There aren't many professions left in which you have to go incognito. But for a newspaper food critic, anonymity is a necessity.
If the manager of a Beverly Hills, Calif., restaurant has his way, however, Los Angeles Times food critic S. Irene Virbila will never discreetly dine in that town again.
It all began last Tuesday evening, when, according to the Los Angeles Times, the paper's gastro critic selected Red Medicine, a new Vietnamese restaurant, as a place to take her husband and two friends. According to the paper, Virbila was there strictly for pleasure and not to review the newly opened restaurant. Virbila booked the reservation under a different name, a common practice among restaurant reviewers.
Despite having a reservation, the group was not immediately seated and waited for 40 minutes before Noah Ellis, Red Medicine's manager, approached them.
Virbila's past reviews of restaurants owned or associated with the group that runs Red Medicine have been, well, mixed, to say the least. Last year Virbila reviewed the group's Umani Burger, one of the trendiest spots in the industry:
"Not everything is a slam-dunk ... particularly not the turkey burger, which despite its sweet relish, is dry, dry, dry," she wrote.
But what perhaps did her in was the zinger she gave Red Medicine's chef and owner Jordan Kahn when he worked at another establishment:
"By dessert, you're longing for a couple of delicious bites to cap off the evening," went Virbila's review. "But pastry chef Jordan Kahn is trying too hard to top what came before. Witness the baby block-sized white chocolate cube filled with seven layers of various red fruits and such. It makes quite a visual statement until you break into it with a fork and it collapses into an unappetizing mess. There's no way you can taste the layers the chef has so laboriously prepared: It's all mush."
After reading such words, Ellis and his group vowed that not only would they refuse to serve Virbila if they ever spotted her in one of their establishments but would also snap her photo to out her identity as a way to alert other restaurateurs when she might be on their premises sizing things up.
On Tuesday evening, Ellis and his team got their moment. They stepped up to Virbila, took her picture, and then turned her and her party away.
Wednesday morning, Virbila's picture was posted on Red Medicine's website, in what the company might have considered a kind of public service announcement: "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."
By Thursday evening, it appeared that the photo had been taken off the restaurant's website -- but not before blogs picked up on the story and also published Virbila's picture.
Serious food and restaurant reviewers go out of their way to stay anonymous. The news organizations that employ them rarely publish their photographs, and rare is the critic who makes a television appearance. They usually make reservations under different names and don't identify themselves when they pay the bill.
Anonymity Is Credibility When Reviewing RestaurantsJoe Bonwich, who reviews restaurants for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, recently wrote about his life eating incognito: "I think it's important for a restaurant critic to be treated like any other diner, which generally won't happen if they know I'm there."
Red Medicine's move has continued to tantalize the blogosphere.
On the blog LA Eater, the comments are growing by the minute. OCKevin writes: "The behavior of the restaurant management lacked professionalism. Noah Ellis, what a fool. He either can't take criticism worth a lick or he had something to hide. Why would I want to eat at a restaurant which is trying to justify copping a 'tude like this?"
Others suggest that Ellis might be gaining folk hero status. Martan writes: "For years, the LA Times (Virbila and Reichl) has boosted and busted restaurants unfairly, often based on personal relationships and restaurateur politics. ... "I have never been to Red Medicine, but I will now go regularly."
Neither the Los Angeles Times nor Virbila was immediately available for comment, but published reports say the paper still plans on reviewing Red Medicine.