Food

The outing of a restaurant critic

Well, that was interesting. A couple of days before Christmas, one of the owners of the new Beverly Hills restaurant Red Medicine created a firestorm by confronting Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila while she was waiting for a table, snapping her picture, kicking her and her party out of the restaurant and then posting the picture on the Internet for all to see.

By the next morning, more than 15 years of working to remain anonymous were ruined.

For a day or two, it seemed to be all anyone in the food world could talk about. Many were appreciative of Virbila and her efforts to stay anonymous. Others were critical.

But as unfortunate as the situation was, it has given us an opportunity to explain a few things about our restaurant reviews.

First, we are not going to change the way we do business. We'll continue to make reservations under assumed names; leave varying call-back numbers; and pay for our meals under a variety of credit card names.

This ensures that a restaurant has minimum warning that a critic is coming, on the theory that there is little that can be done once he or she is in the door. There is no way for a chef to dream up some super-elaborate dish or acquire higher-quality ingredients at the last minute.

For the most part, all a chef or owner can do once they learn a critic is in the house is step up the service, something any writer who has been on the job for more than a week will quickly spot by watching how the rest of the dining room is treated.

We go to all this trouble because we want to be able to present to you, the reader, the most accurate preview we can of what your own dining experience will be like.

About anonymity

This concern with anonymity has been a peculiarly American trait, growing out of restaurant reviews' roots in consumer reporting. In Britain, restaurant critics tend to be among a newspaper's celebrities, and photos run alongside their reviews. In France, they're regarded — at least by themselves — as public intellectuals. And far from being anonymous, they announce their visits days in advance.

But in this country — at least for critics at major newspapers — we recognize that for most of our readers, a big night out at a great restaurant is a major expenditure as well as a celebratory event. That's also why we base our reviews on multiple visits — to make sure we're not catching a restaurant on either its best or worst night.

Being anonymous helps with all of this, but it certainly isn't a requirement. The reality is that most high-end restaurants already have a pretty good idea of what the leading critics look like. After all, a big-deal restaurant is a big-deal investment. With millions of dollars riding on a business that can be dramatically affected by one person's opinion, owners of course do everything they can to find out who the critics are.

At one point back in the pre-Internet days, one well-known critic even found someone she'd met on a family vacation was selling their holiday snapshots to restaurateurs.

In an interesting twist, my old friend Phyllis Richman, restaurant critic for almost 25 years at the Washington Post (in a city that knows about sleuthing out secrets), suggested that maybe Virbila's unveiling could be a good thing. Until now, probably the only restaurants that didn't know what Virbila looked like were the mom-and-pop places that aren't part of the big-money inner circle. Now, the playing field is level.

Still, even though restaurateurs may have some idea of what Virbila looks like, that won't stop us from trying to fly as far under the radar as possible.

Our star system

Just as important, Virbila's "unveiling" is a reminder that we need to do a better job of explaining the star rating system. These are the bane of critics everywhere, no matter what is being reviewed, because it aims to sum up several hundred words of nuanced explanation with one blunt icon. But as much as writers hate them, readers seem to love them. But that doesn't necessarily mean they understand them.

In a letter to the editor Sunday, reader Stan Brothers echoed others in criticizing Virbila for being overly stingy with her stars. "She has raved about restaurants, then given them two out of four stars," he wrote. "Restaurant owners and Times readers deserve a more realistic standard."

The reality, though, is that a two-star review means, by definition, a very good restaurant.

When we were establishing the criteria for judging restaurants, we started with the assumption that L.A. was a world-class city and its restaurants should be able to stand alongside those of anyplace else. It would be insulting to the restaurants to do anything less — to judge them "on a curve."

Thus, a four-star restaurant is one that is the equal of any restaurant in the United States, and even the world. Accordingly, there have been very few of those. In Southern California, only the latest incarnation of Patina and José Andrès' Bazaar have earned that recently.

Just short of that perfect score have been Craft in Century City and downtown's Rivera, with three-and-a-half stars each. A three-star restaurant is one of the best in the state. There have been several of these: Providence, Red O, WP24, Ammo, Valentino, Hatfield's, Lazy Ox Canteen and Bouchon earned that rating this year.

By far, the vast majority of the places we have written about have earned two or two-and-a-half stars, which, as described in the box that accompanies every review, is a "very good" restaurant.

Where will Red Medicine fit in? Only time will tell. We give every restaurant a three-month grace period to get the kinks worked out before reviewing. (Virbila was only there out of curiosity when they booted her.)

If it's still open at that point and it's someplace we think our readers are wondering about, we'll review it. And we'll try our best to make sure they don't know in advance that we're coming, so that we can give you the most honest and accurate appraisal we can.

russ.parsons@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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