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Restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila photographed and kicked out of Red Medicine

Our restaurant critic has been unmasked.

S. Irene Virbila, the L.A. Times’ restaurant critic for the last 16 years, was visiting Red Medicine restaurant in Beverly Hills on Tuesday night when she was approached by managing partner Noah Ellis, who took Virbila’s picture without her permission and then ordered Virbila and her three companions to leave, refusing them service.

Ellis posted her picture on the restaurant’s Tumblr site, explaining that she was not welcome there.

No surprise that the posting immediately ricocheted throughout the blogosphere, generating plenty of discussion along the way. Over at food blogs Eater LA -- which also published Virbila's photo -- and Squid Ink, there were dozens of comments. Some called it a petty, vengeful act and a desperate bid to cover up persistent problems at the restaurant, while another praised Virbila as "an island of constancy in a sea of ever-changing food 'reviewers.' " 

There were also comments siding with Red Medicine: "... their reasons were grounded in the idea that no one person should have enough influence to take down an establishment, and sadly that is how things sometimes work in this fickle, fame obsessed town. i have seen people show up at restaurants with s.irene's reviews cut out so the[y] know what to order, as if they don't have an actual brain and the ability to decide for themselves, and then be upset when the menu has changed or something is not in season."

Ellis said he was intentionally trying to take away Virbila's anonymity because he does not like her reviews: “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. We find that some her reviews can be unnecessarily cruel and irrational…"

Virbila said she and her companions had been waiting for 45 minutes past their reservation time when Ellis approached her, camera in hand. Ellis said on the site that Virbila arrived “in the middle of a particularly hairy service  … and because we had guests lingering, were not able to sit [her party] immediately.”

Ellis 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.”

Times Food editor Russ Parsons said Virbila contacted him after the incident and was upset by it. It was humiliating to be confronted in such a manner, Parsons said, and Virbila felt violated to have her picture taken without her permission. But mostly, he said, “She was upset because she has worked extremely hard for more than 15 years to maintain her anonymity in the L.A. restaurant scene.”

Parsons said that a truly anonymous restaurant critic is increasingly rare in a world that revolves around instant communication and a camera is as close as your cellphone. Some media outlets say true anonymity is impossible and, as a result, no longer try to go to great lengths to hide a critic’s identity.

Anonymity is important because restaurant critics function as consumer advocates and want to ensure their meal closely mimics the meal and dining experience that anyone else would get if they were to show up at that restaurant. If the critic is known, the staff can go out of its way to give them special treatment.

To that end, Virbila makes reservations under a different name, never uses her own phone number and even pays with a credit card issued in a different name. She never accepts free meals for herself or her companions.  Review protocol calls for her to visit a restaurant on three separate occasions and sample a wide variety of menu options so that her reviews can truly inform readers.

“Restaurant meals can cost a lot of money,” Parsons said, “and we want to make sure that when one of our readers goes to a restaurant they can expect the same experience the critic received.”

The Times will continue with its plans to review Red Medicine. The restaurant was chosen for review, Parsons said, because of its pedigree –- Ellis has worked in the past with noted chef and restaurateur Michael Mina. And, Parsons added, “We had hopes that they would be doing interesting things with Southeast Asian food. We will still review them.”

As for Virbila? “Virbila has been our restaurant critic since 1994. We consider her to be one of the premier restaurant critics in the U.S.,” he said.

--Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Photo credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (139)

The comments to this entry are closed.

everyone needs to grow up.

Ding dong the wicked witch is exposed! I've always thought that someone who likes coffee and rib eye steaks (together) should not be critiquing the food of any chef.

There are a lot of critics out there with a poison pen, people who smugly feel justified and encouraged to be downright malicious towards the unfortunate professionals that happen to meet with one of their reviews when they're having a bad day. And unfortunately, they do hold influence all out of proportion to their writing talents.

I find myself in disagreement with professional critics often enough that I either ignore their reviews entirely, or sometimes even figure that if *that* critic hates it, then I'll probably love it. (I'm thinking here mainly of music critics, and also book and movie reviewers.)

I'm not that familiar with Virbila's restaurant reviews, so I can't judge whether she deserved getting kicked out and photographed. But surely some critics deserve much worse than that. How fair is it to hide behind a mask of anonymity while sniping at other people with sarcasm that often borders on downright hateful?

In principle the owner or manager of a restaurant has the right to refuse service to anyone. When that person is someone that they feel has acted wrongly and destroyed the reputations or livelihoods of good and innocent people, then I can see why they would feel that some payback is justified, and would even encourage other restaurant owners to be wary of the critic in question.

If Virbila is actually a nice person who has been unjustly blamed, then I feel sorry for her, and I hope this does not wreck her career. (However, it's been my experience that most professional critics are not nice people, especially when they're doing their job. Most nice people prefer to make their living in some way that does not involve insulting people.)

This would not keep me from trying out Red Medicine; it actually makes me rather more curious about the place now.

(PS: I have to wonder how many of the comments below are actually from Virbila herself, posting anonymously, or under some guise.)

Noah should be COMMENDED. Let's put the power of reviews back in the hands of the masses, and out of the hands of one jaded old reviewer who doesn't represent the majority of people's taste buds.

We just wrote about how Noah is taking a great stand on our site, but all you crazy people on here will probably just flip out even more. I guess I have to eat twice for each one of you who say they're not gonna go to Red Medicine.

First of all...The name Red Medicine turns me off. If I wanted medicine CVs would be where I visit. They were wrong for throwing the critic and her guest out. Very unprofessional. They didn't have the right to take her picture and share it with others. Are they seeking publicity? I'll make sure I never eat at that restaurant. If you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen. "SHAME ON THEM" Can't wait to hear the review.

The hypocricy is that a number of restaurateurs obviously already know who Virbilia is (after all, Ellis did). So her pretence of being an "anonymous" reviewer is absolutely fallacious.

I hope that restaurant goes under for doing this. They have effectively ended her career in trying to hide problems in the food and service.

I read lots of reviews and balance my responses to them because I know the different reviewers. Did they "out" a critic who had said good things about them? No. Only the ones that they decided that they did not like.
I would never eat at Red Medicine because the Chef and manager are not professional. If I am going to spend good money for a meal, then I will go to a place that is a professional food business.

As much as I've read and enjoyed some of SIV's reviews over the years, the value of a newspaper restaurant critic has come and gone in the age of Yelp. Food criticism is much more democratic and the power to wield it belongs to "the common man" - the rest of us.

There's no justification for Noah Ellis's and Red Medicine's actions. All industries are hard, all businesses are difficult to start. Noah Ellis and Jordan Kahn also critique restaurants, and not with the care of a professional like Irene. Restaurants, chefs, and just about everything in world is subject to criticism and evaluation. The restaurant industry knows that consumers are interested in knowing about the eatery before we go, your average diner. We're going to listen to a variety of sources including the LA Times. I don't owe you $100 of my hard earned money any more than you owe me yours.I'm a musician, and I don't get a call unless the person hiring knows me or has a set of solid recommendations. No reason to cry, these are the professions we've chosen, and I want as many reviews as possible.

Here are some more thoughts on Red Medicine

I appreciate Noah's revolutionary approach and the strength it requires to take control of his restaurant. Often, restaurant owners bow down to arbitrary pressures and lack the self-esteem to take pride in their offerings.
The best "review" is the number of loyal fans that a restaurant can cultivate. Some critics can be petty and opinionated and often lack true objectivity. I prefer to decide for myself the merits of the establishment and do not follow the herd mentality of those who follow the critiques of those who often have little or no culinary experience.
I applaud all chefs for giving their hearts and souls to this profession and who take their pride in their restaurants to the ultimate level. Good Luck to Noah.

So "Virbila felt violated to have her picture taken without her permission." Yet she has made a career out of analyzing (and often trashing) restaurants, without their knowledge or consent. While I DO admire her efforts to remain off the radar (far too many critics are in bed with chefs in an effort to ride their coattails in this era of "rock star chef") her reviews have been off-balance for years. Red Med made a business decision that they did not want or welcome her sneak attack and I applaud them for taking a stand!

I just want to know if Irene Virbila actually went to cooking school, can anyone answer that question for me?

If she did go to cooking school, graduated, owned/ran/worked in a restuarant - THEN she can be a critic.

But if she hasn't, then I'm sorry but a lot of bars and restaurants DO have signs that say " We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone."

It may have not been in that particular restaurants best interest to refuse service to her and it certainly was probably not the best idea to snap a photo of her, but again they do have the right to refuse service and that's what they chose to do.

Will never be eating at Red Medicine after his atrocious behavior. Hope your restaurant fails! You deserve it!

Correct me if I'm wrong, but since when is it Noah Ellis' responsibility to preserve S. Virbila's anonymity? He is certainly under no obligation to serve her. I have no connection with him or with the restaurant business, nor am I acquainted with Ms. Virbila, but I dine out frequently, and I have seen many petty reviews by reviewers whose only purpose is to score points at the restaurant's expense. Launching a restaurant is hard work, harder work than I am sure Ms. Virbila has ever done in her life, and yet with a stroke of a pen, she has the power to deprive not only the owner but the entire staff of their livelihood. I applaud what Noah Ellis did and encourage other restaurateurs to do the same. And as far as Ms. Virbila feeling "violated", I say "Grow up!"

This nasty old wildabeast got what was coming to her. How many restaurants has she caused to lose patrons over the past 15 years by hiding like a coward and slandering them in a PUBLIC forum. She gets to voice her jaded one sided opinion to the public, yet wants to remain anonymous?
Nobody gets to be anonymous in our society anymore. Cell phones, camera phones and the internet have taken away anyones right to be anonymous outside of their home.
How does one person's taste buds become the norm for 300 million other peoples? Food critics...one step above the crust of dog waste on the bottom of your shoe. Get a real career losers!

Out in the open, you have no right to privacy.
If you want privacy stay in your home with your shades closed.

The nerve of Red Medicine.."took Virbila’s picture without her permission"....oh my god, the world is falling apart and they had the nerve to take this food hack's picture. I know now where to eat....thanks.

She loves fatty pork dishes

I don't think the loss of anonymity will prevent Ms. Virbila from effectively doing her job. That being said, Noah Ellis is an arrogant jerk, plain and simple. I'm certain his behavior is an indication of the level of service one can expect to receive at his restaurant.

As a reader, I want to know that the restaurant critic is anonymous. Apparently, her identity has been known by the more established restaurants for years. Readers and diners didn't know that. Why didn't Irene tell us her cover had been blown instead of Red Medicine. Irene's failure to keep her cover is not Red Medicine's fault. The restaurant did us a favor for telling LA Times readers that her cover had been blown for a while.

If you don't have anonymity, then your review is worthless. Apparently, her reviews have been worthless for years. Why should the LA Times not fire her?
If the LA Times is not willing to fire her, then I have to wonder why I should even bother to read this newspaper. Tenure is not a good reason to keep someone. Would the CIA let a spy keep his job as a spy if his cover had been blown?

Noah Ellis' behavior here was a disgrace to his profession. There's no need for Virbila to write anything now, as he singlehandedly gave his establishment a rotten review. By his actions, he basically threw his hands up in the air and said "We aren't good enough to weather a review from S. Irene Virbila". A real professional, on recognizing her would have realized he already had a heads up and an advantage, and played it smart. To humiliate her in the way he did is pretty unconscionable. Sad, because a good friend of mine who also happens to write about food dined there and loved it. As S. Irene might have, given the chance.

So let me get this sraight, WikiLeaks= No big deal, or in YOUR own words "So what?"-La times july 26, 2010. When is the last time the LA Times really did an non-biased objective article? Surely, they have a clue. Why don't they look it up (that is when they aren't busy being implemented in a decent teachers suicide) If the LA times thinks that their "reporters" are doing a public service, then they should be in the "public".

I find it somewhat disgusting and obscene that this in an issue. In my country - Indonesia - there are 50 million people who will go to bed tonight not having been adequately been nourished, a failure of government and of society. It must be nice to suffer the problems of plenty. Food for thought, perhaps, Ms Virbila and Mr Ellis?

--=-=-=--{Wow. The stupidity of LA Times Readers comments is about on par with Youtube comment boards. }--=-=-=--

I think the managers behaviour was rude and arrogant, as a chef who has worked in fine dining establishments in Britain I can assure you this type of situation would be unheard of.

In most cases the manger would be bending over backwards to accommodate a customer, I cant imagine any staff I have worked with in 1 or 2 Michelin star restaurants behaving like this.

It almost has a touch of trashy Ramsay-esque "reality" tv dribble about it, the stressed out manager snapping mid service. Well if that's how he acts under pressure maybe he should re-think his career choice.

Bravo to Red Medicine!

All choices have consequences. Virbila made choices that affected other people without any regard for them. I applaud the restaurant owner.

I've occassionally read the LAT Food critic's reviews. I'm grateful that some of the work is done for the public but I never walk away from a restaurant bc of a review. I'm mindful and give restaurants a chance as I know that critics, like all folks, have bad days too. But, I'll say this- the behavior this restaurant owner exhibited is totally tasteless and unacceptable. While I wouldn't let a food review keep me from going to a restaurant, this kind of behavior absolutely without a doubt would determine whether I would ever subject myself to potential humiliation. This kind of behavior could could easily trickle down to not serving people on the account of their race, then maybe gender, then maybe creed.

I'm disgusted by this and plan to not ever go to Red Medicine- which is incidentally very close to my home.

Red Medicine sucks, as does Noah Ellis -- good riddance

Just go to Yelp. You get a better more widespread view.

Millions of Americans who had real, legitimate jobs are now unemployed, and Irene is "upset" that she was outed. Shut up, Irene, and find out what it's like to make a real living, you phony.

In my personal opinion the way Noah Ellis handled the situation was the equivalent of a 5 year old child taking their toy back because they're mad. Regardless of how her reviews appear what he did is disrespectful. It is understandable that sometimes a critic can cause trouble for a business but if your establishment is up to par then you should have nothing to worry about. As for myself i never allow a critic to think for me but the actions of Noah ellis lead me to believe he was scared of her review and did what any coward would do

As Irene has impressed me with but a mere 5 out of the 100 reviews.

My bad side is happy that she was outed and abused and that some restaurant owner finally spoke up and said your not good for business. (she has been getting out of hand and feels he word is god) I lost thousands of dollars due to her inconsistent reviews . Its unnerving to walk into a restaurant via her selection them being so disappointed almost as if she is laughing at us for going . We mortals.

The good side of me say > its time to retire Irene, loose weight( that pic did you no justice) get back to health for your eating to much fried chicken at bar marmount it shows in your skin . Let someone else take the helm Fresh ideal , fresh words, different perspective. leave gracefully Irene. Ii did hear Purina is hiring for taste testers.

It is refreshing when a critic tries to stay out of the public eye. Come north to San Francisco where Mr Bauer goes to the French Laundry Employee Christmas party every year- last year he reviewed it on the same weekend(unrecognized of course...) He also goes to private dinner parties at Chefs Houses..... Can Irene move north?

That you've been letting this beast disgorge her worthless opinions for 16 years is significant. Your paper is soon to be nothing but cage liner for birds being rehabilitated for flight.

You can review them, but I'll never set foot inside Red Medicine!

The LA Times needs to stop whining. If she were a fair critic, then the Red Medicine would be the one to blame. But it seems like this lady uniformly censures all restaurants.

What happened to Irene Virbila is inexcusable...I've worked at fine-dining restaurants in LA since Ruth Reichel was the LA Times critic, and over the years, I got to know what Irene looked like. My employers always wanted to know when she was there, so they could take extra pains to make sure she got the best. She always visits a restaurant several times before writing a review, and frankly, I think she's usually kind to a fault (e.g., read her review of BLT Steak vs. Jonathan Gold's). But even if restauranteurs spot her, they can only do so much to impress...she looks around, she gets the scene, she senses what other patrons are experiencing. She's not infallible...her power comes from the sad fact that , in this culture, we're a one-paper town. A New York restauranteur could have pulled the same rude trick on Frank Bruni, but no one in New York would lack that much class...

Restaurant critics should never have this much control over a restaurant. They are entitled to their oppinion but it is just that, their oppinion. I have never really cared what a movie or restaurant critic think. They are not endowed with special powers to have more critical thinking than the rest of us. I find most critics to be arrogant and usually on the mean side. What should matter to restaurants is what the masses think. Foodie communities and websites are where oppinions are at because they reflect the masses, and not one individuals thoughts.

Red Medicine has given themselves a far worse review than anything Virbila would have written. I've worked in restaurants that have been critiqued by Virbila and know the power she holds. However, she has keen insight and is typically correct in her judgments. I even had the opportunity of interviewing her and she explained that she never wants to write a bad article but expects a certain level of food quality and creativity, especially at more expensive restaurants with well known chefs. I don't think people understand the work it takes to eat 90% of your meals out constantly tasting monotonous foods with snobby LA servers and living a ghost life. I think what Red Medicine did is wrong and shameful, they were obviously afraid of the thrashing they were going to deservingly get.

What costs people jobs in the food industry in L.A. are the lousy food and poor service. While I happen to like Virbila's reviews, and find that she's most often accurate and fair in her assessments, she's at times too lenient. I've had mediocre food at AOC and Lucques, both of which she has fawned over. Meanwhile, service in this town is hit or miss at best, because more than likely your waitperson is waiting on that next call from the casting office and not the least interested in either the food or service (s)he's supposed to be providing. High-end restaurants here can't hold a candle to San Francisco's. They survive because dining out in L.A. is all about seeing and being seen by "hipsters," an overused word in the LAT lexicon. Finally, while we all may disagree with her reviews at times, she knows a helluva lot more about food and has traveled the word tasting it more than the average clown on Yelp. If those are the people you want to believe, good luck!

Restaurant critics go with the restaurant business, and the Times' critic is no more or less biased or caustic than any informative critic. If Noah Ellis has such a hostile personality as to have behaved like an angry child, why would anyone want to eat food made and served with his bile? Red Medicine should be renamed Black Medicine. This restaurant and any future restaurants with Noah Ellis on board deserve to be boycotted.

I have waited anxiously for a restaurant such as this to open withing walking distance of my house. I guess I waited in vain. If the chefs can't take the heat, get out of the restaurant business. It is through experience and word of mouth and quality that you keep customers; bullying and refusing to serve someone who did nothing illegal or improper, will backfire. I guess I need to wait for another neighborhood joint to come up, hopefully with good food, good service AND good manners.

It seems to me that publishing the photo without permission may result in loss of income and adversely impact her future. If so, there are grounds for a civil suit for damages and possibly defamation. --My opinion, ianal.

Good for Red Medicine and its owners. Critics are just that...critical. They are not researchers who disclose information about a restaurant; they are diners who are paid to critique and most often criticize. Food referrals are the best way to prejudge an establishment prior to spending your hard-earned money. Check your local department of health for violations and listen to the advice of friends...in that regard restaurants know that every customer is important and all factor in either bringing in more business or pushing it away.

Hopefully the Times will follow suit. She's an awful critic.

Ridiculous. I have read every one of Ms. Virbila's reviews over at least the past six years, and have never felt any of them were rude. Sometimes I disagree with her, sometimes I don't, but the behavior by Red Medicine means I will not be visiting their restaurant, if for no other reason that now I think they have something to hide.

Oh, boo hoo. The typical LA Times reader sanctimonious outrage is laughable, as usual.

Whatever. If he knew what she looked like, so must a lot of other restaurateurs. In fact, it probably just levels the playing field since the whole idea about anonymity is that you are treated like everyone else. These guys knew what she looked like, so could have given her special service. A less connected restaurant would be at a disadvantage, now they have just as much information as the big guys.

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