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Food for thought: Is justice served by unmasking a restaurant critic?

By Paul Farhi
Friday, December 31, 2010; C01

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.

Sietsema employs all the usual techniques to prevent tipping off a restaurant, including sending friends to order first courses before he shows up, thus ensuring against "special" preparations.

The anonymity tradition - which effectively makes restaurant reviewing an extension of consumer reporting - isn't shared by critics in other countries. British newspapers run photos of their critics next to their reviews, for example. In France, where critics are celebrities, chefs often demonstrate and explain their techniques so that reviewers can appreciate the delicate and subtle culinary art involved.

Virbila isn't the first American critic to be unceremoniously unmasked. Craig LaBan of the Philadelphia Inquirer was "outed" in 2007 when, after being sued by a local restaurateur over a poor review, he had to give a deposition in his own defense. Eater.com staked out branches of a fast-food joint in Manhattan this year when it learned via Twitter from New York Times critic Sam Sifton that he would be trying a new offering. The L.A. Weekly's Gold had his own reckoning in 2007 when a colleague innocently posted a photo of him celebrating his Pulitzer victory.

Phyllis Richman, The Post's reviewer from 1976 until 2000, spent years disguising herself so that restaurant owners wouldn't be able to get a fix on her. There was only one breach, she said: In 1983, a photographer who had shot her nephew's bar mitzvah was hired by Washingtonian magazine to track her down; he cornered her early one morning as she was about to board a plane.

Now, in an age of digital and cellphone cameras, Richman says, "you can't stay anonymous for long. I was lucky that I was able to stay as anonymous as I did for as long as I did."

But once you're recognized, Richman adds, a good critic can correct for it. Is the service just a wee bit faster than what the rest of the customers are receiving? Does my steak look a bit better than the other guy's? "Simply being anonymous in restaurant does not make you a good critic," she says. "It can help, but you always have to be aware about what's going on in the room."

As of Thursday, the Los Angeles Times said it still intends to review Red Medicine. It just hasn't announced who'll be doing it.

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