The Restaurant That Wasn’t There

I need you to understand that there are no answers here. Let’s clear that up right now: if you finish reading this, you’re going to know less about how the world works than you do now. You might even resent me when you’re done reading. And it’s not like this is going to be one of life’s great mysteries either, it’s just about a restaurant in suburban New Hampshire, except it isn’t. (defunct) – author unknown, 3 Dec 2021

Unlike our friends quoted above, I can offer you no moral, only a story.

This particular story begins with me thinking deeply on a favorite topic: lunch. Spending so much time at home lately I’ve been trying out new restaurants that offer delivery or takeout, and on that particular summer day I found an interesting new-to-me listing on Uber Eats for an Indian restaurant named Bhindi Bros. Vegan food with some really inventive dishes. Stuff like,

Murgh Ajmeri

Jackfruit marinated in candlenut yogurt and papaya. Spiced with mace, ginger, mustard, and garam masala. Then topped with lemon slices. Served with black rice.

That sounded worth trying! Except that it listed “Delivery / Pickup currently unavailable”. OK, I thought, new place. I tucked it into the back of my head, since I knew the location as being right by my barber’s shop. I figured I’d swing by some time when getting my hair cut. And, as it happened, in a week or so I needed to go to the CVS that’s right there to have cotton swabs jammed up my nose, which it seemed to me entitled me to some tasty Indian takeout food.

I got in line at CVS, tapped Bhindi Bros into my phone, found the address a short walk away, and then took a post-brain-tickling stroll… to nowhere. The address listed, 452 Daniel Webster Highway, Merrimack, did not exist. See for yourself! The road numbers go from 444 to 454 on that side of the street, and 451 is a different restaurant entirely. (If you think it’s odd that I linked to Bing, that’s because Google just assumes that you mean Bedford and will not let you search for that address in Merrimack. Thanks?)

I assumed I’d screwed something up, or the app site had, and went home. (defunct) – author unknown, 3 Dec 2021

Checking the website directly, no mistake: that’s exactly the address listed. You’d think they’d know their own address, though, right? I looked around online and on the map, though, and there wasn’t anything a reasonable typo distance away. Doordash had a listing for them too (at the time; it’s been taken down). I did find a review, though!

And on another site I found three:

In the words of the great detective, one of these things is not like the others.

Now, their web site shows three locations.

Can we agree that’s kind of a weird list? Denver and Fort Collins, Colorado, and then Merrimack, NH? That’s a weird list. But it’s not absurd.

Actually, hey, on the subject of the website: that’s a nice web site, isn’t it? Well-designed with a custom logo, flows nicely. Plus it actually has the information you go to a restaurant web site for: address, hours, contact info, menu, links to delivery sites. The sites for actual restaurants that I like and go to are not as nice as this. But those places actually exist, which according to St. Anselm is a point in their favor.

Anyway, I digress. Colorado.

Colorado offers a reasonable hypothesis: this is a small chain that has two established locations and is planning to branch out. What the heck, let’s have a look since I’ve got the Maps tab open. Behold, 427 S Link Ln:

OK… How about that Denver address? Hey, a strip mall. Perfect place to find those hidden-gem type restaurants. And there’s 2362 S Colorado Blvd, right between H&R Block at 2360 and a chiropractor at 2364!

So, we’re zero for three here, but in a very striking way: three different addresses that are all plausible but not actually there. That means that when you search for those addresses, Bhindi Bros is the only business that shows up. One, I could see being a typo, but three?

Or those phone numbers. Reverse phone number searches are sketchy, and that review said that the Merrimack number was disconnected, but the second number turns up a ski resort nearby. All of them have the right area codes, though. You can tell the Merrimack number is a cell phone, but that’s finicky – the local land line exchanges in that area should have started (603) 424 or (603) 365. Still, it’s plausible as a local number and I’d have never noticed if it weren’t for the other weirdness. When later called by an intrepid NHPR journalist (Yes, I enlisted public radio in my weird obsession!), the owner of the Merrimack number had never heard of Bhindi Bros.

So, back to that web site. It’s a nice-looking site! Of course, some of that might be using a stock template. You can tell by the favicon that it’s a Squarespace site, but even if you don’t recognize it, a quick look in the browser inspector clues you in:

But there’s a lot of custom text on the site. The menu (scraped and mirrored here, with the wrong town listed) sounds both interesting and delicious:

The About Us page is well-written and interesting, if a little heavy on the irony.

Reads a bit defensive, doesn’t it?

Actually, let’s go back to the menu – that’s not a standard menu. Like, seriously not a standard menu. The thing that really stuck out to me was the candlenut yogurt. I’ve never heard of that before, but it sounds plausible: it’s a high fat nut with a mild flavor. I’m not vegan, though, so maybe it became a thing and I just missed it.

I realize that “3 Google results” isn’t terribly conclusive, but I feel that if this were something they copied from another restaurant, there would be more hits than that?

What I’m getting at here is that someone put some serious work into this site. It’s an attractive design with a custom logo, an inventive menu, and an interesting About page. It cost them money, too. I mentioned it to my barber, who could readily tell me how much Squarespace charges her for a similar site (I’m not sure if that’s sensitive information, and anyway I forget). Between the hosting and the domain name, since 2020 I figure this has cost someone a couple hundred bucks. And I cannot for the life of me figure out why.

What are the options here?

  1. It’s not a real restaurant, and never was – not at those addresses, at least, and it’s not like three buildings were all neatly obliterated since 2019.
  2. It’s not a ghost kitchen, since there are no other restaurants at those addresses, and so there’d be no way to pick up food.
  3. It’s almost certainly not a food truck. Aside from the likelihood that they’d say so, food trucks around here don’t have fixed addresses and make most of their money catering events. Anyway, I cannot imagine a food truck anywhere staying open from 10am-3am seven days a week.
  4. It doesn’t seem to be a Squarespace example. Nothing seems to link to it, and if it were I can’t imagine they would be so discourteous as to create Yelp pages, GrubHub entries (causing some poor drivers to get stuck looking for it), and use real phone numbers.
  5. I don’t think it’s a student project. Yes, it shows inventiveness and skill, but it doesn’t seem to have a student name anywhere on it? (More on that in a bit) Plus, after showing all that care selecting fake addresses, why the real phone numbers? And it’s cost a bunch of money.
  6. It doesn’t even seem to be a scam, because there’s no way to give them money! Anyway, why put so much work into a menu for a scam?
  7. If not scamming customers, maybe scamming the government? Or potential employees? But there’s nowhere to send mail, and the people who answer the phone don’t pretend to work there, let alone validate employment.
  8. Some kind of sting, proving that Uber Eats or AllMenus or whoever is scraping sites without permission? Why put so much work into the site in that case? OK, a morals page is kind of funny in that context, but again, that menu.

I can’t get past it. Who put in that time, thought, and money, to no obvious purpose? Just who are the Bhindi Bros?

The site itself tells us, the Bhindi Bros are Kudo and Rasheet. It assures me that I’m only a spoonful away from knowing this truth. Good. Great! So who are they? Who put together such an elaborate fake restaurant, complete with Yelp pages, fake reviews, interesting menu, and carefully-chosen non-addresses?

Well, the first thing I can tell you is that Google, Facebook, and Bing really want that to be Rasheed-with-a-D. I don’t know why, since Rasheet is a perfectly good name, and in fact you’ll probably see it in one of my novels at this rate.

Facebook seemed to offer the most possibilities, and indeed I made the virtual acquaintance of a relative handful of undoubtedly lovely people named Rasheet (or Rasheet Rasheet, which would have been convenient), but I don’t think any of them deserve to be put on a disreputable blog such as this. Suffice to say that I didn’t manage to find any with links to New Hampshire or Colorado, friends named Kudo, or (it is too much to be hoped) references to Bhindi Bros; nor even a marked taste for okra. LinkedIn too struck out, with no Rasheets in New Hampshire or Colorado.

The name Kudo gave me the opposite headache: too many, mostly as a last name, and nearly all of them Japanese.

A last name would be awfully helpful. Well, there’s that domain name. Unfortunately, like pretty much everyone, they used a proxy service to stay anonymous in whois results.

I looked up the history of the domain resolution on VirusTotal, but all that told me is that they’d been hosted by GoDaddy (their registrar) for a while before moving to Squarespace. That at least gave me the start of these shenanigans – September, 2019 – but I sort of knew that already from the suspicious review.

Simply looking up “Bhindi Bros” turns up a bunch of pages on a 15 year old lawsuit, which OK does involve a restaurant, but is in Decatur, Georgia. Anyway that’s Bhindi Brothers.

How about the contact page on the site itself? There’s an email address listed there, I wasn’t too enthusiastic about that, though, having done a DNS lookup and discovered that there are no MX records for the site:

Still, I emailed… and got the expected bounce. Using the form on the site likewise gave no result. There is a registrant email listed in the whois result. Those are often dead-ends (and the phone number is just for the proxy service) but I gave that a try. No response yet. In fact, that led me to try the communication method in the Registrant email for my own site, and never got it, so, yay for a working Internet.

I still had some other tricks up my sleeve. Custom images and photos often have metadata. I pulled the various images off the site and checked. Most of them were stock photos, as expected.

The only one I knew for sure was unique to the site was that logo (a Google image search helped there), but no luck. Not even the tool the artist used to create it!

If you do good work like that and want people to find you, use those metadata fields! Or maybe you don’t want me to find you. I have to admit that is a reasonable position.

Last stop on the creepy stalker train: the page source. It’s a little ridiculous what people put in there, especially in automatically-created pages, but it turns out that Squarespace produces some relatively clean code (as far as I can tell). References to Pacific time zone and Nevada – might mean something, might be the defaults – but not much else. Except that if you search for “author”…

So, there’s a name. The name… doesn’t give me much. I don’t want to put peoples’ personal information on my blog, but all I turned up for “Kudo Nagata” was a single Facebook page with a single friend and no posts or other information. The single friend has a couple pictures and hasn’t posted since 2011. Remove the quotes, and I get a bunch of hits, the top one being a pair of Japanese scientists whose research includes cyanide poisoning.

One other name came up in all this: Nona Patara, the name on the fake reviews. There seems to be an academic with a similar name (not researching arsenic), but again, there doesn’t seem to be a lead there.

On the suggestion of a friend I tried the New Hampshire and Colorado Secretaries of State webpages. These allow you to look up either business names, or the names of principles. No such luck.

I reached out to the New Hampshire Public Radio tip line, and talked to Todd Bookman, who recently solved a similar mystery. He very graciously heard out this insane story, offered some theories, and asked the very reasonable question: what did I think he could do? I had sort of hoped that in calling, it would turn out that this was some kind of known thing. “Of course,” I imagined the answer, “there are all kinds of fake restaurants like this. It’s totally a thing and I’m surprised you didn’t know.” No such luck. But I figured he knew other avenues to pursue than I did, and, barring that, mayyyybe wouldn’t be as much of a chicken as me about calling the number to ask.

And he did! Turns out the person on the other end of that number had never heard of Bhindi Bros. He tried the town, too, which hadn’t occurred to me. In the end, though, it comes down to what he said:

This may just be one of those mysteries that doesn’t get solved, John.

The site went down a couple days ago. There was a little bit of a grace period to let them renew, and now it’s one of those obnoxious ad sites that mark the resting place of dead web pages.

Every mystery writer, I think, harbors some secret desire to be Jessica Fletcher. If I can write a mystery, I can solve one, right? Mysteries have answers, mystery writers can step in and find them when nobody else can, right? But my imagination fails me. Every explanation I come up with, I can shoot down. The key facts seem to be:

  1. Great care was taken to select plausible but non-existent addresses
  2. The menu on the site seemed to be genuinely inventive and unique, and the logo appears to be custom
  3. There were at one point real Grubhub, Yelp, and Uber Eats pages for this restaurant, and some people appear to have placed orders on them. Some of them were deliberate; others caught up in the weird world of online services scraping each others’ content
  4. There are not clearly-identified people on the site to take credit, people who answered the phone numbers didn’t claim to recognize the restaurant, and the email address didn’t work

I can’t come up with an answer that explains all four points. I’m confident that this mystery has an answer. A fake restaurant appeared one day, baffled some people, and vanished again into the ether. This was a thing done by a human or humans. There must be an answer. But I’ll probably never know what it is. All I can do is chalk it up to art and wonder whether it was intended that way.

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