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Food editor explains how restaurants are reviewed

December 30, 2010 | 12:41 pm

It was the outing heard 'round the food world: Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila had her photo taken and was refused service at a Beverly Hills restaurant when she tried to dine there with friends Dec. 21. The photo was then posted on the restaurant's Tumblr page and was quickly picked up by other websites. And just like that, 15 years of anonymity was gone.

In an editor's note on the cover of this week's Food section, Russ Parsons writes that the "unfortunate"  situation provided the opportunity to shed some light on how The Times reviews restaurants:

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.

He talks about the anonymity of a critic:

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.

And he explains the oft-misunderstood star system:

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 few of those.

Parsons' editor's note has more details.

— Deirdre Edgar