The price of brutally honest reviews

According to the recent story on, the food reviewer for the LA Times, S. Irene Virbila, was recently outed on the Tumblr blog for the restaurant Red Medicine, with the added comment that she was no longer welcome to eat there by managing partner Noah Ellis.

From the story:

Virbila has diligently worked at remaining anonymous since 1994 because if restaurants knew she was a critic, she would receive special treatment from the staff and owner. Therefore, her job would be pointless as she’d be unable to give an honest review of the food, atmosphere, and wait staff.

Ellis said he took her anonymity away on purpose because he doesn’t like her reviews. He said, “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 of her reviews can be unnecessarily cruel and irrational.”

As the story also states, Irene has worked hard to preserve her anonymity for over a decade and a half. The case could be made is equally cruel and irrational to destroy someone’s anonymity in spite in such a fashion. While Mr. Ellis may technically be within his legal rights to post the picture and identify Irene to the LA restaurant community, the question of whether or not it’s in good taste to do so is another matter entirely.

I should note that I normally defend actions which preserve freedom to make an informed decision. On its face Mr. Ellis’s action may qualify as such. However, there are far better ways to do this than posting it to the entire world on a Tumblr blog. Maybe Mr. Ellis, or another of the restaurant’s partners, has realized this as well in the week this story has sat in my draft queue, as the posting appears to have since been deleted.

Also of note is that the blow to Irene’s anonymity apparently will not stop her from writing more reviews, according to this Yahoo! News story. Kudos to Irene for not giving up in the face of flagrant intimidation.

I do believe there will be a place for professional restaurant reviewers, whether employed by newspapers (or their equivalents) or others, for some time, though the role may differ significantly with the rise of the Internet, which allows anyone to post anything at relatively low cost. Or, put another way, the A. J. Liebling quote “freedom of the press is limited to those who own one,” as it relates to professional reviewers, takes on a whole new meaning in the age where anyone with $20 can own their own printing press.

In the specific case of restaurant reviews, sites such as Yelp allow anyone to post their reviews in relative anonymity (first name and last initial). This allows truly malicious reviewers to be held accountable, while still allowing a forum for the posting of “real customer” experiences. Some of the Yelp knockoffs may allow posting under an alias which leaves no clues to one’s real identity, and Yelp itself does not check the identities of its users.

Finally, the angle from which I’m writing this: I review/recap local events on my other blog Quinn’s Big City. I do not, as a rule, need to rely on anonymity in order to write unbiased reviews. However, I recently felt it necessary to adopt and post a specific editorial policy that being asked to leave or being denied entry to an event, similar to what happened to Irene, would not preclude a recap from being posted. In a perfect world this is unnecessary; of course, we do not live in a perfect world. As of now, it has yet to be tested and, obviously, I hope it never becomes an issue.

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