Fake Steakhouse Aftermath: Chef Mehran Reveals All!
Plus! More Real New Yorker Survey Results!! Subway Disaster Poll!!!
Welcome to Issue #92 of CAFÉ ANNE!
Oh golly—so much news.
First, last issue’s story about my effort to go an entire week without multitasking generated a lot of comments, including a note from reader Rob S. in Brooklyn suggesting an interesting way to pass the time on the subway in lieu of reading a book:
“I had a co-worker who used to play a game every time I took a subway ride with her. It entailed trying to figure out who would take charge of the car in the event of some kind of disaster. She concocted these complicated hierarchies and power struggles among the disparate riders in the train. It made the ride between 96th and Clark fly by.”
To which I replied:
“Wow that is a great subway game!
It's funny, I often think about how *I* would function in said scenario.
In my fantasy, all kinds of loudmouth douchebags try to assume the leadership role, and one-by-one they are rejected. And finally everyone in the car turns to me and says, "Oh lady in black you look so wise and peaceful and centered, what do YOU think we should do?"
AND THEN I TAKE OVER.”
Rob’s response: “Haha! I always assume I’m the first one they’re going to eat.”
It’s clearly time for a CAFÉ ANNE poll. In the event of a NYC subway disaster, what’s your role in the car?
Next, one of my favorite tunes is “Can’t Get Enough of Myself” by Santigold. And if you feel the same way about me that I do, you’ll want to check out author Madeleine Dore’s recent Q&A interview with me in her delightful On Things newsletter about one of my favorite topics, talking to strangers!
You might also want to read this fun behind-the-scenes account Brooklyn illustrator Carolyn Yoo recently posted about the process of creating an illo for my new “Department of Personal Experimentation” series. Find out just how fussy I am! Jesus.
Finally, huge Autumn-in-New-York-Canyons-of-Steel-They're-Making-Me-Feel-I'm-Home shoutouts to new paid subscribers Dan K., Shannon V., Jessica R., and Linda A.K. That’s enough $$$ to decorate my entire stoop with a display of weird gourds, if I had a stoop!
I’m very excited for this week’s issue, of course. We’ve got a Q&A with Mehran Jalali about the aftermath of his delightful and now notorious fake steakhouse caper. Also, the final installment of my Are You a Real New Yorker survey. Please enjoy.
PS: I will be launching a new classifieds section in the next issue. Want to advertise your product or service, find the love of your life, promote your own newsletter or post a shoutout to a friend in CAFÉ ANNE? Email email@example.com today to get started!
CAFÉ ANNE Q&A
Fake Steakhouse Aftermath: Chef Mehran Reveals All!
My most bonkers story ever began back in April when I got a letter from a reader asking me to investigate a mysterious steakhouse on the Upper East Side that he'd found in a Google business listing. It had more than 70 five-star reviews raving about the incredible service, mind-blowing food and especially Chef Mehran: "A visionary, a genius, a god among men.” But oddly, there were no other mentions online beyond the restaurant’s minimalist website.
When I took a train to Manhattan to scope out the restaurant's supposed location, it turned out to be an standard townhouse. The neighbors said they'd seen no evidence of steakhouse activity. When I knocked on the townhouse door, the man who answered shut the door in my face.
A few days after I published a story about my investigation—in which I concluded that Mehran's Steakhouse was a total fiction—I got a call from Chef Mehran himself. Mehran, it turns out, is Mehran Jalali, a 21-year-old startup founder living San Francisco.
He offered to tell me the whole story if I agreed to keep mum for a while. "This is part of a more elaborate prank," he said. "This was just the first phase. We plan to do a formal reveal in the fall."
It started two years ago. Mehran was renting the entire townhouse with more than a dozen friends. "It was rented out to a group of tech people," he told me, “and I started making steak every Friday night or so."
Just for fun, a housemate created a fake Google business listing for Mehran's Steakhouse and posted a review. Several dozen friends added their own. A few months later, they were amused to find Mehran's Steakhouse appearing on Google Maps.
"We saw a lot of potential to do something funny with it," said Mehran. They created a website for the restaurant and were soon fielding dozens of requests from strangers anxious to snag a reservation.
By the end of the summer, in fact, they had more than 1000 names on the wait list. Last month, they launched their plan to operate an actual steakhouse for one night, pretending it had always been there.
They called everyone on the wait list, explaining that while there was still no availability at the Upper East Side location, there was an "unexpected opening" at the restaurant's secret, more intimate, unadvertised location in the East Village: "It's like a speakeasy!" they said. 120 guests took the bait.
And a few weeks ago, they actually they pulled it off. Mehran and 65 friends posing as cooks and waiters served a $114 prix-fix steak dinner to more than 100 dinners at fancy rented event venue. I attended and wrote an account of the evening.
The prank got more attention than probably anyone expected—coverage in outlets ranging from the New York Times and the Guardian in the UK to BBC Persian. A series of Tik-Tok recaps got more than 12 million views.
What was it like for Mehran? He's back in San Francisco, so we caught up in a Zoom call last week. The following Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity and brevity.
It's been about three weeks since the big night, right?
You mean since I peaked in life?
Haha! How are you feeling about it?
Pretty great! The next day, l was exhausted. We had an after-party someplace in Chinatown, I think, and we were up pretty late—until 4 four am. And then my girlfriend was hosting a lot of our friends at her apartment. I woke up at 1 pm the next day, and by that time everyone had already left, because a lot of people flew in and they all flew out. It was weird going from this extremely social environment with 65 friends to the next day just me and my girlfriend.
Then Monday your article came out, the New York Times and Post articles came out, and then it was huge rush—a huge frenzy of calls. That night at 11 pm, someone from Good Morning America says, "Can you guys do an interview with us?" Inside Edition reached out saying "Hey, can we talk to you guys?" A bunch of media channels like BBC Radio, Canadian radio stations, New York radio. An Australian game show reached out.
Initially it was a lot of fun! We wanted to talk to everybody. But eventually we were like, "Jesus Christ. This is too much! Everyone's asking the same questions.”
One that was cool to do was BBC Persian. I'm Iranian and BBC Persian is a big deal in Iran. But Iranian people didn't really get the whole thing. Half of them were like, "Wherever Iranians are, they shine bright!" and half of them were like, "Wow, Iranians are committing fraud."
And then a lot of friends from the past reached out, like a friend that I knew from game forums when I was twelve. And now it's basically completely died down.
What's it like going back to normal life?
If I could live that high stress, high-falutin’ life very single day, I would! That was a lot of fun. I joked, "Oh, my God, I'm a has-been now." And every time I go to an event or a party they're like "Oh, my God, the Steak Guy!” So now I’m the Steak Guy. I like to say I thought I was more multi-dimensional than that.
What was the big night like?
I actually didn't get to do any cooking, believe it or not. My friend Kevin kind of saved the day. I thought that the steaks should be pan-seared because that's how I make steaks. But then I was like, "Oh, this takes 25 minutes, and we only have six burners." The math didn't check out. So him and my friend Chan were devising strategies. Like reverse searing would work because we have more oven space, and yada, yada, yada. So he ended up leading the steaks.
My job was to keep in short-term memory exactly what everyone was doing at any given time. And that was pretty fun. I did a little bit of basically everything. The kitchen was super high-stress, but we got into the flow.
We had like some mishaps here and there, but nothing major. Someone dined and dashed, for example, which was pretty crazy. Can you believe that?
I'm glad at least one person did that. That makes it even funnier.
It'd be funny if the bill wasn't $350!
Around 11 pm or so, everyone started leaving and we were on a strict deadline to get everything out by midnight or get charged like $200 for every 15 minutes on the furniture. So within a span of like an hour, we had to disassemble an entire kitchen and the entire dining area and put it into a truck, which was pretty stressful! And then we cleaned the whole venue and everything. That was the night.
How did it work out financially?
We expected it to break even and maybe slightly profit, but a bunch of things didn't contribute to that. One was that tropical storm Ophelia was happening, which led to like 30 fewer people than we expected. That's a lot of money there. The dine-and-dashers were another thing. We comped a meal or two because they weren't fully satisfied. We didn't want to give them a bad experience. And three people disputed their [credit card] payments afterwards, saying the service was not as described. So we lost a bit of money. Haha!
What reactions did you get from diners?
My hope was that everyone would eat there and have a great time, a weird experience. And then read about it in the New York Times and say, "Holy cow, that's what was going on!" And I think that's more or less what happened.
A bunch of people texted our number later saying, "I just saw the New York Times. I realized something was strange, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Good job, you guys!"
I knew my readers would love the story because they love stuff like this, but I was very surprised that the comments from the Times readers were also almost all, "This is so great! It's so fun!"
Yeah. But the New York Post and Daily Mail had the most absurd, crazy comments like, "Oh, a bunch of liberals pranking a bunch of liberals—nothing better than that!” Or, "Oh, this is what a Biden country looks like!" Or, "This is being celebrated in the media because the media is also in the business of fooling people." How does everything become a proxy war for other issues?
Did anyone approach you with a book deal or job offer?
A bunch of talent agencies reached out saying, "Oh my God, this could become a movie. I'd like to represent you."
We just took the one that had the most name recognition. We talked to them and I'm like, "Oh, this is cool." But I don't want this to become my whole thing in life. If I can just be involved in a hands-off way, I'd love to do that.
If you go on the steakhouse website, it now says Mehran’s was a “Project of Meridian.” What’s that?
It's like Mehran and [co-conspirators] Riley and Danielle—a mixture of our names. We hope to do more interesting stuff as time goes on. If we do another fun thing, it will be like, "From Meridian, the same people who did the steakhouse." Maybe that won't go anywhere, but maybe it's good to preserve the optionality.
It has to be something completely different, right?
We don't want to be one-hit wonders. And we also don't want to be, like, steakhouse sellouts. So, you know, we've got to figure out what another fun thing is.
But the steakhouse evolved organically. I don't want to spend my whole day thinking, "Oh my God, how can I do another funny thing?" As other organic things come by, I think I've been emboldened to pursue them to the extreme.
My last question: I feel that you belong in New York City. When are you going to move back?
I'm working in tech, and San Francisco is the place where tech happens at the moment. My girlfriend is in New York—I'll be in New York this Friday to Monday or so. I mean, I love New York a lot. I hope to be there as often as possible.
I'm glad it all went so well. I just want to say, you made a lot of people really happy!
I know! At the airport, one of my friends took me aside and said, "Thank you guys, for doing this. I have never seen this many people just completely happy." And I was like, "Oh my God, thank you. Wow." We made a lot of new friends, saw a lot of old friends, and we still have the Mehran's Steakhouse group chat. We still joke about it every now and again. It's like a collective myth now, which is pretty cool.
CAFÉ ANNE SURVEY
Who’s a Real New Yorker?
I got so ambitious, in fact, that I didn't have room to include the results of two bonus questions included in the poll. So I ran one set last week and saved the final question for today.
Bonus Question #2: Name Someone You Consider a Real New Yorker
After tallying the results of 50 surveys with NYC residents (including CAFÉ ANNE readers and randos corralled on the street), I was very pleased to find the top response was Fran Leibowitz—she's my pick too!
Ms. Leibowitz is a writer, but the high-school drop-out, former cab driver and dedicated smoker is mostly known for talking. People pay just to go see her rattle on because she's so sharp, funny and straightforward. And she talks a lot about New York City!
While she’s likely the most judgmental and opinionated person in the universe, she's so clearly having fun that it never comes off as mean. That’s a real New Yorker!
Other celebrities getting multiple mentions: Robert De Niro, Spike Lee and Derek Jeter. Also Anthony Bourdain, "Because he embraced failure and did not give a f—," wrote Eric in Clinton Hill.
Many respondents suggested entire categories of people. "Any cabdriver," wrote Bella in Yorkville. "Anyone with a rent-controlled apartment," said Maria in Williamsburg. "Anyone who works for the Sanitation or Parks Department," suggested Cory in Park Slope.
"Whatever migrant just arrived in search of a better life, just like my great grandparents did a hundred years ago—that is a real New Yorker," said Steve in Prospect Heights.
But the majority of respondents nominated someone they knew personally, often a friend or family member.
My favorite: "I had this super when I lived on the UWS. His name was and is Tony, because of course it is," wrote Laurel in North Brooklyn. "He was always hustling something, always busy, always running late for the next thing. When he wasn't supering, he was hawking his window cleaning service. I thought he liked me, then when I moved out, he unleashed full rage at me for not leaving my apartment clean enough (even though I'd cleaned it both myself and professionally). Tony did not f— around. That to me, is a real New Yorker. We do not f— around."
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