The Crystal Corner Bar’s very brief, very fake adventures in haute cuisine

A mystery Uber Eats menu for the Willy Street institution appears and vanishes.

A mystery Uber Eats menu for the Willy Street institution appears and vanishes.

Photo: The Crystal Corner Bar’s ceiling, under which lobster ravioli is not served.

People go to the Crystal Corner Bar for a rich tapestry of cultural experiences. The cheap drinks, the chance of bumping into any number of charming East Side characters, the bathroom selfies, the (pre-pandemic) lineup of local bands, yelling at the TV during Jeopardy!. No one goes to the Crystal, however, for the food. If you want to eat at the Crystal, you can have popcorn, a frozen pizza, or a handful of warm cashews from an adorable contraption called the Little Nut Hut. The bar does not have a kitchen. Nothing about the place would lead a reasonable person to expect elaborate culinary delights. Why would you even ask? Sip your rail drink, put something goofy on the TouchTunes, and act normal. 

But for a brief time, an absolute bizarro-world version of the Crystal existed on Uber Eats. Madison-area users on the food delivery app were able, until Wednesday, to try to order from a menu that the Crystal does not have, and that possibly does not really exist anywhere on Earth. Not only that, the food not-really-on-offer was fancy, expensive, and described in a level of detail that gets more and more funny as you, a person who is familiar with the bar’s general deal, read on. 

Chipotle coated sauteed local fluke with “collard greens, acorn squash, and shallots in brown butter sauce.” Arugula salad with “house-dried blueberries, fresh strawberries, goat cheese, and toasted almonds with peach vinaigrette.” A Nebrodoni mushroom tart. Seared Long Island duck breast, as if the Yahara River isn’t right down the street! 

Sprinkled throughout the menu are all sorts of phrases that would get you laughed right out through the Willy Street landmark’s trademark glass bricks. “Eggplant caviar.” “Date chutney.” “Carrot mousse.” Some of it sounds pretty good, and some of it sounds like the kind of thing you sell at outrageous markups to people with more money than taste. There is a time and place for such cuisine, but that time has never arrived at good old 1302 Williamson St. The Crystal is almost aggressively not-fancy in everything from its decor to its ’90s-tastic living fossil of a website.

The staff and ownership at the Crystal had no idea about their fake expansion into blue claw crab salad and whatnot until this week.

“It first came to my attention when I was working a happy hour shift and some Uber Eats driver came in looking to pick up a lobster ravioli,” says bartender and all-around well-liked community pillar Colleen Hayes. “I initially thought he was there to deliver a lobster ravioli and thought, what asshole here in the Crystal ordered lobster ravioli?!” Hayes also tweeted about the menu with characteristic good humor:

How did this come to be? These things are outlandish, but not unprecedented. Journalists have found in the recent past that it is easy to set up a fake restaurant, or an imposter profile for a real one, on Uber Eats and similar services like Postmates, Doordash, etc. Some of these services have also been caught adding restaurants without permission. The pandemic has only made those issues more fraught and potentially damaging. More restaurants have come to rely heavily on takeout and delivery and a new industry of “ghost kitchens” sprang up, including here in Madison, home to a formidable restaurant scene and a food-delivery startup of its own, EatStreet. 

Even when there aren’t full-on scams afoot, delivery services’ business models put restaurants and gig workers at an exploitative disadvantage. As funny as the incongruity of the fake Crystal Corner menu is, it also really sucks. These flotsam listings end up wasting time for already precarious gig workers and service-industry staff who’ve suffered terribly over the past couple of years. To say nothing of jilted lobster ravioli fans. 

Searching some of the specific phrases on the menu brought me to a listing on a site called Restaurant Guru. Along with the same food items, that listing adds a pricey wine list that is also not something anyone in their right mind would seek at the Crystal. The header image on the fake Uber Eats listing is clearly a stock photo. A reverse image search led to several other listings on Uber Eats and Postmates that use the image, from Utah to Virginia to Londrina, Brazil and Cardiff, Wales. I have no idea how legit these listings are. The image shows up associated with a liquor store, some kind of patriotic cop bar in Florida, suburban bar-and-grill type places, and so on. 

Whether it’s a prank or a fraud attempt or simply a gastronomic sequel to Neuromancer playing out before our very eyes, the listing is gone now. And it hasn’t given the Crystal any ideas about changing a thing, thank god. One witty reply to Hayes’ tweet suggested: “Can y’all put a ‘lobster ravioli’ on your drink menu and just have it be PBR.” Hayes answered: “It’s cute you think we even have a drink menu.”

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