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Restaurants & Bars

A Creepy New Food Blog is Using a Houston Chef’s Identity to Write Texas Restaurant Reviews

The real chef is unaffiliated with the website and is trying to figure out how to stop it. Nobody knows who is controlling the AI review writer.
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A screenshot of The Pass and Provisions website, with a lot of SEO-friendly words in the headlines.

The Heritage Table is one of Frisco’s best restaurants. Everybody agrees on that, including a new Texas restaurant review website called The Pass and Provisions, which ranks The Heritage Table number one on its Frisco dining list.

But all is not as it seems. The Pass and Provisions’ restaurant reviews—more than 150, all in the form of numbered listicles and all published since mid-March—appear to be written by artificial intelligence. That’s why its glowing writeup of The Heritage Table suggests that diners “step foot to city of Frisco in Texas” to try its “common American foods.”

Worse, the review website deceptively appropriates the name of a Houston restaurant that closed in 2019, as well as the name of the restaurant’s owner, to conceal the identity of whoever is publishing these reviews. (The Pass and Provisions was a dual restaurant concept: The Pass was high-end and Provisions more casual. I visited Provisions once and had a good time.)

The real restaurant’s former co-owner, Terrence Gallivan, is falsely credited as the author of the new website’s restaurant reviews. The new site’s “about” page provides Gallivan’s biography, and its contact page lists the defunct restaurant’s phone number, as well as an address that is now home to Houston restaurant Bludorn.

Gallivan found out about the website when I contacted him. He called the impersonation “very bizarre” and has repeatedly reported it to the site’s domain hosts to no avail. (Gallivan is also busy preparing to open a new pizzeria and crudo bar, Elro, in Houston.)

Up in Frisco, The Heritage Table knows all about the fake review. Its regulars have been amiably mocking the writeup on Facebook, poking fun at AI-created turns of phrase like “a chilled glass of cocktail.” Restaurant owner Richard Vana says he found the article when he ran a regular Google search for his business’ name.

“This one turned up pretty high on Google,” Vana says. “It was above Yelp. It was first page of Google. I read the first paragraph and I was like, ‘Alright, something’s wrong.’”

So who is impersonating Gallivan and posting AI-generated restaurant reviews in an attempt to game search engine rankings and sucker diners who search for terms like “best new restaurants Frisco”?

My first tactic, a simple whois search, turned up nothing. The website’s new owners are using a European privacy service, Withheld for Privacy, to conceal their names and locations. European Union law permits this sort of privacy protection for website owners under the same law that allows you to reject cookies on major websites.

The mystery owners used a hosting site called Namecheap to purchase the domain, but Namecheap held no leads. I sent an email to a listed forwarding address and received no reply. Gallivan and I separately wrote to Namecheap’s abuse contact and received no reply.

Although journalists and hobbyists have used AI to generate food articles for amusement, this represents something different: an unknown creator is likely using AI to game search engines and rankings, so that its fake aggregated reviews can generate more web traffic than actual reviews written by human beings. Obviously, it is a threat for a publication like ours that our lists, which are created after old-fashioned research over years of experience (and at our expense), are competing with “lists” generated by a computer and published under fake names.

“What is a little scary about it to me is, you fix a couple articles, iron out some noun/verb agreement, and I would believe it was written by a person,” Vana says. But he is also worried about something else: that AI reviews could mislead possible customers by printing falsehoods. (The Pass & Provisions’ top recommendation in Deep Ellum is permanently closed.)

“We’ve been around for about seven years,” Vana explains. “We were a completely different restaurant in the first three years. If they’re going through these [old] reviews and pulling everything, they’re going to say what a great brunch we have. We haven’t had a brunch in three years. If they don’t take recency into account, that’s one of the things I would be concerned about.”

So, yes, this AI review spam is alarming for anyone who cares about good restaurants and the discussion around them. But it is also funny. Here, unedited, are 10 of my favorite finds from The Pass and Provisions’ alarming attempt to spam the internet with computerized reviews:

  • On Hutchins BBQ in Frisco: “You should come to Hutchin BBQ, a lovely establishment that provides terrific Texas seasonings to your cut of grilled meat. Aside from Frisco, Hutchins BBQ also has other branches across America.”
  • On Meso Maya: “Have you ever tried their Carne Asada, Queso Blanco, or house salsa? They are so amazing that I can’t find the exact words to describe them.”
  • On Rise No. 1: “My favorite ones are crab soufflé and Frito soufflé.”
  • On Pappadeaux: “Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen is obviously a big name in the restaurant industry. That’s why you can easily find them across the USA. And as a famous city in Texas, Pappadeaux Dallas is no exception.”
  • On the city of Garland: “Unlike the nearby bustling city Dallas, Garland is more of a tranquil area with rich history, natural resources, and idyllic outdoor recreation. Therefore, the Mexican diners here deliver a unique atmosphere in terms of ambiance and dining experience. Obviously, Garland is not a dreamland of luxury restaurants. However, this does not mean that their quality is unworthy of a visit.”
  • On Stock & Barrel: “Please do not enter the restaurant on Sundays and Mondays since they are closed on days.”
  • The beginning of the Deep Ellum listicle: “Are you wondering what the best restaurants in Deep Ellum, Dallas are? Be at ease because that’s no longer a problem.”
  • The Greenville Avenue restaurant list starts with a photo from the different city of Greenville, Texas.
  • On Town Hearth: “Town Hearth has a succulent and tender steakhouse. In addition, you can immerse into the oceanic flavor….You can taste your best-loved food at this eatery at 5 PM on all days. Your meal can be longer on Friday and Saturday. Regarding the service, I don’t need to waste money on valet.”
  • This headline: 13 Most Popular Restaurants In Design District, Dallas, Texas You Must Come 2023. (“If you have a problem finding an ideal place, please do not take your eyes off the valuable post. Trust me! You get many values from this article.”)

Author

Brian Reinhart

Brian Reinhart

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Brian Reinhart became D Magazine's dining critic in 2022 after six years of writing about restaurants for the Dallas Observer and the Dallas Morning News.
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