Olio e Piú looks much like a handful of other interchangeable midrange Italian restaurants in the West Village. Although it’s ostensibly “inspired by the simplicity of Neapolitan cuisine,” it serves the usual pan-regional mix of pizzas, pastas, charcuterie, and seafood in a high-ceilinged dining room with outdoor seating on Greenwich Avenue. It opened in 2010 to mixed reviews, with one particularly scathing take by the Infatuation calling the pizza “heavy, sloppy and unappetizing.” Yet on a Monday night earlier this fall, the restaurant was packed. Despite its mediocre reputation in New York’s food world, Olio e Piú was busy in part because at the time, it was ranked the No. 1 restaurant in New York City — on TripAdvisor.
While New Yorkers are more likely to turn to user-generated review sites like Foursquare, Yelp, or Google Maps to navigate the city’s shifting restaurant landscape, TripAdvisor holds considerable clout with international travelers, especially those coming from the European Union, which has 53 percent of all listings. Last year, the site claimed more than 490 million unique monthly visitors across 49 global markets, and its reported annual revenue of $1.62 billion eclipses both Yelp’s and Foursquare’s by a margin of hundreds of millions. Although the company does not disclose the exact number of visitors per city, Nicki Hoffman, associate director of marketing for TripAdvisor Restaurants, says that on average, 80 percent of unique visitors to its New York pages are coming from outside of the city. More than 70 percent of overall traffic comes from outside of the United States.
And just this week, TripAdvisor announced an official partnership with the Michelin Guide. Michelin stars, Bib Gourmand, and plate rankings will soon appear on TripAdvisor restaurant pages globally. As part of the partnership, TripAdvisor acquired an online reservation platform called Bookatable — and, combined with its own reservation system, TheFork, became the “largest online restaurant booking platform” in 22 markets.
In other words, for restaurants hoping to capture a slice of the $44 billion that New York’s 65 million annual tourists spend, TripAdvisor is one of the most effective ways to do it. Those who capitalize on its service can win big, so some restaurants are going to great — and perhaps questionable — lengths to beat the game.
In New York, possibly no one is winning more from TripAdvisor than the Group, a local restaurant conglomerate that serves some 10,000 customers each month. Currently, four of the top 10 slots on TripAdvisor’s New York restaurant rankings are owned by the company: Olio e Piú; Boucherie West Village, a 320-seat French brasserie opened by a former Pastis chef; and its spinoffs, Boucherie Union Square and Petite Boucherie. None of these restaurants are on any critics’ hot lists, but all of them consistently dominate the upper echelons of TripAdvisor’s rankings.
The Group is aware of TripAdvisor’s impact on its restaurants. Like many of the top restaurants in town, the company accepts reservations through TripAdvisor’s OpenTable platform, allowing them to collect data on how many customers come through the site. According to an email statement provided by Yousuf Hasan, CEO of the Group, more than 50 percent of customers at some of their restaurants are visitors to NYC. Because of that, TripAdvisor “is the only review site they know,” Hasan says.
Diners at Olio e Piú, which has more than 2,400 reviews, certainly seemed to be aware of the restaurant’s TripAdvisor status. Many asked for a specific server, whose name appears in hundreds of five-star reviews on the site. On the night that I visited, a manager informed my table that the server was not there that evening, although she said people must love her, given the number of requests she received.
Other highly ranked restaurants have noticed a boost from TripAdvisor, too. Michael’s of Brooklyn — a respected third-generation red-sauce restaurant that’s been open since 1964, and is currently the top restaurant in its borough on TripAdvisor — gets many out-of-town customers despite being in Marine Park, a neighborhood decidedly off the beaten tourist track. “They’ll say, ‘You’re No. 1 on TripAdvisor, let’s see what you can do,’” says Fred Cacace, owner of the restaurant. “It’s like test-driving a Ferrari.”
Philip Guardione — chef-owner of Piccola Cucina, a group of Sicilian restaurants with two branches in the New York TripAdvisor top 10 — estimates roughly 25 percent of his business comes through OpenTable. He says that servers at all of his restaurants are instructed to ask customers for reviews and that he has changed his menu in the past based on TripAdvisor feedback. Club A Steakhouse in Midtown, a restaurant that rarely pops up in food-world conversations around steak, has more than 3,800 reviews and regularly occupies the No. 1 spot on TripAdvisor. Owner Bruno Selimaj, who has personally responded to hundreds of reviews, has called TripAdvisor “very important” to his business.
“We’ve seen from experience over the years that restaurant owners who respond to reviews and stay engaged really rise to the top,” says Kevin Carter, associate director of communications at TripAdvisor.
As with other user-generated review sites, TripAdvisor takes work on the part of restaurants to stay high on the list. When anything less than a near-perfect average score can deter customers, a single negative review can be devastating. The Group has found that a single one-star review has the same weight as five five-star reviews, meaning that targeting people likely to complain is the most effective means of pulling up the overall average. Even after restaurants land on the top 10, they can’t stop putting work into TripAdvisor. Though the platform wouldn’t divulge exactly how the algorithm works, a spokesperson confirmed that length, quantity, and recency of reviews are primary driving factors for how the restaurants are ranked. It’s a system illustrated by Club A Steakhouse: Though it enjoyed weeks at No. 1 this fall, by the end of November, a few negative reviews dragged it down to No. 69.
“We used to sit around at our meetings and complain about the online platforms,” says Dominick Pepe, corporate chef for the Group. “Then we systematically started putting in procedures to evaluate our online presence.”
Those procedures include a lengthy weekly staff meeting in which they analyze every review. The Group also encourages diners to leave reviews by having servers either ask directly or leave a branded card on the table with the check, and staff members have reached out to people who’ve left negative reviews to try to make amends. The company has even fired staff members over too many bad online reviews. After years of fine-tuning, the Group’s methods are so effective that when Boucherie Union Square opened in February 2018, it shot up the TripAdvisor rankings almost immediately.
“Being in the top 10 is a reflection of our involvement in [TripAdvisor]. We put in the work,” Pepe says. “This didn’t happen overnight.”
But whether or not tourists should even be paying attention to TripAdvisor’s restaurant recommendations is a complicated question. Trafficking in fake Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter followers is already a booming business, with numerous companies dedicated to artificially propping up numbers for everyone from politicians to celebrities. When fraudulent reviews on Sephora by a popular cosmetics brand prompted a firestorm, the CEO of Fakespot, a company dedicated to catching fake reviews, told Wired that the “plague” of fake product reviews on sites including Amazon and Walmart “has reached epidemic proportions.”
Fraudsters appear to be finding their way onto TripAdvisor, too. Last year, an extensive investigation by the Times of London claimed that a third of TripAdvisor reviews are fake. A 2019 analysis of nearly 250,000 reviews of hotels in major tourist destinations by a U.K. consumer group found that one out of seven reviews contained “blatant hallmarks” of being fake. In 2017, Vice journalist Oobah Butler, who had previously been paid to write fake TripAdvisor reviews, used a burner phone, a few frozen TV dinners, and an avalanche of fake reviews to transform his shed into the top-rated restaurant in London.
“While there have been some media reports questioning our capabilities, we’re really in a leadership position in terms of encouraging more transparency within the industry about some of the things that companies are doing to combat review fraud,” TripAdvisor’s Carter says in response. In its ongoing battle, TripAdvisor has done everything from demoting restaurants to initiating an investigation that resulted in an Italian review fraudster being sentenced to jail for nine months.
TripAdvisor has especially powerful incentives right now to prove that it can effectively fight fake reviews. In response to shrinking revenue from hotel ads, the company has begun to pivot partially to content creation and bespoke media offerings. TripAdvisor’s pitch to prospective advertisers is that it already has a highly engaged, global audience and that it’s a safer, more trustworthy digital space than Facebook. Within the last two years, it hired Lindsay Nelson, a former Vox media executive, and Christine Maguire, previously of Condé Nast. In 2019, the company released its first-ever Review Transparency Report, in which it claims that 73 percent of fraudulent reviews are detected before they ever make it to the site.
Still, there are signs that fake reviews may be a bigger problem in New York’s restaurant rankings than TripAdvisor either lets on or realizes. Upon closer examination of the Group’s TripAdvisor presence, certain irregularities become clear: More than 60 percent of the five-star reviews on Olio e Piú’s page come from user profiles that have never reviewed another restaurant. Prior to 2017, that figure was 5 percent. By comparison, at another West Village Italian restaurant, Via Carota, that statistic is currently 1 percent.
While some of these one-off review accounts may well be from real customers, many of them follow a suspiciously similar format. Two consecutive reviews, both titled “10/10 Would Recommend,” belong to users named @olioepiulover and @olioepiulover2. For Boucherie Union Square and Boucherie West Village, both restaurants owned by the Group, the rate of five-star reviews from single-review profiles is 48 percent and 56 percent respectively, while Petite Boucherie, which has a lower price point and caters more to the local market, is 30 percent.
In the process of analyzing nearly 3,500 five-star reviews for the four restaurants, Eater identified more than 100 suspect accounts. More than 80 of these consisted exclusively of five-star reviews of restaurants belonging to the Group. Users @Pioneer23261782059 and @Dado1111 both left four glowing reviews each of Olio e Piú and one of Boucherie Union Square over the course of less than a year, while @822katerinad left four rave reviews for Boucherie West Village, four for Olio e Piú, three for Boucherie Union Square, and one for Petite Boucherie. In some cases, identical or nearly identical review text, including the names of servers, appeared at multiple restaurants. Many of the accounts used the same stock imagery for profile photos, and more than a few seemed intent on mentioning special promotions, such as Olio e Piú’s weekly discount on bottles of wine.
When asked for comment, Hasan, the Group’s CEO, said that he thinks all of their reviews are from people “who have dined and paid at the restaurant.” “We take any allegations or suggestions of fake reviews very seriously. We have never fabricated accounts or reviews,” he wrote in an email statement. “Reviews are a cornerstone in all our operations. We deeply care about what our guests think. We address all negative reviews by reaching out to guests and inviting them back. We do encourage our servers to approach guests who have had exceptional experiences to leave a review, if they so choose.”
While it is possible, as suggested in his email, that the Group’s restaurants have a devoted local following, the idea that one person would leave seven five-star reviews of a single restaurant while ignoring virtually all others is hard to swallow. Examples of reviews from these accounts appear as recently as mid-November and extend back several years across all four restaurants. In a number of cases, suspect accounts consist entirely of multiple exuberant reviews of one of the Group’s restaurants, followed by several glowing appraisals of a tour company in Egypt, or one particular bar in North Macedonia, a place that’s known to be a source for fake reviews.
Setting aside questions of accuracy, TripAdvisor’s algorithm fails to capture the diversity that makes New York’s restaurant scene so significant in the first place. In a recent examination of the top 100 restaurants on TripAdvisor, 27 percent were Italian, 10 percent were French, and 31 percent were American, with a heavy emphasis on steakhouses. New York may be awash in ambitious and regionally specific Chinese food, yet this list does not include a single Chinese restaurant. Places specializing in African dishes, like chef Pierre Tham’s critically lauded Teranga in East Harlem, are nowhere to be seen. Fine dining restaurants also tended to fare poorly, with the notable exception of decades-old stalwarts such as Daniel, Per Se, and Le Bernardin. TripAdvisor’s aggregated data favors the established over the new, the safe over the daring, and the Eurocentric over absolutely everything else.
Even if TripAdvisor manages to clamp down on fake reviews, its homogenized rankings are not an accurate measure of the zeitgeist. Atomix and Frenchette — two of the most critically acclaimed restaurants to open last year — clock in at No. 4,754 and No. 3,562, respectively, on TripAdvisor. And a mere five-minute walk from Olio e Piú is Via Carota, a James Beard Award winner and an Eater 38 member that serves comparably priced pastas and antipasti. Its TripAdvisor ranking: No. 317.
Diana Hubbell is a New York-based food and culture journalist.
Illustrations by Eater; Signpost: Christoph Burgstedt/Science Photo Library; Marquee: iStock/Getty Images Plus; Woman’s legs: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Contributor; Man’s legs: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Contributor