People go in search of a monstrosity. I did too. Rather, I found an outdated café, an internet smear campaign and a well-meaning, thoughtful man with a fascinating story to tell.
It’s lunchtime on a Wednesday and the Palace Restaurant Café is empty, other than Alan. He’s owned the place for 34 years and still opens every morning. 10 o’clock, he’ll be here, seven days a week. Standing behind the counter, peering over glasses resting on the end of his nose, he greets me with a nervous smile. I was here last Wednesday. Alan made me a bacon cheeseburger and vanilla milkshake.
Stepping inside the Palace Restaurant Café is like entering a time warp. Since Alan took the space over from a Lebanese restaurant in 1988, it has barely changed. Same floors and same doors. Same tables and chairs. Same mirrors. Same walls. There’s a new ceiling – Alan confesses – but he swiftly reassures me it’s the same material and the same colour as the old ceiling. It’s a point of pride: where the world’s changed around the Palace Restaurant Café, it’s stayed the same, frozen in time, now offering a glimpse into a bygone era of London. An era that must have been both optimistic and opportunistic for this café to succeed. An era that, I’m afraid to tell Alan, could no longer exist.
When I visited last week, I was again the café’s only guest. It allowed Alan and I to have an interesting, if brief, conversation about London, Covid and Westminster Council; about business, TripAdvisor and internet trolls. I’ve come back to see if we could perhaps have a longer conversation. I don’t say what about, but Alan agrees. I suggest we take a seat, but here he refuses. He never sits down while at work. In that case, I, too, am happy standing. I put my recorder on the counter between Alan and I and we begin.Array
Situated at 13 Buckingham Palace Road, two minutes down the road from Victoria Station and directly across the street from the entrance to the Royal Mews, the Palace Restaurant Café is a traditional British caff, designed for tourists. The menu offers easy, comfortable English staples, at the inflated prices necessitated by living in the shadow of Buckingham Palace. While a touch exorbitant for locals, I can picture sightseers of years gone by coming in hungry and leaving full, lunch at a British greasy spoon just another part of their day out in London.
But in recent years, the Palace Restaurant Café has seen a change in fortunes. In part a result of the pandemic, which kept the café closed for 14 months, and still ensures the streets of central London are devoid of their usual throng of tourists. But, both Alan and I know, the café’s issues date back before, and are not confined to, Covid-19.
For the Palace Restaurant Café has gone from a tourist hotspot to a tourist attraction. It is now primarily known as the wearer of the online crown, ‘London’s Worst Restaurant’; and with an infamous digital title, comes digital notoriety. The Palace Restaurant Café features in a number of news articles and YouTube videos – including from Chunkz and Calfreezy – racking up millions of views, and slowly cementing it atop one of the internet’s most undesirable lists.
The list can be found on TripAdvisor, the world’s authoritative review site. On it, people award the best, and condemn the worst, hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions that any location has to offer. According to TripAdvisor, the Palace Restaurant Café is 1,939th out of 1,939 places to grab a bite in the British capital. Of the café’s 235 reviews, 205 rank it 1-star, lambasting the food, the service, and the price. Some go as far as to demand its immediate closure on health and safety grounds.
It is impossible to ascertain the veracity of each of these TripAdvisor reviews, and while some are certainly true, in the case of the Palace Restaurant Café, many are clearly false. For one, throughout the pandemic reviews claimed to have visited when the café was closed. Alan, stuck at home, would read fabricated horrors about his business pasted across the internet. One diner, a ‘Gordon Brown’ who supposedly visited in May 2020 – peak lockdown/BYOB garden party season – wrote: “Nah nah i aint even lying man saw a spider hop into my food and chill like naahhh i asked for a replacement and the lady was like shut up and eat or i phone police like who da fuq are u?????!!!”
Unless Mr. Brown decided to wait months after suffering such a horror before suddenly taking to TripAdvisor, his story is completely made up. Also dubious is the way reviews arrive in short spurts, after months of inactivity on the café’s page. Multiple accounts (most with a spotted review history) suddenly appear and wield absurdities, the worst of which include accusations of pubes and faeces found in food.
“It’s just fun and games for children,” says Alan. We’ve been speaking for a while by this stage, but now, for the first time, is irritation noticeable in his voice. “They think they can do anything. Somebody once phoned me and warned, ‘All the places we’ve trolled have been closed down except this one.’ So, what can I do? Where can I go? Who can I go to? I spoke to TripAdvisor. I spoke to the council. The health and safety officer came and checked the place. No mice! Nothing. I just don’t check what’s online anymore to be honest, but my wife has stopped coming into work because it depresses her.”
The sad reality is – online at least – whether or not these allegations are true is inconsequential. Every purported visitor experience feeds into the restaurant’s overall score. Every incendiary YouTuber who visits and racks up X million views online, defines the reputation of the Palace Restaurant Café. It means that while some may stop in, if they happen to be walking past, any planned visits are now done in search of the monstrosity described online.
Which is what I went after, too. My intentions were as superficial and callous as the YouTubers who pile through the doors, desperate for a click and a view and a comment. Except a monstrosity I did not find. Rather, an outdated café, an internet smear campaign and a well-meaning, thoughtful man, with a fascinating story to tell.
Alan – the name he assumed after moving to Britain in the 1970s – was born Vipin, in New Delhi, in 1949. Coming into the world just two years after the Partition of India, it was a time of upheaval, both for the country, and for Alan’s family, who were originally from the city of Amritsar. Located 17 miles from the new border between Pakistan and India, and just 29 miles from Lahore, Amritsar was suddenly a major border town amidst a violent, sectarian conflict. What followed Partition was not only unimaginable bloodshed among peoples who had cohabited for almost a millennium, but one of the largest migrations in human history. Millions of Muslims journeyed west to Pakistan, while millions of Hindus and Sikhs went the other way, to India.
By the time Alan was born, his family was settled in New Delhi. The third of four siblings, and the only boy, he was educated by the Christian Brothers – a Catholic organisation founded by Edmund Rice in Ireland, that soon expanded to set up schools all over the world. One of these was St. Columba’s in New Delhi. “Everyone remembers them being cruel,” Alan tells me, “You know, with the cane the strap – this was our upbringing.” More recently, the Christian Brothers schools have been exposed for rampant sexual abuse of children, though Alan makes no mention of this. “But we learned English as our main language,” he continues. “Shakespeare tortured our youth. The Merchant of Venice…The quality of mercy is not strained…It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. These things, you don’t understand when you’re young, but in later life, you start understanding the gravity of the things you learned.”Array
I ask if he is religious now. “No. Nothing. I think something inside tells you what you believe, just listen to that. Don’t harm anybody, that is enough motive for me.” Even at a young age, he recalls straying from the strict Catholic teachings of the Christian Brothers. “I thought, how do they know? How can they know? For them, humans were the only one. Everything else was immaterial, and I questioned it.” Despite still having a thick accent and speaking slowly – occasionally straining to find the next word – Alan speaks persuasively. His words are deliberate and his conclusions seem his own.
By early 1969, Alan had graduated from Delhi University. It was still the 1960s – the birth decade of the gap year – and he and his friends were desperate to travel. “With a rucksack on our back and hardly any money in our pocket, we caught a ship from Bombay. We travelled to Dubai, then to Kuwait, and up the canal along the side of Iran and Iraq. We disembarked in Basra, staying here and there. I hadn’t a clue what I was going to do or where I was going to go, but everywhere I went they were nice places and nice people.”
And so Alan kept going. And going. From Iraq, he caught a train through Syria to the Turkish capital Ankara, before working his way up through Europe and arriving in Aarhus, Denmark. Here, he got his first job in a restaurant, working the summer months at a hotel with a German head chef who would eventually be behind his move to Britain.
A winter in Canada followed the summer in Denmark, an unusual choice for a young man from the Indian subcontinent, who was greeted by waist high snow and endless sub-zero temperatures. A second perpetual feature of Alan’s time in Canada – from Montreal to Ottawa to Toronto – was a lack of jobs. “Zero,” he laughs. “Zero jobs. Everyone was unemployed. And the unemployed people would sit in black painted rooms, you know…taking stuff. Lots of weed and things like that.” I decide best not to probe into the ‘things like that.’
I ask Alan if he thinks you could travel like this nowadays. “Yes.” Doubtless. “If you meet nice people and you talk to them, they’ll say, ‘Come here, we will give you accommodation.’ I’ve learned if you give something, people give you back a lot.” I ask if he thinks people are still that kind and ingenuous. “Yes.” Unwavering again. “You must talk with people. People, when they don’t have information, want to be with their own kind, but once you meet people and you talk, they’ll open up.”
Alan clearly believes most people are inherently good, but I can’t help but see the irony when you consider how regularly people treat his café with pre-meditated malice. Yet the online attacks and provocative patrons have not altered his belief. He remains steadfast that simple conversation will solve most differences.
It is disingenuous to focus solely on the false reviews. To start with, the bacon cheeseburger and vanilla milkshake I had last week were poor. It was not the worst food in London – by no means inedible, and certainly not a biohazard – but it was bad. The burger had a bitty quality, the cheese on top was grated, and the milkshake tasted like icy vanilla liqueur. The bacon was bacon. The chips were actually pretty good, in fairness. But they’re chips. It was substandard café food, and the fact of the matter is, that though often embellished, there’s truth to enough of the Palace Restaurant Café reviews that Alan should acknowledge a serious problem.
I put this to him. “Whatever people want, I say fine,” he insists. “I like people. I don’t aggravate people.” It’s interesting that his defence immediately goes to the service, for not only is this the most personal aspect of the abuse, it is also the aspect that most contradicts my own experience. Online, there are widespread reports of a ferocious lady, said to inflate prices, yell at customers, and once throw a block of cheese. The latter – probably the most preposterous accusation aimed at ‘her’ – arrived in April 2021, when indoor dining was closed in England. Yet ‘RonaldDump123’ alleged, “I sneezed into a tissue and she come over screaming at me to get out with a frying pan in her hand so I stormed out as I got over the road she threw a block of cheese at me and had the cheek to shout at me to throw it back. Avoid like the plague.”
This is surely false. Not an embellishment, but an out and out lie. Likely another example of someone bored at home, either unaware or apathetic to the consequences of their virtual actions. RonaldDump’s review made headlines in The Mirror and MyLondon.
Such farcical posts also means believable reviews are overlooked, becoming lost in the chaos. In 2019, for example, ‘OliviaE’ advised, “Don’t even think about going here. Woman who works here has a disgusting attitude. The fact this place even has 1.5 is beyond belief!” Or there was ‘AmanadapEllingworth,’ who visited two months earlier, and said, “I ordered a main meal and glass of tap water. She refused to give me tap water, very rudely. She would only give me expensive bottled water. Do not go there. I have never left a bad review before.’ It is true. Out of 12, this is the lone bad review on Amanda’s TripAdvisor account. There is nothing to suggest either of these reviews are lying.
I ask Alan about this mysterious female co-worker, seemingly the lone employee cited in all the negative reviews. He says she’s his sister in law – he met his second wife through her – and that the accusations against her are made up. I ask if there could be any truth to them. He shakes his head, then concedes, “If somebody says something to her, she will answer back. She doesn’t hold back, but I am overtly bending backwards to not annoy people, so it’s a balance.”
This is supported by the footage on YouTube. The editing is no doubt done to emphasise the café’s (and the café’s employees) worst features, and the very nature of walking through the door, camera in hand, is provocative, but they get a reaction from Alan’s sister-in-law. She does get angry, often quite quickly, and the second she tells them to leave, suddenly they’ve been “Kicked Out London’s Worst Restaurant.” The review’s title is already written.
What about the food itself then? Could those complaints be true? “We’ve got all kinds of food!” says Alan, a touch exasperated, like a parent pleading to a picky child, ‘there must be something on the menu that you like!’ But I’m afraid, in a restaurant, that’s not good enough. Alan seems to rationalise any complaints by pointing to the breadth of the menu, failing to acknowledge the legitimate complaints customers have. And the proof is there, in photo and video form, of feeble cheese toasties and undercooked chicken breasts. It doesn’t mean the food is always this bad, but Alan cannot argue it away as internet trolls. Many people have horrible things to say about their experience at the Palace Restaurant Café, and there is no reason to doubt them all. Because if we were to play chicken or the egg, between the bad food and the false reviews, I would propose the bad food came first. I have grown fond of Alan, and sympathise tremendously with the online trolling he faces, but he seems to have convinced himself that this is the source of all bad reviews, which is simply not the case.Array
Ever since its inception at the turn of millennium, TripAdvisor has been a subject of controversy. Its business model – allowing anonymous and unsubstantiated reviews – has facilitated its success and provides an invaluable, egalitarian service the vast majority of the time; but it can also prove a recipe for trouble. Enabling blackmail and bribery are perhaps the most common criticisms levelled at the site, but phantom establishments, censorship and the trolling seemingly taking place with Palace Restaurant Café are all regular issues.
We reached out to TripAdvisor to find out how they combat them. “We are an unbiased platform for the travel community to share their experiences, good and bad,” they begin. “We treat all reviews, ratings and forum posts with strict impartiality.” On why they don’t demand user authentication, TripAdvisor argues: “A verification model unfairly penalises some genuine customers and does not prevent attempts at review fraud. Every experience counts, not just the one where you paid the bill. And on the topic of fraud – most attempts at review fraud are conducted by business managers or owners trying to post positive reviews.”
Over now 20 years of tackling fake reviews, TripAdvisor claim to have acquired “unrivalled experience in the field.” Their most recent transparency report lays out the extent of the effort to combat fraud. Of the 26 million reviews submitted in 2020 alone, they claim to have “removed or rejected” over 2 million, over half of which were deemed fraudulent. 67.1% of these falsehoods never made it onto the platform. 34,605 accounts were removed for fraudulent activity.
These numbers do highlight TripAdvisor’s commitment to tackling the problem. They also highlight the extent of it. If nearly 1 in 25 reviews can be proven to be false, then it’s more than just an anomaly. Debate over a lack of digital accountability is rife in regard to social media, but thus far, TripAdvisor and other review sites have evaded the glare of mainstream media and politicians.
As long as this remains the case, online abuse of businesses will continue. People want clicks. People want likes. If you get enough views on YouTube, your account can be monetised. If you become well-recommended on TripAdvisor, each of your reviews carries more sway. To get these numbers, people search for the worst as well as the best. After all, it’s easy being mean behind a screen. I’ve written things here I did not say to Alan’s face.
At first he’s apprehensive of me, Alan. Neither nervous nor reticent, but still he seems distrusting of the latest person to come through his door, deliberately here to see the restaurant described online. His slight reservation seems to contradict a lifelong impulse to see the best in people. It also contradicts the bulk of the 50 years he’s spent working at restaurants in Britain.
He first moved to the United Kingdom in the late spring of 1970. The head chef he had worked alongside in Denmark knew of a summer job opportunity at a restaurant called McTavish’s Kitchens in Oban, a resort town on the Scottish west coast. He went on to work consecutive summers at McTavish’s, and it was in Oban that he met his first wife. Alan insists, of all the places he’s been, the west coast of Scotland is his favourite. I ask if he’s sure about that. I’ve had the sincere pleasure of visiting Oban, but having also heard the places Alan has been, I’m surprised it tops the list. But he insists – nowhere compares. “God put midges there just to make you realise you’re not in heaven yet.”
After his second season at McTavish’s, Alan and his soon-to-be-wife moved to London. She was from a small village called Portsonochan, on the other side of Loch Awe, opposite Inveraray. “I said, ‘Look, I’m going to London. If you want to come, join me.’ She took a big leap. We got married in November 1971, at the Kensington and Chelsea registry office. We were staying at Notting Hill Gate and we got two people from the same hotel to be the witnesses. One was from Liverpool. One was from Greece. The superintendent was advising my wife not to marry me, saying ‘You don’t know him.’”
Plainly, she did not heed the superintendent’s advice. The couple’s eldest child will turn 50 this year. He lives in Harpenden and has two children of his own – a boy and a girl. Their second child is a photographer and artist, living in Berlin with her American partner. “She’s all the things that I’m not,” Alan laughs. “All my life we were fighting with each other – ‘Do something where you can earn some money!’ But she would always work to help people. She’s a very, very kind person.” He gets out an iPad and shows me photos of his family. I tell him a little bit about mine.
In 2010, after a long battle with cancer, Alan’s first wife passed away. The couple had separated beforehand, with Alan admitting he worked too much and that they had drifted apart. “The kids were grown up and she…she decided she wanted to have some more fun.” She was buried in the village of Dalmally, at the top of Loch Awe.
The Palace Restaurant Café was Alan’s second restaurant in London. In 1984, he opened a restaurant called Wayfarers, in Hanover Square. It ran for 15 years – 11 years concurrent with the Palace Restaurant Café – until the landlord wanted the space back for rebuilding. Restaurants are what Alan has always done, and what he wants to continue doing. Because it was, in fact, only during the coronavirus lockdowns that Alan admits to have found himself struggling, unable to come into work at all. “That was probably the worst time. I was going mad, closed for 14 months. I opened again as soon as I got the chance, but still, with no tourists, most days I do very little business.”
I ask how much longer he’ll keep going. He shrugs. “The future is putting one step in front of the other. Things will happen, you just need to keep your head space clear. Keep it calm. Once it muddles up, with anger or hatred, it’s just a waste of energy. Good things and bad things both exist at the same time. Most of my life has been good – this is a minor friction.”
I’m not sure what Alan means by ‘this’ minor friction. He could mean the TripAdvisor reviews. He could mean his struggling café. He could mean Covid-19. He could mean all of the above. I suppose all could be rationalised as minor frictions. Equally, they all seem obstacles that are nigh on impossible for Alan to fix.
“What’s amazing about the future is you don’t have a clue what’s going to happen next,” he tells me. “I didn’t have a clue this was going to happen!” He points at him and I. This time, I know exactly what he means by ‘this’, because neither did I. But here we are.
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