Mehran’s Steak House has a near-perfect Google rating, with 91 glowing reviews: “Best steak I have ever had in NY,” “Words cannot explain how phenomenal the steak was” and “Chef Mehran is a genius-god among men.”
Yet few diners have been lucky enough to land a reservation. Mehran’s website and voice mail state that the restaurant, on East 83rd Street in Manhattan, is fully booked for months, an irresistible challenge for New Yorkers who treat reservation-hunting like a professional sport.
Most will never get a seat. Mehran’s is an elaborate joke among friends that, somewhere along the way, became entirely serious. On Saturday, for one night only, Mehran’s Steak House opened to the public.
The restaurant’s address on Google Maps, a four-bedroom brownstone, was actually a “hacker house” occupied by 16 20-somethings working in the tech industry, who slept in closets and on bunk beds. Among them were Mehran Jalali, Riley Walz and Danielle Egan.
Mr. Jalali cooked steaks, mainly top sirloin, for his roommates’ dinners, and Ms. Egan renamed their address on Google Maps as Mehran’s Steak House. Creating a Google listing is as simple as picking a name, clicking a few buttons and waiting for it to appear. There are few safeguards to prevent fake reviews, which is how the listing racked up raves (written as a joke by friends).
A week after the listing was posted in March 2022, Mr. Jalali, now 21, said, “A couple walked in like, ‘We’re here for the steak.’” The roommates turned them away, but their listed phone number rang off the hook. The friends toyed with the idea of opening a real restaurant, and Mr. Walz, also 21, built a website with a waiting list.
In May, the writer Anne Kadet set out to solve the neighborhood’s “steakhouse mystery” in her Substack newsletter, Café Anne. When she reached out to the group, panic set in. “If more people look into it,” Mr. Jalali recalled thinking, “the whole thing is going to come down.”
So the friends, who by this point had moved to the West Coast after the lease on their hacker house ended, decided it was time to give the restaurant a go. Mr. Jalali and Mr. Walz booked an event space in the East Village, contacted people from the online waiting list of more than 900, and did some market research.
They developed a four-course menu ($114 before tax, tip and wine), and asked the chef Elias Bikahi of Le Sandwich to taste and critique their dishes.
On Saturday afternoon, as Tropical Storm Ophelia drenched the city, Mr. Jalali and his “staff” (60 of his, Mr. Walz’s and Ms. Egan’s friends, mostly college students and tech dropouts, invited to fly in for the event) prepared for dinner service.
“I’m going to send a Google Drive link to the menu,” he told the team. “This is your Bible, your Quran.” The novice crew peppered him with questions: What if guests ask for drinks beyond the three red wines or milk on offer? “I didn’t think of that,” Mr. Jalali said. How do diners add a tip? “I don’t know.” What if someone complains? “Come downstairs, and I’ll apologize.”
Almost none of the volunteers had any cooking experience, and were randomly assigned prep work by Mr. Walz and Mr. Jalali. As Anson Yu, a pescatarian, patted dry 114 pounds of rib-eyes, Mr. Jalali asked the team, “Do the steaks get seasoned before or after the sear?”
Ms. Yu, an engineering intern, flew from Montreal just for the occasion. “People are terminally online and constantly watching other people live lives,” she said, and “when people, like Riley and Mehran, are high-agency, it attracts people like moths.”
The first guests to arrive, at 5:30 p.m., were Mr. Walz’s parents, who had spent the afternoon running to Target to buy supplies for the event. They made sure the staff members were eating protein bars and hydrating. A few more tables of relatives trickled in, and then the unsuspecting customers arrived.
Joe Skorupski, 30, added his name to Mehran’s waiting list in January. He’d walk past the supposed address, perplexed by what appeared to be a residential building and a laundromat. When he and his wife, Alyson Skorupski, 29, got the call that a table was available at Mehran’s East Village location, they jumped at the opportunity.
“It was artsy,” Mr. Skorupski said, likening it to a cross between a steakhouse and MoMA. “This is a place that’s going to blow up.”
The menu purported to follow the life cycle of a cow. As diners at the pop-up’s 35 tables tucked into courses like Meadows Bring Life (a mixed green salad), Youth: Ever Precious, Ever Fleeting (veal meatballs) and Agrarian Synergies (bruschetta with mozzarella), some diners became suspicious.
“We were laughing because it was like, ‘Do you think we’re being punked?’” said Leigh Wade, an OB-GYN who was there with her husband, Richard Iuorio, an emergency room doctor who’d waited for a reservation since February.
Around 8:30 p.m., a young man went to the front of the dining room and knelt to propose marriage to a server. The awkward, staged moment was a tipoff for many guests. “Is this a social experiment? I’m 95 percent sure it is,” said Alex Feinstein, an accountant. “I low-key think it’s an N.Y.U. production.”
Reactions to the food were about evenly split. Some diners praised the steak, but others sent theirs back, and one man said his “was like at a wedding buffet.”
Downstairs in the kitchen, as Mr. Jalali frantically managed orders on a six-burner stove with a broken hood, he worried about one diner, Kathryn Shrader, a hospitality manager, who had told a Facebook group that doubted Mehran’s was real that she had a coveted reservation.
Ms. Shrader and her friend, Kyle Hertzog, a brand manager at Sixpoint Brewery, arrived with skeptical, but curious, intentions. In New York, “you can’t keep secrets,” said Mr. Hertzog. “I know everyone in this industry, and nobody has heard about this.”
After realizing that the location was an event space, watching a 22-year-old sommelier struggle to open a wine bottle, and doing some basic math on the prices and number of employees, Ms. Shrader and Mr. Hertzog became confident that the restaurant was a ruse.
“It seems like more of a theater production than a dinner,” Mr. Hertzog said. “There’s a shtick here. I don’t know what it is, though.”
Ms. Shrader finally got it. “We are experiencing the punch line of some online joke between a bunch of friends.”