In May of 2016, I emailed my editor about an idea. Thirteen months, 173 messages, two bans from TripAdvisor, one cautionary call from TripAdvisor's PR, two new profiles and one heated argument in London's most expensive restaurant later, and that idea has finally become a reality.
It all started in my early twenties. Working in restaurants, I became fascinated with TripAdvisor. It seemed like the Wild West of internet communities, filled with gunslingers drunk on power, firing shots at restaurants and puncturing the livelihoods of the people who work in them. My sister used to manage a restaurant, and says customers used to threaten her with bad write-ups, sometimes leaving one-star reviews without even sampling the food.
TripAdvisor suggests this kind of thing doesn't happen – that they root out unfair reviews – but scroll through the listing for any spot with 100+ write-ups and you get the impression that some reviews go left unchecked:
Scrolling through multiple one-star critiques, I tried to picture these faceless assassins – these would-be Jay Rayners, who become incensed when their free tap water is delivered to them at room temperature; who are profoundly affected by lighting design. What motivates them? Why do we not see Metro front pages about their kind just absolutely losing it at H&M staff, or any other service industry workers for that matter? Is it exclusively tepid lasagna and the like that grinds their gears?
All questions I never thought I'd be able to answer, until I came up with an idea: find the harshest, most unreasonable characters on TripAdvisor, invite them out to dinner and review them as humans.DOUGLAS*
Saturday the 26th of November, 2016: lunch at La Bodeguita, Elephant and Castle
After three months of propositioning one-star reviewers – and a ban for trying to "solicit free meals" – I finally heard back from one, and he was everything I'd hoped for. Rarely talking about the actual food, Douglas has been regularly furious on TripAdvisor for five years. His greatest hits include "Poor service! Waiter flirted with my gf!!" and "unsure what it is about waiters in Indian restaurants, but they treat you like you're bothering them". Over half his reviews marked eateries as "terrible".
I made arrangements for us to meet at La Bodeguita, Elephant and Castle's premier Colombian restaurant. After 15 minutes of waiting in the lobby, a man walked through the door; tall, of South East Asian descent, pristinely dressed, a gym bag at his side. We took a seat.
"I first started using TripAdvisor when I had a really, really bad experience with a Chinese restaurant," he explained. "This waiter got really annoyed, looking at me like, 'What the fuck do you want?' I had to tell people. If you've read my reviews, it probably just seems like I'm on steroids. Like, 'Fuck you! I'm going to kill all of you!' But I think I'm fair."
We scratched away at our plates, which were loaded high. "Your reviews are pretty severe. Do you not feel any guilt?"
"No. Have you seen Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares?" I nodded. "Well, 90 percent of the time, restaurants think their food is perfect. Then, when a world class chef tells them [it's not], they're still in denial."
"So you're Gordon?"
"I don't want to be nasty, no."
"But wouldn't it be better to be like Gordon; to talk to the manager, rather than covertly broadcasting it?" I had his interest for the first time.
"I've thought about that," he said, through a mouthful of spicy sausage. "One time, this waiter, after I kissed my girlfriend, asked if we were going to make love. I thought, 'If I tell the manager, he's going to get in trouble,' so I didn't do anything."
"You see," he pointed at my glass. "They've forgotten your Diet Coke refill. But I'm not going to mention that." Is he this analytical in everyday life? "I'm quite an analytical person. I see below the surface. There's been a lot of times where people cannot see something, nobody listened, and I'm later proven right. I'm objectively analytical."
"What do you do?"
"I work in finance in the city."
Coming toward the end of the meal, our conversation had pattered out somewhat.
"So, what did you think of my reviews?"
"If I'm honest," I said, checking the exits, looking down at the mountain of food still on his plate. "They're not really about food, are they?" His jaw clenched. "But I guess that's fine." And like that, our 45-minute slot was up: Douglas had to go to the gym, so left me to pay the bill.
Wednesday the 1st of February, 2017: lunch at Watch House (Wetherspoons), Lewisham
In the 11 years since creating his TripAdvisor account, Robert has developed a real vendetta against Wetherspoons. This was funny to me: everyone knows what a branch of Wetherspoons is like, because they're all exactly the same. You don't go there to excite your palate or for American-style hyper-service; you go there to feed your family for the same price as a Camel Blue 20-deck. No branch needs reviewing, but that hasn't stopped Robert.
He was standing by the door of Lewisham's Water House when I entered, a pint of real ale in one hand and a carrier bag in the other. He's in his mid-forties, has a side parting of curly, jet-black hair, and a drawling Australian accent.
"Are vegans allowed in a Wetherspoons?" he asked me, unprovoked.
"I'm veggie, but my girlfriend is vegan." Almost choking, he lowered his glass.
"No good when your girlfriend doesn't eat meat!"
Robert works in finance in the city, too, but unlike cautious, analytical Douglas appeared to be having a blast. Rump steak, surf and turf, buffalo wings, chips, a beer and rarebit sauce – not an order of somebody who despises Wetherspoons, "Look, I like Wetherspoons; it reps good beer." He took a sip. "But Wetherspoons are the McDonalds of pubs."
Nine minutes and 34 seconds later, our order hit the table. This in the same Wetherspoons whose staff Robert has called "poorly trained", which seems unfair, given their obvious efficiency. He disagreed: "The workers work too hard, and are let down by the manager, who clearly doesn't train them." Robert pointed a spare rib at a manager dawdling past a stack of glasses. "This guy doesn't give a shit how your experience is and never will."
"So if you're not trying to change Wetherspoons, isn't the whole exercise of reviewing it pointless?"
"No fucking way! I know there are psychos on TripAdvisor who furiously write incoherent one-star reviews, but normal people use TripAdvisor. Would you take your nan here? No! I like to contribute; to be part of the TripAdvisor family. And whether I'm reviewing or on the forums, it is rewarding when you're sent an email saying that a fellow user gave me a thumbs up." He looked at me. "Used properly, forums are the best thing about the internet."
The afternoon throttled on. Pints sunk, guards dropped, the conversation drifted back to TripAdvisor. "My first paid writing job was being paid to make multiple TripAdvisor accounts and write reviews for places," I admitted.
Robert stopped. "You were employed to write false reports?"
I nodded, laughing. For the first time this evening, Robert didn't join in.
"That's serious, man. If you were a listed company and you falsified reports, that would increase your share price – they'd get you for that. You're still recording this, right? This should be on the record." The mood was dampened. I tried to change the conversation, and failed. "I'm amazed by this."
All of a sudden, I felt like a Wetherspoons – Robert's eyes tracking my every move. Within half an hour we had said our goodbyes.
Tuesday the 16th of May, 2017: dinner at Le Gavroche, Mayfair
I'd been doing this for months, yet didn't really have the answers I was after. Neither Robert nor Douglas represented the voices in their reviews; they smiled in the restaurant, only to turn into particularly spiteful Giles Corens behind a screen.
But then I came across Simon. Of German descent, he's worked as a doctor for decades and lives in an affluent pocket of west London. With red fleck cheeks, a geodic brow and a head like a sponge ball, he stands at 5ft 10. Approaching his mid-sixties, Simon speaks in the kind of broad English accent young American anglophiles dream of, and is the only person on Earth who mispronounces Adele ("Adelly"). When I messaged, the response was a simple "call me", followed by a landline.
"You may think I'm mad, but I do have strong feelings," Simon said over the phone. "I'm amazed at the sort of rubbish restaurants serve to people. I've tried to work out how much I spend in restaurants a year, and it's about six grand. And it's all rubbish. It is! Inedible. Wrapped up in a pretentious load of guff." Simon started spinning tightly-wrapped put downs, the kind he uses in his reviews. "I read the bad reviews on TripAdvisor – I don't take people who write good reviews very seriously. I go the other way. If something is average, then that's pretty good." I remained silent. "I still have an awful lot of reviews left to write. Nearly 200, actually." From coffees to caviar, Simon scribbles grievances on the back of every receipt he gets, adding them to a wad in his inner jacket pocket. I soon realise I've found the one. Simon is my white whale.
Simon suggested we eat at Le Gavroche, but "wasn't bothered". After discussing one or two options, it became clear: he wanted to go to Le Gavroche. I googled Le Gavroche: it's the most expensive restaurant in London.
I was ten minutes late, running through Mayfair, sweating fixing my black velvet jacket to my back, deeply uncomfortable. Simon was waiting outside, dressed in his best. We were shown to our seats, and I popped to the loo. When I got back to our table it was empty; Simon had moved us to a "much comfier" spot. Small talk wasn't on the cards; any throwaway comment was critiqued. "This place is interesting with the water; they don't put ice in it, which is good," he said. "Yes, it's good," I muttered. Simon stops: "Well, it depends..."
A young waitress approached us. "What's your cheapest bottle of wine?" Simon asked. "My guess would be £34."
He was gobsmacked. "There must be something for £34!"
"I'm not arguing with them, but if that is their cheapest bottle of wine, that would stop me ever coming here again," he said, quoting the comparatively cheaper wine prices he'd seen on the menus of owner Michel Roux Jr's two other restaurants.
A sommelier appeared. The argument resumed. The sommelier said he used to work at the restaurant Simon is price-referencing. Simon said he wanted longer with the gargantuan wine bible. My teeth were clamped together, my fingers repeatedly running through my hair. You know how you love watching Curb at home? How Larry is your hero? Pretty, pretty different in real life.
"Oobah." I look up. "This [bottle of white] wine is 45 quid, you know?"
Simon looks down his nose at the sommelier.
"Did you think we wanted just red wine?"
"Yes. I didn't know exactly what you wanted."
"That's alright." The sommelier skulks off. "Of course he's going to argue that." We smile at one another. A lady pours our wine.
"You see, it's not cold enough. But I don't want to make an enemy of the man!"
Laughter erupted. I asked Simon to photograph me.
As I ate a cheese soufflé more expensive than my shoes, Simon passed judgment: he didn't like how the wine is kept in the lobby by the toilet on a cart; how the waiter dropped bread on the floor. And he was right! It was like he'd given me the blue pill; these things now mattered to me too.
Soon, we were onto the prices and proportions of double macchiatos across London, before being interrupted. "Excuse me," said a woman across from us. "All I can hear is you talking. It's so, so interesting, but I can't hear my husband. Can you keep your voice down?"
Simon: "I don't think so." My back straightened. "I'll try, but what happens if I was born that way?"
"It's such a shame. It's such an interesting conversation, about macchiatos."
"Well, don't listen to it then."
"I'm trying, but the whole restaurant is listening."
"It's just very unusual to be told that in a restaurant. I can hear people over there," said Simon, quite fairly.
"They're not as loud as you!"
WATCH: Eating for England with Mayhem Lauren
Thankfully, the mains arrived and the mood changed. Simon started to tell me about the last time he was here. "Ten years ago I came here, and it was the best restaurant I'd ever been to. I had pig trotters, which take eight hours to cook. I was doing a tour of restaurants, alone. It was wonderful."
"Do you not like going out with friends?"
"My friends think I'm far too critical. And the other thing that's a bit tricky is: if I get taken out for a meal, it's paid for – this has happened to me a few times – and I write a fairly negative review about it. It hasn't boded too well with friends. And I can't not write the report."
The sommelier returned. "Are you a critic?" He gestured toward the recorder. I smiled: "Well, not exactly." Simon furrowed his brow.
"You shouldn't have said any of that nonsense! Now we're going to get preferential treatment." I didn't understand. "They can treat me however the hell they like – it's irrelevant. This is all about the food."
"What do you mean?"
"Look, I think cooking is extremely difficult, so I respect people who try do to it immensely. It's like a work of art; or music; or literature. I'm passionate about people who excel in it. This is why I stand by the things I say on TripAdvisor." He paused. "An upset manager of a restaurant said to me on there, 'If you seem to detest every place, then why do you go out eating?' Well, that's not rational. I've enjoyed coming here. There are things that I've thought are good, very good. But I think the fish was too salty. Even so – there's an answer to that question. Because I'm on a crusade."
"Right, a personal crusade."
"No, you see, it's not a personal crusade. I feel sorry for the general public, because most of the meals I've had are not good. And very expensive. This, my friend, is a greater pursuit; I'm searching for the perfect restaurant."
After three hours, I'd got it. Every disgusting, inedible meal is another sacrifice Simon puts himself through for you, for me, for the people reading his reviews at home, in the hope of one day reaching culinary nirvana.
"Simon, what's the best restaurant you've ever been to?" I asked.
"Well," he shrugged. "This one."
"This is the best restaurant on Earth?"
"I'd be pushed to think of anywhere better."
"And how many stars are you going to give it?"
He took a long gulp of wine.
*Names have been changed.
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