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

December 22, 2010 |  2:05 pm

Tablesetting
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

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