Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Is it fair to out a restaurant critic ... as a critic?

Posted by on Wed, Dec 29, 2010 at 9:00 AM

click to enlarge Add pounds, a little graying at the temples and decades and it's me, sort of...
  • Add pounds, a little graying at the temples and decades and it's me, sort of...

Until yesterday, I hadn't heard the story of Los Angeles restaurant owner Noah Ellis of Red Medicine, who "outed" a restaurant critic -- S. Irene Virbila of The Los Angeles Times -- by kicking her and her friends out of his restaurant last week.

A story on Smart Blog on Restaurants reports that Ellis was "holding a grudge over earlier mixed reviews that panned dishes at other restaurants he ran as well as a negative critique of earlier work by Red Medicine's chef." Ellis also took a photograph of the usually anonymous Virbila and posted it on the restaurant's website. (It has since been taken down.)

The question raised by this incident is whether restaurant critics require anonymity to do their jobs. My previous employer -- over a decade ago -- didn't require it and, in fact, ran my youthful-looking mug right next to the reviews in two different publications. The Pitch does require anonymity, but even if it didn't, I'd agree to have my photograph in a review only if it was one from 1987.

The Smart Blogs on Restaurants piece says that when a restaurant owner knows there's a critic in the house, "the experience changes as the staff bends over backward to offer better-than-average service, and the chef goes all out to create special dishes that might otherwise not be available."

There are famous stories about famous restaurant critics (Mimi Sheraton, for example) who were so determined not to be recognized that they resorted to a kind of espionage work: wearing various costumes and disguises. Who the hell has time for that?

Sure, I've been recognized in restaurants before (typically by a server or a bartender who once worked with me in my past life as a waiter and bartender). I promise you that the service did not suddenly "bend over backward," and if it did, I knew. As far as I can remember, no has ever offered me a special dish. I couldn't take it anyway.

I'm lucky: I've never been accosted by an angry owner or a chef, although one negative review did destroy a longtime friendship with a restaurant owner's wife, and there are plenty of local chefs who won't speak to me anymore. One chef fumed for years and only recently extended an olive branch -- which I accepted.

That's an unpleasant part of this job. There are still actors who snub me for negative theater reviews that I wrote two decades ago. Actors are sensitive creatures, and it makes sense -- to me anyway -- that chefs are just as vulnerable. They're artists, too.

Anyone who puts his or her work out there is bound to get kicked around by the public every so often -- and that includes critics, even if the critic's work is less bold than cooking or acting. Sometimes the outrage is well-deserved; other times, it's a case of not meeting someone's expectations. As one of my editors says: "You can't please everyone, and anyone using his or her artistic or critical standards shouldn't even try. We're all in the business of being discriminating, not popular."

You could say that the need for anonymity in a restaurant is akin to an actor performing a role. I'm not a restaurant writer; I'm just the guy at Table 10. I don't make reservations under my own name, and I never accept free meals. I'm hoping I'll get good service and a nice dinner. Like you.

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