Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila ducked into Red Medicine, a new Beverly Hills restaurant, for some modern Vietnamese food the other night, but got nothing to eat. Instead, she was outed and ousted, her party turned away, her picture snapped and critic's anonymity shredded by the restaurateur himself.
"I always knew at some point a blogger or somebody would take a secret photo. But I never expected that a restaurateur would stick a camera in my face," Virbila said Wednesday.
Virbila was rebuffed, Red Medicine managing partner Noah Ellis said, because "Irene is not the person any of us wanted reviewing our restaurant. … This was not a rash decision."
By Wednesday afternoon, the photo of Virbila was posted on several blogs and websites, including the much-viewed Gawker.com and Eater.com. Virbila's anonymity, which she'd guarded through 16 years as this newspaper's restaurant critic, was a memory. And among foodies, the debate over anonymity — is it still possible or even advisable for a restaurant critic? — was on.
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If restaurant staffers know you're a critic with wide readership, Virbila said, they change their behavior and sometimes even serve different food. Essentially, "it's not an accurate representation of the restaurant."
Stefan Richter, owner-chef of Stefan's at L.A. Farm in Santa Monica, said he was shocked at the confrontation but also suggested that Virbila is not truly anonymous. "I think people know who the critics are these days," he said, "everybody knows."
Chef Michael Mina, who employed Ellis at several restaurants, disagreed with Ellis. "Is he out of his mind? I think that's crazy."
Mina said he has been reviewed repeatedly by Virbila over the years — "Probably the toughest person on me has been Irene." But he said restaurateurs generally have far more to gain than lose from a restaurant review.
The drama began Tuesday at 8 p.m. It was the restaurant's ninth night of serving dinner, Ellis said, and the kitchen was running behind.
Virbila, who had booked her reservation under another name, arrived promptly with her husband and two friends. They waited 20 minutes, then 30, then 40 — which didn't much bother her, Virbila said.
"The menu looked really interesting," she said. Besides, she was there "just to check it out. I wasn't writing a review that night."
While her party waited, Ellis and his partners were sneaking peeks, Ellis said. Management had talked about Virbila and her critical reviews of other eateries they'd been involved with. If she came, Ellis said, he and his partners had decided they would turn her away — and take her photograph.
So was this her? Ellis said he thought so and partner Adam Fleischman seemed even more sure. Once they had another confirmation from a customer, Ellis said, they decided to act.
He stepped up to about 6 feet from Virbila, pulled out his camera and grabbed a shot with flash.
Both Ellis and Virbila agree that in the ensuing conversation, Ellis told Virbila he knew who she was and that she asked him to delete the photo. Ellis declined and asked Virbila and her party to leave. They complied, but first Virbila had a question: Why had Ellis waited 40 minutes to turn her away?
"I was waiting for the right angle," he said. The photo was posted on the restaurant's website later that evening.
That whole scene, said San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer, sounds "very stupid. I think it's very short-sighted. If it was a good restaurant, they wouldn't be afraid."
But at the same time, Bauer said, "the whole idea of anonymity is almost a moot point these days. … After you've done it for any length of time, a year or more, your image gets out, especially now with camera phones." Virbila said she tries to keep a low profile, not appearing at food and wine events or establishing a Facebook page.
The men who run Red Medicine have worked in plenty of widely admired kitchens. Besides Ellis' work for Mina, Red Medicine chef Jordan Kahn has worked for acclaimed chef Thomas Keller.
Ellis said he hopes his actions prevent Virbila from reviewing his restaurant and allows other restaurants to "make a decision as to whether or not they would like to serve her."
Added Ellis: "We find that some of her reviews can be unnecessarily cruel and irrational, and that they have caused hard-working people in this industry to lose their jobs."
If he had Tuesday night to live over again, Ellis said, he might not make Virbila wait so long. But he feels good about turning her away and posting the picture.
"We didn't do this to prove a point and liberate the restaurants of the world. We did it because it was the right action for us," said Ellis. "We're just trying to be a great restaurant."
Virbila has served as The Times' restaurant critic since 1994, winning recognition from the James Beard Foundation in 1997 and the American Food Journalists Award in 2005. She typically visits a restaurant three times over two or three months before writing a review.
Tuesday night's events, Virbila said, are "definitely going to make my job more difficult to do."
Over a long history of cat-and-mouse games between high-end chefs and well-read critics, critics routinely have booked their reservations under other names, carried credit cards bearing pseudonyms and occasionally even worn disguises.
In more recent years, some have worried less about their anonymity. When LA Weekly restaurant critic Jonathan Gold won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for a body of work celebrating street food and ethnic eateries, newspapers and websites around the world ran a photo of him drinking deeply from a champagne flute the size of a football. Gold told The Times in a later interview that he had "noticed absolutely no difference in being recognized in restaurants. None. Zero."
Said Los Angeles Times Food Editor Russ Parsons, "at this point, we're not planning any changes in the way we do our restaurant reviews. Virbila is far from the first major critic to have her picture published and I'm sure she won't be the last."