Outing of L.A. Times Restaurant Critic Crosses the Line

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What Ruth Reichl did to keep her identity hidden as critic of the New York Times.
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The restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times is no longer anonymous. In an incident that's caroming around the Twitterverse like the latest from Ruth Bourdain, 16-year L.A. Times critic S. Irene Virbila was ambushed at Beverly Hills restaurant Red Medicine while she was working. Noah Ellis, one of the Red Medicine's owners, walked up to Virbila, whipped out a camera, and snapped, then posted the pic on the restaurant's Tumblr site ― but not before ordering Virbila and her companions out.

This wasn't just Eater-style guerrilla gotcha, though. From the Times' account of what happened:

Ellis said he was intentionally trying to take away Virbila's anonymity because he does not like her reviews: "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..."

The Times' Russ Parson says Virbila told him she felt humiliated. Does a restaurant have the right to oust a critic, and threaten her livelihood by killing the anonymity she's spent the better part of two decades carefully preserving? Several professional critics have made the decision to come out of the anonymity closet in recent years, whether for book jacket photos or Pulitzer ceremonies or TV spots ― and we've all heard of old-school critics who, say, invite chefs to holiday parties in their homes, even as they suggest to readers that they're strictly anonymous ― but being outed against your will? That's something else.

In one way, such aggressive behavior on the part of a restaurant acknowledges better than a newspaper's marketing department ever could that a critic's opinion is of supreme importance. In another way ― well, it's a violent assault.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Contact me at John.Birdsall@SFWeekly.com
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