Last month Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila was kicked out of a new Beverly Hills restaurant, but not before the establishment’s managing partner snapped a photo of her.
The partner of Red Medicine, Noah Ellis, said he told her to leave because “Irene is not the person any of us wanted reviewing our restaurant…” according to this story titled “Food critic outed and ousted from restaurant” from latimes.com. The incident took place on Dec. 21, just nine days after the restaurant had opened (which calls into question what Virbila was doing at the restaurant so soon, but never mind about that right now). By the next day the photo was all over the Internet. Virbila said having the photo out there will make her job more difficult.
Um, excuse me, but apparently they knew what you look like anyway because they kicked you out and told you they didn’t want you to review their restaurant.
Virbila has been reviewing restaurants for the Times for 16 years. The notion that she enjoyed any real anonymity is quaint. But the incident raises the old question regarding the supposed cloak of secrecy under which critics attempt to work: does it matter?
I vigorously pursued anonymity during my 20 years at the Sentinel, yet I was under no false assumptions that people didn’t know who I was. That point was made clear to me, oh, I don’t know, maybe 15 years ago when I visited a Kissimmee seafood restaurant. I was practically the only person in the restaurant for lunch, yet service was deplorable. After I finally received my entree, the unskilled worker who had plopped it in front of me asked, “Has anyone ever told you you look like Scott Joseph?” I told her I didn’t know who Scott Joseph was; she shrugged and shuffled off (yes, she actually shuffled; I remember these things). A few minutes later she returned with a photo of me that apparently had been printed on a dot-matrix printer. “Remarkable resemblance, don’t you think?” she asked. I glanced at the picture, which appeared to have been taken at a wine tasting, and said, not with a little indignation, “That guy is fat!” (They did not get my good side.) By the way, I never wrote the review of this restaurant because I was sure it would fail on its own, and it did.
I was aware that there were photos of me in kitchens all over town, including every restaurant in Walt Disney World. I remember the first time I visited Kona Cafe at the Polynesian Resort. I was standing at the host stand waiting to be seated when a server nearby spotted me. She looked as though she had just made a positive identification in a police lineup. She turned immediately and scampered to the kitchen (yes, she scampered; see above). And sometime I’ll tell you about the time a restaurant owner hired a private detective to locate and follow me just so he could keep a picture of me at the host stand.
But the crux of the argument is this: does it matter?
Look at the shuffling Kissimmee server. She thought she had the restaurant critic right there in her restaurant, at her station, and yet she still gave him lousy service. And I could site probably hundreds of restaurant visits where the staff knew who I was yet fell flat on their faces with substandard service and poor food. The fact is that if a restaurant doesn’t know what it’s doing it isn’t going to learn it when I walk through the door. So why didn’t I just throw up my hands and allow my photo to be published next to my column? I preferred to keep playing the game, the one where I knew they knew but they didn’t know I knew they knew. Plus, I still had the element of surprise on my side. I continued to make reservations under a pseudonym and use credit cards with another name on them.
Some national critics have never worked that way, most notably John Mariani, critic for Esquire magazine, among others. Mariani calls the restaurants and tells them he’s coming, announces he’s arrived, and, I assume, if a check is presented pays for it with a credit card bearing his name. I asked him about the way he operates many years ago and he said he figures he’s just giving the restaurant a chance to give him its best shot. I suppose an argument could be made for that stance, but unless the restaurant is willing to give everyone its “best shot” the review isn’t of much use to the reader.
But in the new world of today, I have visited restaurants the knew I was coming. But just as with the incident in Kissimmee, it doesn’t always mean I’m going to have a positive experience. Check out my initial review of Fiorella’s, for instance, where I accepted an invitation to a media dinner. It was a disaster. (The independent publicist who invited me was fired by the hotel. And the restaurant has made vast improvements.)
So what do you think? Does it matter if the restaurant critic is anonymous? Leave a comment below.
In the meantime, I figure what the hell — if people know what I look like I might as well publish a photo of myself. Here’s one of me, taken Dec. 30, 2010, in Berlin’s Tiergarten park. Feel free to print it out and distribute it.