Opinionista Marelise Van Der Merwe 19 April 2018

The Other News Round-Up: When you order the Kool-Aid

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you a round-up of some of the world’s stranger things. This week: the restaurants at the end of the universe.

London’s foodies must be breathing a sigh of relief. As of this week, they have a selection of traveller-ranked top restaurants to eat at that actually exist.

CNN reported that LTI, a global members-only luxury travel ratings organisation, has stepped up with its latest list of the top 20 restaurants in the UK capital. By special agreement with LTI, CNN got permission to publish what these are.

Well, that’s nice of LTI, isn’t it? Now the plebs can also know where to eat. Among the restaurants that cracked the nod were the pared-down Mere, Locanda Locatelli (Italian), Henrietta’s (French), Barrafina (Spanish), Scott’s (Seafood) and Zuma (various, including sushi).

London was burnt a little by the unreliability of TripAdvisor when, late in 2017, journalist Oobah Butler produced a feature and mini-documentary for Vice on how he turned his shed into the top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor. Just to be clear, there was no restaurant there.

Thinking back on an early job he had writing fake reviews for TripAdvisor, combined with a concern over a growing tide of fake news, Butler was moved to expose the dishonesty of the model.

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?” he wrote.

Maybe it’s exactly the kind of place that could be a hit?”

In that moment, wrote Butler, it became his 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.”

And so The Shed at Dulwich was born. Butler bypassed the need to register an address by simply saying bookings were “by appointment only”. He set up a domain and website with the most pretentious concept he could think of: naming all the dishes after moods. Think “lust”, “comfort” and “contemplation”. He shot photos of these dishes, only they were made of household objects, like toilet cleaner and shaving foam. Oh, and one in which the “meat” was his own foot, shot from a deceptive angle.

The booking requests started rolling in.

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,” Butler wrote.

The bookings were all refused. The wisdom of Groucho Marx ruled supreme: patrons were desperate to be in the club that would not have them.

Butler’s restaurant shot from position 18,149 (bottom of the list) to #159. By the time companies started using the estimated Google street address to get free samples to him (!), the “restaurant” had climbed even further. The city council offered to move him to an up-and-coming development site in Bromley. An Australian production company got in touch, offering an in-flight video deal. By winter, The Shed was ranked in the top 30. And within six months of launch, bingo: it was ranked #1.

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,” wrote Butler.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this was purely down to algorithms. But at some point, Butler was forced to serve food for one night only before exposing his hoax, and despite being served microwave dinners and sauce from a box, customers were perfectly satisfied.

You’d also be forgiven for thinking this would be a one-off deal. But it’s not the first time foodies have been spotlighted, spectacularly, with their pants down. In 2008, the Osteria L’Intrepido achieved a prestigious listing in what the Independent called “a list of centres of gastronomic excellence featured in the oenophile’s bible, Wine Spectator”. The only problem was that the Osteria L’Intrepido didn’t exist, either.

If you’ll pardon the food-related metaphor, Wine Spectator had about a kilo of egg on its face. For a niche publication with two million readers, it has considerable influence. It has run its globally respected Awards of Excellence since 1981. Yet it somehow missed the small detail that a restaurant in central Milan, which boasted a menu featuring roast piglet with foie gras and grilled prawns on an aubergine crisp, and a wine cellar with some 2,100 bottles, was a figment of a journalist’s imagination.

Wine Spectator, despite being a professional publication, sheepishly admitted it based its selection on public reviews online. Which is a little tricky in an age of paid reviews, no? Osteria L’Intrepido’s reviews, of course, were fictitious.

Wine critic and author Robin Goldstein said he wanted to expose the “lack of rigour” by cooking up the hoax, and added insult to injury by inventing a special list of “reserve wines” for the Osteria L’Intrepido. Among the reviews these wines had received from Wine Spectator were the eye-watering description of “bug spray” on the nose and “paint thinner and nail varnish character”.

Goldstein, for his part, submitted his entry to the magazine with a cover letter that should surely have been at least a bit of a giveaway: the menu was described as a “fun amalgamation of somewhat bumbling nouvelle-Italian recipes”.

To top all this off, some of the top-rated restaurants that do exist physically claim, nonchalantly, that there’s no such thing as the best restaurant. Noma, in Denmark, topped San Pellegrino’s World’s Best 50 Restaurants Awards list in 2014, only to shrug it off entirely.

Founder Rene Redzepi responded:

Of course I don’t consider Noma to be the best restaurant in the world. At some tiny Ramen places in Tokyo you’ll have the best meal of your life.”

He added: “The situation is food and you.”

Other respected guests at the event were similarly unbothered about who won or not.

So if the best chefs, critics and restaurateurs in the world are not buying into the hype, why is everyone else? I’m reminded of the Asch conformity experiments, where Solomon Asch ran a series of tests to see whether human beings were more inclined to follow their own opinion or align with a group.

Perhaps best known is a test where subjects participated in a perceptual task, and were shown two cards: one with a single line on it, and a second with three lines. One of these three lines was the same length as the line on the first card, and two were obviously a different length. A group of actors, who were introduced to the test subject as fellow participants, were told to give the incorrect answer in turn.

The object of the experiment was to see whether the test subject, who always answered last, would give the correct answer, or swing to the incorrect answer that aligned with the group’s view. A sizeable percentage defaulted to the incorrect answer.

And that’s it, my friends. That’s what hype does. We can see the obvious in front of us, but the temptation is overwhelming to change our answer anyway. So, although it’s only food, these hoaxes fill me with glee. They raise the bigger questions. They puncture pretensions and poke holes in lies. Expose the nonsense, I say. And then take these journalists to the best restaurant in town, and give them a damn Bells. DM

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