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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Vanderbilt students stage dinner at viral fake NYC steakhouse

Seniors Aadi Bajpai and Sam Sliman, VSG president, were a sommelier and maître d’, respectively, for Mehran’s Steakhouse — a viral, fake restaurant that opened for one night on Sept. 23.
Aadi+Bajpai+and+Sam+Sliman+outside+of+Mehrans+Steakhouse%2C+as+photographed+on+Sept.+23%2C+2023.+%28Photo+courtesy+of+Aadi+Bajpai%29
Aadi Bajpai
Aadi Bajpai and Sam Sliman outside of Mehran’s Steakhouse, as photographed on Sept. 23, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Aadi Bajpai)

Mehran’s Steakhouse was a joke until a group of “pranksters” turned it into a full-fledged restaurant for one night only on Sept. 23. News of the fake restaurant went viral, with The New York Times titling it “New York’s hottest steakhouse.”

These so-called pranksters included Vanderbilt seniors Aadi Bajpai, VSG director of technology, and Sam Sliman, VSG president. Bajpai was The Hustler’s Digital Director in the 2021-22 academic year. He served as a sommelier, while Sliman worked the role of maître d’ at the pop-up restaurant. Sliman told The Hustler that the experience has inspired him to stage something similarly inventive at Vanderbilt. 

Prank origin

According to Bajpai and Sliman, the steakhouse originated as a “hacker house” in which friends Mehran Jalali, Riley Walz and Danielle Egan all resided while working on their respective start-up ventures. Bajpai said he met Walz while participating in Hack Lodge, an undergraduate software development program.

Jalali cooked steaks for the other residents, so the house became jokingly termed “Mehran’s Steakhouse.” Walz made a website for the steakhouse in 2021 that appeared as though the “restaurant” was continuously booked out. By 2022, nearly 3,000 people had joined the waitlist. 

“[The group] realized you could just make a Google Maps listing for places…and would leave reviews trying to compete to say the funniest or most ridiculous things. [The website] always said it was booked out,” Sliman said. “But then, instead of putting themselves on the waitlist, people started showing up in-person looking for steak, so [the group] said ‘Okay, we’ve got to do this for real.’”

As the idea for the prank took hold, Walz asked Bajpai and Sliman — whom Bajpai connected with Walz — if they would be interested in helping run the restaurant for one night. Bajpai said the prank becoming reality was both surprising and inspirational.

“[Walz] was like, ‘I know you have a penchant for things like this, so you should totally be involved. Fly out to New York when the details are figured out,’” Bajpai said.

On the other hand, senior Celia Waldman, who attended high school with Jalali, said that the news of the prank did not come as a surprise. 

“Mehran has always been exceptionally innovative and always looking for fun ways to run social experiments with people,” Waldman said. “He was destined to do something like he did with the steak house, and I’m not at all surprised it was such a success!”

Sliman said he bolstered the steakhouse’s fabricated reputation via graphic design. As part of these efforts, he photoshopped Jalali into pictures with several celebrities throughout history, including John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Barack Obama, among other designs.

“Each season, [Mehran’s jokingly] does a new set menu, so there’s a Spring 2020 menu and a Winter 2022 menu. So we created a couple of posters from past seasons, but these menus never actually happened,” Sliman said.

Grand opening — and closing

According to Bajpai and Sliman, Walz secured the appropriate permits and licenses for Mehran’s Steakhouse to be legally allowed to operate. The Hustler could not independently verify these permits. On the grand opening — and closing — day, preparations began at 8 a.m. EDT, and dinner service lasted from 5-11 p.m. EDT. 

“We had to tear down in an hour because our rental space ran out at midnight. It was like $200 every 15 minutes we stayed past that, so disassembling the entire steakhouse in an hour was wild,” Sliman said.

The menu, themed “Bovine Circle of Life,” featured five courses: Meadows Bring Life, or salad; Youth: Ever Precious, Every Fleeting, or veal meatballs; Agrarian Synergies, a bruschetta and mozzarella platter; Zenith, the steak entreé; and And Then What?, featuring angel and devil’s food cake. Sliman said the group sought feedback from Michelin-star chef Elias Bikahi and other culinary experts because they did not want food quality to clue diners into the prank.

“There were things like the photoshopped fake people or people overhearing and realizing that the person next to them was getting told a different story than they were,” Sliman said. “We were okay if they found out from that or from the media later on, but the big thing of it all was ensuring the quality is what you would expect from a steakhouse and that they couldn’t figure it out from that.” 

The meal had a fixed price of $114, pre-tip and pre-tax, with beverages not included. The beverages offered included wine and milk, poured straight from the gallon jug. The cost paid homage to the made-up history of Mehran’s Steakhouse, which the pranksters told diners had been open for 114 years.

Bajpai said they earned back $12,000 of the approximately $15,000 spent on the event. He believes they would have turned a profit had they remained open for multiple nights but explained profiting was not their goal.

“I think that’s just how committed everyone was to just making this happen,” Bajpai said.

Reflections

Bajpai said he would love to do a similar prank again in the future, though the idea would have to be distinct from Mehran’s Steakhouse.

“One of the beauties of art like this is it’s fleeting — this whole thing came together for one night and then never again,” Bajpai said. “And I think there’s something crazy in that, everyone was so determined.”

He added that the experience helped him more so appreciate workers in the service industry.

“I think I can appreciate more of the hard work that just exists in these jobs, where you have to communicate with customers and make sure everything is proper. That coordination is so hard,” Bajpai said.

Echoing Bajpai, Sliman emphasized the importance of the uniqueness of the prank but said he hopes to orchestrate something similar at Vanderbilt during his time as VSG president.

“It’s inspired me to broaden my scope, because I’ve done a lot of similar things, but they’ve all been Vanderbilt-scoped because I know I can get eyes on it. But I haven’t done things on this kind of scale,” Sliman said. “No steakhouse here [at Vanderbilt], but something wild is gonna happen before I graduate.”

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About the Contributors
Brina Ratangee
Brina Ratangee, Editorial Director
Brina Ratangee ('24) is a student in the College of Arts and Science majoring in medicine, health & society and neuroscience. She previously served as News Editor. When not writing for The Hustler, she enjoys trivia nights, solving NYT crosswords and biking around Nashville. You can reach her at [email protected].
Aadi Bajpai
Aadi Bajpai, Former Digital Director
Aadi Bajpai ('24) is from Kanpur, India. He is studying Computer Science with Math and hopefully Business. In his free time—that's a myth he doesn't really have much free time—Aadi loves agonizing over the finer details of things and hates writing about himself in the third person. You can reach him at [email protected].    
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