This Side of the Pond – Mar. 1

By Sarah Pridgeon

What with rumors of Russian tampering, Facebook backtracking on its own policies and various other calamities, it’s been quite the harrowing year for the internet so far. But my favorite story with a “don’t trust everything you read online” moral involves a sneaky little bugger back home.

This is the tale of a restaurant with a difference, though it wasn’t immediately obvious what that difference was. It’s called The Shed at Dulwich and, for a little while, it was the talk of the town.

It was, in fact, the top rated London restaurant on TripAdvisor last November. That bit’s important – we’ll come back to it later.

Its lofty position in the ratings was a surprise for Londoners, most of whom had never heard of it. The Shed claimed to have been operating privately for years but had recently decided to open its doors.

Naturally, because everyone thought it was exclusive, The Shed became instantly enticing. After all, it’s fun to be able to say you knew about a popular thing before anyone else did.

The tagline on the website read, “all you’re allowed to know about London’s best kept secret”. Aside from its claims about exclusivity, The Shed wasn’t giving away much of anything.

The site is filled with beautiful photographs of unusual foods, but that’s about it. There’s not even a menu, because the restaurant claims it doesn’t use one.

Instead, it caters to moods. Apparently, a diner may inform the chef of the mood that best sums up their day and it will be interpreted for them in the form of food.

It gives a few examples. A happy diner, for example, might be served roasted haddock with champagne and honey, with a side of “Grandma’s Minestrone” soup and a 5-htp-infused chaser (whatever that is).

If you are feeling empathetic, you might expect to sample vegan clams in a clear broth with parsnips, carrots, celery and potatoes, served with rye crisps, which sounds relatively sensible. Comfort food at The Shed consists of a Yorkshire blue macaroni and cheese with bacon shavings, served in a 600TC Egyptian cotton bowl with a side of sourdough bread.

The chef’s interpretation of “contemplation” would certainly put you in that mood, whether or not you arrived in it. A contemplative customer is presented with a “deconstructed Aberdeen stew”, in which all elements are served to the table as they would be in the process of cooking, served with warm beef tea.

Intriguing, but my personal impression of this restaurant was that it had ideas above its station and would do better to stick with a nice shepherd’s pie and a wine list. I can’t say I was tempted to book a table, but I understood why curiosity would draw people through its doors.

I also acknowledge that some people are drawn to give rave reviews for things they don’t quite understand in the hopes of disguising their own confusion. What I didn’t expect to find out was that all those fans of mood food had never eaten a single bite at The Shed.

It didn’t exist. The Shed at Dulwich was nothing more than an experiment by a young man called Oobah Butler, who told The Evening Standard he is fascinated with review sites and the contrast between the trust we place in those reviews and the ease with which they can be faked.

Butler claims he once worked as a freelancer making $12 for every fake review he put up on TripAdvisor. He wanted to see how far he could push it, so he put together the website and took photographs of the “food” using anything that came to hand – paint, shaving foam, laundry tablets, even his own foot.

It’s convincing, I’ll give him that. So too are the reviews he asked his friends to post, helping The Shed climb the rankings. It wasn’t long before total strangers were chiming in, leaving glowing reviews for a restaurant that they hadn’t just never set foot in, but didn’t exist in the first place.

Butler registered the restaurant to a burner phone, on which he started getting multiple calls a day. It wasn’t just potential customers – it was also hopeful jobseekers, PR agencies and even the local council, wanting to relocate the restaurant to a site it was developing nearby.

More and more inquiries came in every day – Butler left the phone with a friend over the weekend, he says, and came back to 116 missed calls. He began to feel bad, so he decided to invite some of those customers to come dine at the restaurant.

Of course, The Shed really is a shed, in Butler’s back yard, and he’s not a trained chef by any stretch of the imagination. On the big night he opened his doors, ten guests were invited to take a seat on garden furniture – including two who had come all the way from California.

He served them microwaveable meals, dressing them up with edible flowers and presenting chickens to the table for them to “choose from”, like lobsters in a seafood restaurant except they weren’t actually added to the dish. His guests seemed pleased, regardless.

TripAdvisor didn’t respond well to Butler’s ruse. The website released an acidic statement that read: “Generally, the only people who create fake restaurant listings are journalists in misguided attempts to test us. 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.”

Not many lessons learned there then, it seems. Still, it’s a cautionary tale for the rest of us that not even the opinions of the crowd can be trusted and we should probably take reviews with a generous pinch of salt. Shame about the restaurant, though – I’ve always wanted to try vegan clams.