Discover more from CAFÉ ANNE
My Most Bonkers Story Ever!
Mystery! Steak!! Cake!!! Lies!!!! Crazy Kids These Days!!!!!
Welcome to Issue #89 of CAFÉ ANNE!
Huge news, as always!
First, save the date! Along with fellow newsletteristas Jillian Hess of “Noted” fame and Kimia Dargahi (“Ruminations”), I will be co-hosting an unofficial Substack meetup for local readers and writers. This will happen Saturday, October 14 from 2-4 pm in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Everyone is welcome—I’d love to meet you! You can RSVP here.
Second, to celebrate the upcoming two-year anniversary of CAFÉ ANNE, I am conducting a big survey on the topic, “What Makes a Real New Yorker?” If you’d like to participate, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll reply with the questions. Responses are due this Wenesday, September 26. Sorry, the survey is for NYC residents only. You have two days to move back!
Finally, huge dog-walker-with-twelve-dogs-on-a-leash-and-a-PhD-in-Romanian-Literature shoutouts to new paid subscribers Heather J. and Bob C. That’s enough $$$ to board one dog for one night in a NYC kennel!
I’m very excited about this week’s issue, of course. I can finally reveal the story behind the Mehran’s Steakhouse Mystery I first wrote about in Issue #71. It may be my most bonkers story ever! Please enjoy.
Mehran’s Steakhouse Mystery: Solved!
A lot of my favorite stories come from readers, but this one beats them all. It's got everything: A mystery! Steak! Cake! Lies! Intrigue! Crazy kids!
It started in April with a letter from reader Adam C. on the Upper East Side. While looking for a place nearby to take his parents to dinner, he came across a Google business listing for Mehran's Steakhouse. The place 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.”
“Fantastic steak and venison; Mehran walked into the restaurant at the start of the night drenched in blood, carrying a freshly killed deer that he just caught in the forest upstate,” raved reviewer Ethan Ding. “He then prepared it in the kitchen, and made it an unforgettable meal.”
But did this restaurant actually exist? A Google search turned up an ultra-minimalist website, but no other mentions.
"It just sounds too good to be true," Adam wrote. “I think it is worthy of investigation, maybe a profile of Mehran if you can find him.”
Time for a field trip!
I took a train into Manhattan to check out 224 East 83rd Street, the restaurant’s supposed location. It was a standard Upper East Side townhouse. No sign of a steakhouse!
I interviewed a half-dozen residents and shopkeepers on the block and showed them the Google listing. Several speculated that Mehran's was a "secret restaurant," but no one had seen any steakhouse activity.
"I've been on the roof, spying on the backyard, and it looks like a normal back yard,” said one neighbor, Jenna. “I would have noticed if they were slaughtering anything. I would have been like, 'What the hell! Call 911! They’re killing animals!’”
I knocked on the townhouse door. I didn't expect anyone to answer, so the young man in jeans and a tie-dye tee who answered the knock caught me caught totally off guard.
He gave me a hard stare. “Are you here for the…?” he said.
Behind him was a dimly lit room with a long sofa and perhaps the world’s largest wall-mounted television.
“For the restaurant?” I said.
“No,” he said.
“There’s not a steakhouse here?”
He shook his head. “What do you want?”
An older man with a black beard joined him at the door, dressed in a cardigan and skinny tie, arms folded over his chest.
I explained that I wrote a blog and that a reader had asked me to investigate a possible steakhouse at this address. “Could I look around, or ask a couple questions?” I said.
“No,” said the second man.
A third fellow with long hair, leather pants and motorcycle boots came up from behind and shoved past me into the house.
Then the first man shut the door in my face.
When I got home, I left several voicemails for the restaurant. Then I wrote it all up in a story I posted in Issue #71, "A NYC Steakhouse Mystery!"
"I’m convinced that Mehran’s Steak House is a total fiction," I wrote. "But that just begs the question—who would bother to construct such an elaborate online prank, and why?"
A few days later, I got a call from Mehran himself.
Mehran, it turns out, is Mehran Jalali, a startup founder who lives in 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."
I agreed to keep quiet.
It started more than two years ago. Mehran was renting the entire townhouse at 224 East 83rd Street with more than a dozen friends. "Call it a hacker house," he said. "It was rented out to a group of tech people, 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 and guests 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.
"So we created a wait list," Mehran said. "Guess how many names we have?"
"A few hundred?" I ventured.
"500!" he said.
"We moved out a year ago," he added. "It's now a sober living place. But the goal is, in the fall, we will launch an actual steakhouse. We'll have a real steakhouse going for one night, pretending it's always been there!"
I asked him to keep me posted, and then forgot about it. It seemed unlikely that Mehran and his friends would follow through on such an elaborate prank.
To my surprise, I got a text message from Mehran at the end of July: "Hello Anne! We have updates on the steakhouse that we need to discuss with you!"
I gave him a ring. They were actually planning to execute, having located a swanky event space to rent and agreements from several dozen friends to staff the fake eatery on Saturday, September 23. Mehran himself would be cooking the steaks. They planned to offer reservations to everyone on the waitlist, which had grown to 1,000 would-be diners.
Mehran offered me a reservation on the big night so I could write about it, on one condition: I had to delete the story I’d posted, at least temporarily. It was now the top Google result when anyone did a search for “Mehran’s Steakhouse.” Mehran worried it would dissuade folks from making reservations.
I gave this some thought. If I agreed, I wouldn't just be covering a story, I’d be aiding and abetting a massive prank!
On the other hand, it sounded like so much fun.
"Okay!" I said.
Mehran flew in from San Francisco last week to prepare for the big night. I met him in person for the first time on Thursday, on a park bench in Union Square.
As I was amazed to discover, he's just a 21-year-old kid—a college drop-out, with a lot of energy!
The preparation he’d put into the prank was truly over the top. He wasn't sure what a steakhouse was like, he admitted, so he and his co-conspirators, Riley Walz and Danielle Egan, visited several examples to get familiar with the genre. They hired a chef to consult on the menu. They booked the event space and wrangled a phone number with an old-school Manhattan 212 area code for the reservations line. They got health permits and a one-night liquor license from the city.
Next, they called everyone on the wait list, explaining that while there was still no availability at the Mehran's location on the Upper East Side, 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 in the days leading up to the big night, they'd scurried around the city ordering flowers, supplies and ingredients for the four-course, $114 prix-fix menu including 40 pounds of veal, eight dozen bottles of wine and 100 pounds of steak.
None of this came cheap. Mehran wouldn’t say how it cost, but did note that if most of the 120 guests showed and payed for dinner, he’d hopefully break even, or make a small profit. You do the math, but I’m estimating it cost at least $10,000.
Mehran also told me he had 60 friends volunteering to serve as hostesses, waiters, busboys and cooks for the evening—most of whom were flying or driving in from out of town. He'd even rented a chef's uniform.
"I'm so excited. Like, very excited!" he said.
I asked if he was concerned that guests might discover the caper and get upset.
"People are going to get great steak at a beautiful venue, with well-dressed people," he said. "That's what they want, and they're going to get it. It's like, the joke’s not on them. They're just not in on a joke that is happening around them. It's like reality theater!"
If I were a guest and discovered the caper, I'm sure I'd be delighted. But steakhouse people tend to be on the conservative side. I was still feeling a little guilty about abetting the scheme, especially when Mehran told me it was the publication of my original story that convinced them to actually go through with the prank.
"I definitely feel like I'm being a bad journalist," I told him. "But I also feel that, I don't know, it's worth it!"
Mehran said his only real concern was the quality of the meal: "But I've made steak like, ten times in the past month. So I don't think the food is going to be bad."
His hope? That his guests would enjoy a wonderful dinner and only later discover the deception—maybe on the local news.
"Well, for me, if it goes really well, that's a great story," I said. “And if it goes terribly, that's also a great story!”
Mehran, in turn, reflected that he is only 21. So even if everything went terribly wrong, he’d have plenty of time to recover.
"Thanks for being a bad journalist!" he added.
I was so excited for Saturday night! When it finally came around, I met my "friend" Aharon at a subway stop and we walked through the pouring rain to the fake restaurant location on East 11th Street. We were impressed! The rented venue's grand limestone and wrought iron facade—not mention the imposing doorman—made for a very convincing steakhouse. Inside, four young ladies in cocktail dresses (Mehran's friends, of course), were manning the coat check and reservations desk.
The entry was hung with vintage Mehran's posters from past decades along with black-and-white photos of Chef Mehran meeting the likes of Marilyn Monroe, JFK, the Clintons and Barack Obama.
The dining room, meanwhile, was a vast, high-ceilinged, minimalist affair with a ghostly image of a giant steak projected on the back wall. The 42 tables were adorned with white tablecloths and vases of white roses bearing the Mehran's logo. A string quartet recording played covers of Lady Gaga, Toto and Rick Astley. The guests, of all ages, were largely dressed in business casual, but I saw a few in formal evening wear.
Our waiter, Som, came by and introduced us to the restaurant.
"We have a number of locations in NYC, 13 across the Americas and about 100 in Iran," he said.
"I didn't know Iran was big for steakhouses,” I said.
"Oh yes," said Som. "That's our homeland. We're proud of our Persian heritage. Myself, I'm a descendent of Cyrus the Great, king of kings in Persia..."
"We're familiar," said Aharon.
"What do we look like, a bunch of rubes?" I said.
Som introduced us to the prix fixe menu, the "Bovine Circle of Life." The meal would start with a spring meadow salad, representing birth, and end with angel food and devil's food cake, marking the afterlife.
"The sommelier will be by in just a second," he concluded. "If you're looking for something non-alcoholic, I'd recommend the tall glass of milk—Mehran's specialty!"
So how was the food? I'm not a fussy eater, so I'm not a good judge, but overall it was excellent! The salad dressing may have come from a bottle, and the veal meatballs tasted like standard meatloaf, but my generous portion of ribeye steak and rosemary potatoes were flavorful and perfectly done.
The service, meanwhile, was charming and attentive—our water was refilled a half-dozen times.
There were snafus, of course. The sommelier came by for our drink orders after the salad course. The steak was delayed, and cool upon arrival. Dessert appeared while we were still eating steak. I couldn't get a cappuccino. At one point, the ventilator stopped working and the dining room filled with smoke.
But I had to credit Mehran and his team. It was as good as many fancy restaurants I've been to in NYC, and these kids were just winging it!
My favorite part of the evening came at the end, when our waiter revealed that he knew me—I'd interviewed him by phone last year, for a business publication, about his startup.
"We're doing really well—we closed on a round and we're starting on our Series A!" he said.
Not your typical reveal from a waiter.
Before heading home, I waited outside the restaurant to interview some guests. The first to come through the exit were a husband and wife couple. They live on the Upper East Side—just two blocks from the "original" Mehran’s location, they told me—and had been trying to get a reservation since they learned of the restaurant in January.
"Then we got a phone call," said the husband (I decided not to include their names or photo in this story for fear of embarrassing them). "They said, 'We have an opening,' and I was like, 'Yeah! Absolutely!'"
They’ve been to a lot of steakhouses, they said, and the food at Mehran's reminded them of a legendary steakhouse they'd visited in Florence.
"It was interesting, the minimalistic design," the husband added. "It's almost like the MOMA—clearly designed in a specific way that you're really focused on just the food, not distracted by other stuff, which I thought was kind of cool."
"How many stars would you guys give it?" I asked.
"I'd give it five stars,” said the wife.
"Five out of five, for sure!" agreed the husband. "I'd definitely come back. Just to be curious what their new menu might be. I have a feeling this is not their menu all the time. I'd be curious what Mehran is up to, eight months from now, when we get back here. I'm sure there will be another long wait."
I thought about telling them the whole truth, but they looked so happy. So I just nodded my head and smiled. "Perfect!" I said.
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