Montreal's No. 1 restaurant on Tripadvisor didn't really exist
Fake listing for Le Nouveau Duluth raises questions about online tourism platforms
Yoo Jung has been running Le Spot St-Denis, at the corner of Duluth Avenue and St-Denis Street for 22 years. Her flower shop is supposedly right next to the top-rated restaurant in Montreal on Tripadvisor, Le Nouveau Duluth, but she says she's never heard of it.
She says she knows the area very well and tourists often ask her for directions to restaurants.
"But Nouveau Duluth? No," she said — and something about the online listing seemed off to her.
"There's a very high ceiling [in the photos]," she said. "On Duluth there are no high ceilings ... it looks fake."
The restaurant was at the number one spot in the travel app's city ratings, but one look at its listing was enough to give pause to foodies.
Le Nouveau Duluth does not exist but the ease with which it rose to the top of a travel advice site is a clear example of how easy it is to create buzz with no substance behind it — and what challenges real restaurants face getting noticed in the algorithm.
The page was taken down after CBC sent a request for a response from Tripadvisor. The popular travel site responded saying stunts that create a fake restaurant listing are "uncommon occurrences and do not share the characteristics of genuine instances of fraud."
"On this occasion, a failure in human moderation practices meant the fake listing remained live on the platform longer than it should have. The listings — including the reviews and photos associated with the listing — are now inactive."
For a restaurant to be listed on Tripadvisor, it has to provide a phone number and a website. The linked URL on Le Nouveau Duluth's didn't lead to an active site.
Le Nouveau Duluth has 85 reviews, all of them giving five stars.
The top review is titled "Can't believe this place really exist." Most reviewers left only a single review on Tripadvisor — for Le Nouveau Duluth.
The listing had just four photos: two showing what looks like a living room, one of a sports bar and the last of comedian Charles Deschamps, whose name is linked to the restaurant's listed phone number. CBC confirmed the phone uses iMessage.
When CBC checked Quebec's registrar of companies, Le Nouveau Duluth was not listed. The location pin leads to the corner of Duluth Avenue and St-Denis Street, but no restaurant named Le Nouveau Duluth is in sight.
CBC asked four neighbouring businesses if they'd ever heard of Le Nouveau Duluth, including Le Spot St-Denis. All said no.
CBC also called the number listed on the Tripadvisor page but received no response.
The man behind the gag
Deschamps has confirmed he set up the listing as a joke with one of his colleagues. The pictures were of another friend's basement.
"I received one call a month to book," Deschamps told Radio-Canada. "I said we were full for the next two months. When people would ask for the menu, I would respond with 'we make tapas!'"
Deschamps said he had to take the geolocation tag off the website after someone showed up at his friend's house.
Beyond that, Deschamps says he finds sites like Tripadvisor to be problematic.
"One person destroyed a friend's spot on social media," said Deschamps. "She asked 22 people to leave a one-star review just because a wine glass was spilled on a dress."
The comedian says his point is that platforms like TripAdvisor don't work well and he intends to keep pranking them, as much to show them up as to entertain his audience.
'Easy to spot' fakes
Though he's never encountered a fake restaurant on Tripadvisor, cybersecurity expert Terry Cutler says fake reviews are relatively easy to spot.
"If you look at the reviews, a lot of the time they're so vague, like 'Great job,' 'Keep it up,' it has nothing to do with what the review is about," he said.
"If you start seeing nothing but five-star reviews — there's never any negative comments — that should be a sign that there's something wrong."
LISTEN: How the investigation unfolded:
Cutler says it's easy for anyone to subscribe to a bot service and flood websites like Google or Tripadvisor with fake reviews and climb the ranks — to the detriment of legitimate businesses.
"So if you really have a good five-star restaurant that's in the rankings, now it's going to get deranked because this fake restaurant is taking over," he said.
Graziella Battista, owner of Restaurant Graziella in Old Montreal, says listings like Le Nouveau Duluth are "unacceptable."
"Of course it's worrisome. People who travel rely on these sites that review restaurants and any type of place that tourists visit," she said.
Battista pointed out that, not that long ago, restaurants earned their ratings from established restaurant critics like "the Lesley Chestermans, and all the Marie-Claude Lorties".
She also mentioned a government system that classified establishments with quality assessments. Now, she says, that responsibility has been handed over to online platforms where "everyone's an expert."
She says these websites need more regulation so real restaurants don't get pushed down in rankings.
Quebec's Ministry of Tourism says it has no plan to regulate online restaurant rankings or to introduce a credible ranking system for tourist attractions.
"It's a scam," Battista said of Le Nouveau Duluth. "You can tell when you go on their page and it's number one in Montreal out of 3,670 restaurants."
She says it's getting harder and harder to trust information online.
"In the features, they do everything: they deliver, they do takeout, reservations, outdoor seating, buffet, private dinings, private parking, they have a full bar, wine and beer, waterfront, live music, jazz bar, it's a drive-through, they're on the beach, they have a playground."
with files from Radio-Canada
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