game is up. I've been rumbled. My fingers tremble as I open it: 89,000 views in search results in the past day; dozens of customers asking for information.
Why? Well, on the 1st of November, 2017, six months after listing The Shed at Dulwich online:
It's London's top-rated restaurant.
A restaurant that doesn't exist is currently the highest ranked in one of the world’s biggest cities, on perhaps the internet's most trusted reviews site.
On TripAdvisor's website, the company says it dedicates "significant time and resources [to] ensuring that the content on TripAdvisor reflects the real experiences of real travellers". So I get in touch when the whole process is finished to ask how it is that I've managed to sidestep their rigorous checks.
"Generally, the only people who create fake restaurant listings are journalists in misguided attempts to test us," replies a representative via email. "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."
Which is fair enough; I can't imagine this happens often.
The representative adds that "most fraudsters are only interested in trying to manipulate the rankings of real businesses", so the "distinction between attempted fraud by a real business, as opposed to attempted fraud for a non-existent business, is important". To catch these people out, TripAdvisor uses "state-of-the-art technology to identify suspicious review patterns" and says, "Our community too can report suspicious activity to us." They then quote a 2015 study that found "93 percent of TripAdvisor users said they find the reviews they read to be accurate of the actual experience".
So there you have it: it's done.
LONELY AT THE TOP
Only, it doesn’t stop.
I leave the Shed's phone at a friend's house over a long weekend, and when I get it back it has 116 missed calls. So I start answering again. "We’re booked up," I lie. "We have a christening." Another lie.
"Hello, The Shed at Dulwich."
"Oh my goodness," a frustrated woman says. "I’ve actually got through. I first contacted you back in August. I’ve heard nothing back."
Now I've created this reality, I think, the only thing left to do is make it reality. In just four days, London’s best restaurant will come alive. I'm going to open The Shed at Dulwich.
THE BIG NIGHT
But how? I've never even had more than three people round at once, let alone provided dinner and drinks for 20. There's only one way to do it: recreating the exact location people have been describing in reviews for the past six months.
The food reminds people of home? Well, I'll serve them what I grew up eating: ready meals.
People like the rural yet classy vibe? Well, see that Wendy house? It's going to be filled with chickens, like lobsters at an expensive restaurant, so people can pick their chick.
Our success is down to the gaming of TripAdvisor? I'll fill half the tables with people I know, talking loudly about how delicious everything is.
How are we going to achieve the unmistakable ambience of a real restaurant? By getting a DJ in to play the sounds of a real restaurant on CDJs.
To work. Wendy house?
Chicken House. Lawn?
Tidy. Sub-zero temperatures?
Thawed. Extra seating?
Soon, Joe – my friend and the chef for tonight – shows up. He's spent the past decade travelling the world, working in fine restaurants. A man worthy of The Shed's whites, if ever there was one. Now, we’ve got produce to source.
Done, all for the price of £31.
Back at The Shed, Phoebe has arrived. She's an intuitive waitress who can really get across the nuances of our menu, like how – by serving pudding in mugs – we're aiming to replicate the experience of what it's like to eat pudding out of a mug.
For the starter, it's Minestrone di Verdure. For mains, a choice of Truffle Mac n Cheese or Once-In-A-Lifetime Vegetable Lasagne. For dessert, The Shed Chocolate Sundae. One last thing I ask of Phoebe is for her to ask the opinions of every guest, privately, so they’re honest.
And with that, my vision has come to life.
Guests sit on the roof, sipping mugs of wine.
Chickens cluck happily in the Wendy house, ready to be slaughtered.
Actors chomp away on spruced-up £1 ready meals.
A DJ pumps out the sound of a restaurant.
It looks, sounds and smells beautiful, and we're ready for our first two guests. I head to the meeting point up the road and, on time, are:
Joel and Maria, all the way from sunny California, vacationing in Europe for the first time. Last night they were in Paris, and tonight is their first night in London. A Pokemon convention tomorrow brings them to the city, but they want to spend their first evening at The Shed.
I ask them to put on blindfolds and they look terrified, but after the two actresses who’ve arrived at the same time agree, they nod.
I lead the four, hand in hand, into the garden. As we approach the house, Maria says, "I can hear the sound of a kitchen!" No, Maria, you cannot. The blindfolds come off. The Americans are silent.
"We serve moods here. I’ll interpret yours and bring a dish that suits. Maria, I get a homely energy from you. Joel? I’m feeling 'cool', right?"
I rush into the kitchen and grab two mains off Joe. As per my request, the DJ triggers "ding" sounds frequently to disguise the noise of our microwave.
I place the pair's dishes down, move away and, observing from a distance, watch them stare at their Mac n Cheese. Maria takes out her phone for a photo, looks at the meal through her camera, pauses, then puts her phone away without taking a picture.
The evening crawls by. Joel spots the two on the roof above him and can’t stop looking. After 40 largely quiet minutes, the couple leaves. Joel looks furious.
In the meantime, two locals arrive, full of questions about the place. I let Phoebe take the lead with them, as I've got a table of four to deal with.
After seating them and disappearing to grab drinks, I hear a scream from the kitchen. Outside, a lady runs across the restaurant, squealing. Trevor – oh, good time to introduce Trevor, the man I hired the chickens from – is following her, clutching a chicken flapping its wings.
I snatch the chicken off Trevor and stuff it in the Wendy house. As things calm down, the woman's friends begin to laugh. "Why do you have chickens?" they ask. "It’s pick your chicken! We cook the one you like the look of." Their expressions sour. "But I thought you were a vegetarian restaurant? I found you as you’re the top-rated veggie restaurant in London."
My heart skips a beat – I hadn’t thought of this. "Top in all of London, you mean!" I smile. We’re fucked.
People seem to be enjoying the food, but I can’t stop thinking 'flapping chicken'. We need to make good with the table of four.
I feel a tap on my shoulder; it’s one of them, a man, who informs me it’s his friend's birthday. An opportunity to impress arises.
I have a quiet word with my friend and comedian, Lolly Adefope, who's going to privately sing "Happy Birthday" to the birthday-haver. Lolly begins, shushing people who join in until it’s just her. It’s truly beautiful.
But probably not enough. The other real table of two leave, and I see out our foursome. I apologise as we go, bumbling about new menus and difficult circumstances. In the midst of my wittering, I'm stopped. "Yeah, so about availability," the lady says. "Now that we’ve been once, is that easier?"
"Yeah, is it easier for us to book a table now?" her husband jumps in.
"Yeah, it would be nice to come again."
I’m absolutely speechless.
"Uh, that’s certainly something we can look at."
They wave goodbye and disappear into the night.
By this point the restaurant has slipped considerably in the rankings (the page has now been deleted, but an archived version is available here), but we were in the top spot for almost a fortnight, and that's obviously had an effect.
I barrel down the garden and scream the news: "They want to book again!" Joe, Trevor – all the crew – look at me. We erupt into laughter. "I’m not surprised," says Phoebe, showing me the customers' feedback, which is roundly excellent – possibly because I didn't charge any of them for anything (the whole evening was free because "we were documenting it for a TV show"), but also possibly because they really did have an excellent time.
So there we go: I invited people into a hastily-assembled collection of chairs outside my shed, and they left thinking it really could be the best restaurant in London, just on the basis of a TripAdvisor rating. You could look at this cynically – argue that the odour of the internet is so strong nowadays that people can no longer use their senses properly. But I like to be positive. If I can transform my garden into London’s best restaurant, literally anything is possible.
UPDATE 6/12/17, 17:12: After an eagle-eyed reader spotted that each mocked-up TripAdvisor screen shot contained the same number of reviews, we have edited the images so that the number of reviews match those in the actual screen shots and replaced two of the images.
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