I’m with Irene

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is traditionally slow for news, but one story kept all of LA buzzing and made national and international news: the outing of Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila.

Shortly before Christmas, while Virbila was waiting for a table with her husband and friends at a Beverly Hills restaurant, one of the restaurant’s owners snapped a photo of her and ordered them to leave. The owner then posted the photo on the internet along with her phone number and a “manifesto” slamming her reviews.

Some personal history is in order here: one of my first writing gigs, in 1998, was as restaurant critic for the Westside Weekly, a local section of the LA Times. I got the job through a competition – writers submitted sample reviews, editors published the five they liked best, and the readership voted.

Having never been a professional restaurant writer before, I wrote for advice to Jonathan Gold, who then had a restaurant column I admired, called Counter Intelligence; he has since won a Pulitzer Prize. To my surprise he wrote back, graciously at that, including the caution never to have my picture published. This I dutifully obeyed (sometimes over the objections of editors of other publications), until the Times eliminated its local sections in 2001.

I’ve never met Irene (that I’m aware of), although we had a couple interactions by phone and email many years ago. There are differing opinions on her reviews, her methods and whether such a powerful critic is good for LA’s restaurant scene. There’s even a debate as to whether having her picture out there will damage her career (the Pulitzer effectively ended Jonathan Gold’s anonymity, yet he continues to review restaurants). This isn’t about any of that.

Rather, my point is this: restaurants are above all in the hospitality business, yet sometimes mistakes happen. From four-star extravaganzas to taco trucks, I’ve seen things get busy, kitchens get backed up, orders get mistaken and customers get grouchy and pushy. Handling problems with grace helps earn my endorsement (assuming everything else is worthy, of course).

The restaurant in this case went out of its way to be graceless. It will get neither any business nor any mention from me.

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