merry christmas, now get out

December 27, 2010

The Christmas spirit is alive and well at Los Angeles’ new Vietnamese-chic restaurant Red Medicine, where last week L.A. Times food Critic S. Irene Virbila was ejected without service due to the fact that she is L.A. Times food critic S. Irene Virbila.

The restaurant’s partner Noah Ellis recognized the stalwart reviewer–who has done much to maintain her anonymity for the 16 years she has been on the scene–and decided to snap her photo before telling her that she and her party were not welcome at the recently opened Beverly Hills  restaurant. Later in the night, he posted her picture on the restaurant’s tumbler, along with an explanation as to why she was not welcome at the restaurant.

His excuse for such a childish act: Virbila is not the type of reviewer that they want reviewing their restaurant.

On Virbila’s behalf, the Times ran a beautifully objective news story focusing on the subject of reviewer anonymnity, but I think that the larger issue at hand is the subject of restauranteur control over press. Ellis seemed to be under the impression that he had the right to kick out a reviewer whose previous opinions he didn’t agree with, but in the publishing world there is no precedent for business owners, musicians, filmmakers, chefs, artists or anyone who presents anything for public comment to personally prevent someone from writing a review. PR people can contact writers who have a good reputation in the field in order to “choose” who gets access to preview media information, but once the doors are open and the CD is on shelves, there is no way to control who writes what about whom (see: every indie-rock music blog and every asshole who thinks he’s a film geek because he asked the “hard-hitting” question to Matt Damon at a panel discussion). If bands could kick reviewers they thought were ignorant out of their concerts or artists could prevent writers who didn’t like their best friend’s work from entering the gallery, the entire concept of an honest review would disintegrate.

Virbila is not a blogger who writes uneducated blabber about the new Sea Wolf albums, though. She is a well-respected restaurant critic, albeit one with a rating system that Ellis describes as “unnecessarily harsh.” But if Ellis fears Virbila’s opinions of Red Medicine, maybe he shouldn’t have opened it in L.A., where she writes. Or maybe if he can’t handle criticism, he shouldn’t be opening restaurants at all. If he was confident in his establishment’s ability to please guests, why would he be so scared of what a respected writer posing as a guest has to say (does he delete negative Yelp reviews, too?)?

Ellis defended his actions by saying that “A number of people in this city have been fired because of [her] bad reviews” and that many of her bad reviews were “completely irrational.” While I’m sure Virbila could be flattered by his perception of her influence, Ellis’ justification is completely misguided. Regardless of her reputation, there is no way that one bad review would take down an otherwise-stellar establishment. In today’s blog-and-peer-review-centric world, word of mouth easily trumps printed words. So if Ellis’ friends were fired from their posts, it was because of continual lackluster performance on the job not the words of one Times reviewer.

The irony in this whole scenario, however, is that Virbila wasn’t even there to write a review. All she wanted was some fusion grub. And anyone in the restaurant and food-writing world should know that reviews are never written the week a place opens anyway–they all get a chance to iron out the kinks first. But because of Ellis’ own insecurities about his eatery, and Soviet-like fears of unwanted media, he made a series of immature decisions that instead of bringing prestige to his upscale establishment have instead created a self-induced hurricane of negative attention worse than any that an imaginary negative review could have spawned. Kicking out Virbila and posting her photo online has made his entire organization look both elitist and childish. Red Medicine’s days are now numbered–not because of food quality or service, but because of the drama-fueled high school mentality of its Tumblr-happy owner.

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