In the echo chamber that is London’s restaurant industry, TripAdvisor is taken — if taken at all — with a pinch or two of salt. The Shed at Dulwich had the capital fooled, too.
Oobah Butler's piece in Vice comprehensively — and quite beautifully — dismantles TripAdvisor's very essence. Guiding a fake restaurant to the top of London's rankings is a dramatic public shaming; the fried egg may be on Butler's foot, but it ends scrambled on the face of the internet's controversial review site.
At Butler’s unreal and surreal South London restaurant, power bleach tablets and shaving foam were used to mock up alluring, Instagram-ready food pictures. The menu was divided into evocative, provocative categories like ‘Lust’, Empathetic’, and ‘Love’. It featured such impossible oddities as ‘vegan clams’. One dish was served in an ‘Egyptian cotton bowl’; Bovril was described as ‘warm beef tea’. Jay Rayner decided: no, thank you. Thousands of others thought: wow, this sounds fascinating, let’s book. Or try to, anyway. The Shed at Dulwich was this year’s Chiltern Firehouse.
It is reasonable to say that it is in the clutches of Middle England that TripAdvisor remains more of a tour de force, a source of information into which restaurant-goers regularly place trust. People genuinely rely on it as a resource. Subsequently, those same users are all too ready to share their opinions, of varying sincerity, no matter where on the scale of ‘expert’ everyone else might think they belong.
Despite the line between 'expert' and nonsensical people ranting about cold soup and 'rude' waiting staff being a little blurred on TripAdvisor, it is not entirely ridiculous a concept. Which is probably why it's proven so popular with so many. TripAdvisor is not all bad — it’s that the real issues arise when people share their not-so-genuine opinions. Still, who though would have thought London — the most professionally critiqued city in the country — would also so readily lap up its hyped establishments?
Perhaps it’s because in London, people do not just go out to eat. Eating out in London is increasingly experiential; it’s about cultural and social capital — about bragging rights and securing the most exclusive and elusive reservations that one’s contemporaries have not. And so, The Shed at Dulwich was peak London — “concept” driven and kitsch, by appointment only, and “so popular” as to be unbookable.
Regrettably, those oft-misguided wants and opinions are then given credence by a dubious ratings algorithm that gives the appearance of authority and curation to an otherwise unmoderated platform.
And yet, the biggest — and comparatively unchallenged — TripAdvisor news story in living memory was Tommy Banks and his Michelin-starred Black Swan. What was previously an unassuming but celebrated restaurant became the “best restaurant in the world” according to the TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Restaurants Awards. Some stood firm in their derision and perhaps thought little of the award (even if they loved the Black Swan). Others recognised that, like it or not, there is sheer power in TripAdvisor — it was, for example, deemed significant enough to invite Banks for a live interview on BBC news.
Reading Butler's piece, a social experiment of sorts that brings the perils of the restaurant industry and the online celebrity that often fuels it to the fore, readers are reminded of the problems entrenched in TripAdvisor.
Analysing TripAdvisor’s questionable integrity was nothing new. Not a week goes by without its credibility being questioned: an increasing number of restaurants bosses have lost their patience with chancers, while the Twitter account Chiefs of Trip acts as a handy compendium of some of the more hapless among them; then there's Marina O'Loughlin, the authority on what she terms #ShitAdvisor, and who last year underlined the methods of its madness.
But after Butler's historic account (which culminates in a bizarre, not entirely unsuccessful South London garden dinner), various television appearances and write ups in Britain's national titles: what now? Are TripAdvisor's days numbered?
Restaurant-goers can — and should — question its value, integrity and validity, especially after TripAdvisor's parboiled potato of a response ("this test is not a real world example" — yes it is), but in the end, Butler served up Iceland ready meals: precisely the kind of experience London’s thrill-seeking restaurant-goers never even knew existed.