After writing numerous TripAdvisor reviews himself, Oobah Butler wondered what it would take to get a restaurant to be number one in London. So he took photographs of his small rented cottage in a suburb called Dulwich – including some made up food shots using pool chemicals and his foot – and made a page for “The Shed at Dulwich”.
What started as a prank turned into an extraordinary story of gaming the system and a spectacular embarrassment for review service TripAdvisor. It also became the most viewed video on Vice.
“In the climate of fakery could one fake the existence of a restaurant?” Butler said he asked himself.
He started in May 2017 and his shed was number 18,149 at the “bottom of the pile” of London restaurants. He got family and friends to start writing reviews, based on a “dossier of what the experience was like: the food was homely, you eat outside, and the crucial part: how hard it was to get a table”. After six weeks and some 20 reviews his “appointment only” bistro was in the top 2,000 at 1,456.
“I’m higher in the rankings than some of my favourite restaurants in London,” he laughed as he told his remarkable story at the Login conference in Vilnius, Lithuania last month, where I was also a speaker (full disclosure).
By August it was at number 156 and he was fielding calls from frustrated would-be diners and PR firms offering to do his publicity. He had set up an email address and bought a cheap cellphone. He forgot the phone at a friend one weekend and got it back to discover 116 missed calls. He started recording the calls with exasperated people trying to book a table, replying that it was “fully booked”.
In the end it took 96 reviews to get to number one by November 2017 and he broke the story in December and it became “Vice’s most-ever viewed video where 40m people watched it”.
Finally, he decided he would throw a one-night-only evening at the restaurant and cleaned up the courtyard it was in, mowing the lawn and putting a table on the roof.
He bought several 99p microwave-ready meals and make them fancier, “bearing in mind we were the number-one rated vegetarian restaurant”. In a recently cleaned Wendy house he had a few live chickens, and offered them to his guests “like lobsters at a fancy restaurant, you can pick your own chicken”. He never mentioned how many actually did.
Guests were led through to the back of the house where he rented the shed blindfolded and seated at plastic tables and chairs. To complete the ambience he got a DJ to play the sounds of a restaurant, including frequent ding sounds to hide the sound of the microwave.
His guests included some friends in on the joke, who loudly proclaimed how good the food was, and people who had been trying to book for months, including “two Americans who had been eating on the banks of the Seine in Paris the night before”.
He took a plate of the €1 macaroni cheese microwave meal with truffles ground onto it to their table, where the “lady [who] was a self-described foodie” took out her mobile to take a picture then put it away without snapping anything.
It’s a brilliant modern day parable of the way user-generated content (like TripAdvisor) can be manipulated, or in this case, completely faked.
Butler, who is as funny in person as his now infamous prank, hit on the idea after writing TripAdvisor reviews as a freelancer, often for restaurants he had never eaten at.
The Washington Post called him “the Donald Trump of TripAdvisor” while the Singapore parliament debated what had happened and “called me a problem”. Japanese TV did an hour-long documentary and the story trended on Twitter in the country under the hashtag #LacksHonour.
Was it a success? A resounding yes, not least of which because it’s one of the best pranks ever played in our new digital era – along with Butler’s equally ballsy and witty Georgio Peviani spoof that saw him feted at Paris Fashion Week as a made-up designer.
I think it totally exposes the problems with user-generated content such as these restaurant reviews to the possible manipulation Butler’s prank revealed: A non-existent establishment was voted the best restaurant in London, a foodie haven of a European capital. That’s a serious indictment.
No, it doesn’t mean Wikipedia is also at risk – it has much tighter content controls that require validation or are edited out by the tireless moderators – but it does show how malleable online influence can be.
Butler calls himself a journalist – an honourable title for a proud tradition – but he’s much more than that now: He’s evolved into a performance artist of sorts, whose prank is now an iconic work, if not of art, then of humour.
As one guest asked as they were leaving: “Now that we’ve been once, will it be easier for us to book again next time?” That says it all.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail
Main image: Chris Bethell