Revisiting the infamy of Red Medicine

So some of you may remember the two blog posts I made about the Los Angeles restaurant Red Medicine. The first entry on 2011 January 2 was about the outing of S. Irene Virbila, and the second entry on 2013 April 8 (exactly three years ago today) was about the antics of the owner who decided to publish a list of names of people who decided to no-show on their reservations.

A cursory web search reveals that Red Medicine closed at the end of 2014 October, about a year and a half ago now. A quick look at Google Street View shows that as of 2015 March, some months after the closing, the signage is still intact, and Google Maps shows no other restaurant–or any other business, for that matter–has taken over the space. (More research shows that in the years before the opening of Red Medicine, the building at 8400 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA, was the home of a restaurant called The Continental.)

I have to wonder if those looking to open up a new restaurant in Beverly Hills think the building is now jinxed after some of the crazy crap the previous owner did. The article mentions, in the beginning, the restaurant using an image of Ho Chi Minh as its original logo. This is in addition to the two other noteworthy events I blogged about linked earlier.

The official statement cites the basic “new landlord, higher rent” excuse:

Red Medicine has developed a following of passionate diners over the years and we were delighted to create a unique culinary experience for each and every one of them. With new building ownership and the accompanying overhead cost increases, we have accepted an offer and plan to sell the restaurant.

However, I think there’s more to it than that. A business that is truly doing well should be able to succeed in spite of an increase in rent (assuming the new rent is still reasonable). A business that is barely getting by, will more likely have an owner willing to sell and get out before there is a chance of losing it all.

I think Red Medicine’s owner pissed off many people. From the Ho Chi Minh thing, to outing a food critic, to the clearly inappropriate broadcasting the names of diners who couldn’t make their reservations, a lot of people had at least one reason never to dine there.

To the new tenants of 8400 Wilshire Boulevard, when there are any: Don’t run your business like an idiot, and you’ll almost certainly be fine.

Red Medicine and the no-shows

Since the dawn of the World Wide Web, no longer have restaurant reviews been the exclusive domain of professional restaurant critics. Services like Yelp have enabled reviews of restaurants (and other establishments), both for better and for worse, by average customers.

But, suddenly some no-show customers at a Beverly Hills restaurant found the shoe on the other foot. This story on KGTV (San Diego ABC affiliate) made a lot of waves, because this time Noah Ellis, the owner of Red Medicine, tweeted the full names of several no-shows after getting sick and tired of losing money from people either missing their reservation or cancelling at the last minute.

This tweet:

All the nice guests who wonder why restaurants overbook and they sometimes have to wait for their res should thank people like those below.

and this quote from the owner (which came from the KGTV story) should give you some idea of the frustration level involved:

The (expletive) who decide to no-show, or cancel 20 minutes before their reservation (because one of their friends made a reservation somewhere else) ruin restaurants (as a whole) for the people who make a reservation and do their best to honor it. Either restaurants are forced to overbook and make the guests (that actually showed up) wait, or they do what we do, turn away guests for some prime-time slots because they’re booked, and then have empty tables.

And if that’s not enough this LA Times article has this quote from a competing chef:

[A competing chef] said he usually responds to no-shows with “Cursing, a lot of f-words and other kitchen-speak. It’s the equivalent of being stood up. Not that I’ve ever been stood up. But I can imagine how it feels with how many no-shows and last-minute cancellations we’ve gotten.

And then, days later, this article on details that at least one of those no-showing had a death in the family which she found out about less than a half-hour from making the reservation, and that she had only called in the reservation at 6pm for dinner at 7:30pm. According to her, staff at Red Medicine had her cell phone number and never called to see what had happened, and it was (understandably) the last thing on her mind to call and cancel the reservation.

(For the moment, I’m going to set aside that this is the same restaurant that once refused service to S. Irene Virbila and her party, and posted her picture, back in late 2010. As it happens, I blogged about that one too; if you want my post about that incident, you’re welcome to go back in the archives and read it.)

I can see both sides of the story here. Since I’m not a restaurant owner, first I will approach this from the point of view of a restaurant guest (which I have been many times, though not often at the level of restaurants similar to Red Medicine).

I think a death in the family is a valid reason to skip a restaurant reservation. For me, hearing a relative had just passed on would certainly ruin my appetite. If I had made a restaurant reservation at 6pm, and gotten that call around 6:20-6:30pm, it would depend a lot on circumstances if I was able to keep my thoughts in order long enough to remember to call to cancel; I might be able to, and then again I might not. Certainly, though, if the restaurant has my phone number and call to ask where I am, I’d tell them why I wasn’t able to make it. So if the woman’s story is true, then Red Medicine’s staff really dropped the ball and made an already bad situation even worse for at least one potential customer.

We don’t know the stories behind why the other six no-shows didn’t honor their reservations, and in all likelihood, we probably never will. I’m going to go out on a limb, though, and assume that the others had reasons which were much less serious than a death in the family. If it was simply a case of someone else in the party having reservations elsewhere, that’s a no-brainer: I would call and cancel as soon as I know. Even if it’s something like accidentally losing the credit/debit card that I was going to pay for dinner with, or problems with the vehicle I’d be driving down there (let’s face it, Red Medicine’s clientele don’t hop the bus down there), I’d rather call and cancel than just no-show.

From a restaurant owner’s point of view, perhaps more could have been done so that things didn’t get to this point. I certainly would want to know why people are no-shows at my restaurant so often. Maybe Noah and his staff already knew or at least already thought they knew. While I’ll probably get my share of flames for just trying to see Noah’s side of the story, it’s entirely possible this has been an ongoing problem they have been trying to resolve for months or years.

That said, there’s enough controversy about this that this isn’t something every restaurant owner should seriously consider. Red Medicine got at least three one-star reviews on Yelp in retaliation that I saw (and no telling how many others which will bubble up to the top once the reviewers better establish themselves), one of which suggested the restaurant should consider converting to walk-ins only. While I’m sure the reviewer meant well, that kind of a change either goes very right, or very wrong. Most places which require reservations require them because otherwise they’d lose many more customers without them, since many are bound to give up on a restaurant as the odds of getting a table equal and then become far worse than winning a decent amount on a scratch-off lottery ticket.

Only time will tell just how right, or how wrong, this move was. One thing’s for sure: if I get to visit LA and dine at Red Medicine, I will honor any reservation I make. The last thing I need is bad publicity.

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.