Is justice served when a restaurant critic is unmasked?

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 8:08 PM

Restaurant critics don't like to announce themselves to the people and places they review. So they become the secret agents of journalism: They make reservations under assumed names, pay with others' credit cards and occasionally even wear disguises when dining in an establishment where the owners or staff might know them.

And they especially don't like having photos of themselves spread around.

Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila had her cover blown in spectacular fashion last week when a photograph of her began circulating on the Internet - posted by a restaurateur who offered his own review of Virbila's reviews, calling them "unnecessarily cruel and irrational."

The incident has sparked a heated discussion about fair play and the often strained relationship between reviewer and reviewed. The issue has particular relevance in the restaurant trade, where the word of a powerful critic can make or break a business overnight.

The undisputed facts are these: Virbila and three guests showed up for their reservation at a new neo-Vietnamese restaurant called Red Medicine in Beverly Hills, Calif., last week. The restaurant was busy, so Virbila waited, and waited, for a table.

After 40 minutes, none was forthcoming, but the restaurant's managing partner, Noah Ellis, was. Having spotted Virbila in the waiting area, he approached her and declared that he knew who she was (Virbila had unfavorably reviewed one of Ellis's partners' work at another restaurant). He ordered her and her friends to leave. As a parting shot, he produced a camera and took a snap of Virbila, who protested the unauthorized photo session.

Ellis posted the photo on the restaurant's Tumblr site later that evening. "Our purpose for posting this is so that all restaurants can have a picture of her and make a decision as to whether or not they would like to serve her," Ellis wrote. After registering his opinion on her work, he added, "We're writing this to make everyone aware that she was unable to dine here, and as such, any retribution by her or on her behalf via a review cannot be considered to be unbiased."

In an instant, Virbila's anonymity, tended during 16 years as a critic, was gone.

In subsequent comments to the Los Angeles Times, Ellis defended his actions: "Irene was not the person any of us wanted reviewing our restaurant. . . . This was not a rash decision." (His post has since been deleted from the restaurant's site.)

But judging by the reaction from food writers and restaurant-goers, Red Medicine seems to have burned itself. Flame-throwing foodies flooded Yelp, the all-comers review site, to denounce the restaurant for its actions. The L.A. Weekly's Jonathan Gold, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, observed: "It was a panicked move, and I suspect they knew it was dumb even as they were doing it. They did no real harm to Virbila - if anything, they lent her pluckiness - but they made themselves look second-rate."

Contacted on Thursday, Virbila declined to comment, saying in an e-mail, "I'm not interested in giving these guys one more minute of notoriety."

Unlike other kinds of critics, restaurant reviewers cherish their anonymity and rely on it to better reflect what their readers might experience while dining out. "If a restaurant recognizes you, it can make a world of difference," says Tom Sietsema, The Post's restaurant critic. "They can assign the best waiter to your table, give you the best table, get you a fresher piece of fish or ingredients. You can't change the ending of a film or a book [for a reviewer], but there's a lot that a restaurant can do" to play up to a critic.

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