One story over the holidays that caught my attention took place a couple days before Christmas in LA.  Apparently, an owner of the restaurant Red Medicine came up to the noted restaurant critic for the LA Times (S. Irene Virbila) while she was waiting for a table, took her picture, and posted it on the restaurant’s website.  This would not have been nearly as big a deal if the critic had not been working anonymously for the paper for the past 16 years.   The owner’s reason for this public outing:

“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…”

Oh, and did I mention that the owner then kicked the critic out of the restaurant, along with her three dining partners?  Talk about adding insult to injury. 

When I read this story, I was outraged.  I realize that a bad review can really hurt a business, especially in an ultra-competitive market like LA.  That said, it’s not like a critic of this stature just goes in once, orders an appetizer, and then offers up their influential review.  The method is more like going in at least three different times, sampling a plethora of items on the menu, and then making a ruling on the success of the overall operation.   I think what this owner did was cowardly.  He is no martyr, but rather a fool who thought it was a better idea to hurt a career over a possibly poor review.  Weak sauce.

As someone who loves to eat out and also read restaurant reviews, I like knowing that the reviewer received an experience similar to mine, if I had gone.  But, this only works when the critic is not easily identified.  If they are, the service could be far better, the chef could make special preparations, and the experience could be different – thus, the review would lose credibility. 

What do you think, readers?  Do restaurant reviewers have too much power?  Should they all be outed?  Speak your mind.

And to critics like Tom Sietsema from my beloved Washington Post: just remember to keep your head low.

[At top, critic Jonathan Gold from LA Weekly, keeping it real… c/o Portfolio.]

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9 Responses

  1. Kali

    Agreed. Regardless of either or not the critic’s reviews are considered “unnecessarily cruel or irrational”, this is a chef who can’t handle criticism and anyone else’s opinion of his food other than his own. I shudder to think of what it must be like to work under someone whose ego is this out of control.

  2. Dave

    Critics guide; the people decide. In the end it’s more about what my friends say than a paid critic. Besides: if you’re a regular reader, you get to know their quirks. They need to be anonymous, so they can do their job without influencing what the regular patron’s experience is going to be like; they need to be respected.

  3. Brian

    I agree with Dave. A professional critic is a great resource to have and it is important for them to remain unbiased and anonymous. But these days a critic is just another resource.

    You can find out a lot about a restaurant in others ways (Yelp, Chowhound, friend referrals, etc.). While I’m sure critics like the one mentioned can have a significant impact on a restaurants business, I don’t think they have the ability to make or break that restaurant.

  4. JT

    Dave and Brian,
    I think personal word-of-mouth will always be tops for recommendations, but I always look to the pros before the amateurs (yelp, chowhound).

  5. Stephen Cerruti

    Recently there has been a lot of good talk about privacy and the loss of it. One historian put it in context by saying the relatively brief age of privacy has ended.

    As much as it seems to make sense for a critic to be anonymous, the lack of transparency is troubling. Crowdsourced reviews have already been referenced in the comments and they suffer from the same problem in the form of astroturfing.

    If restaurant reviews are to be continued under the same umbrella as journalism then shouldn’t they move from secretive back room deals into full and open transparency. Shouldn’t the reviewer focus on the style and philosophy of cooking, essentially retelling the restaurant’s story and accompany that with authoritative crowdsourced opinions from diners who are approached only after their visit?

    How many professions rely on deceptive practices and anonimity? How many of those are put in a position to shape public opinion without public debate and disclosure?

  6. JT

    This is not about deception, this is about the reviewer getting the same treatment as those that would read the review. Without that anonymity, the credibility of the review is diminished. You have to respect the reviewers who are forsaking fame and lavish treatment for the good of their readers.


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