Last week, the anonymous LA Times food critic, S. Irene Virbila, was “outed” by restaurateur Noah Ellis at his new restaurant, Red Medicine in Beverly Hills. Not only did Ellis throw Virbila out of his restaurant and refuse to serve her, he took a picture of her and posted it on his restaurant’s website.
I was fascinated by this story for a few reasons. Not only does such an act take major guts, but it also got me thinking about the role of the critic in the media these days. With the growing influence of Yelp, everyone is a critic. It also had me questioning whether a critic can expect to or needs to remain anonymous anymore. Most importantly, will this be a PR nightmare or a PR home run for the restaurant?
On one hand, Red Medicine is probably getting more PR now for outing Virbila than it would have had they let her eat and review the restaurant as planned. The story has gotten national exposure by Gawker, New York Times, a lengthy response by the LA Times. and countless other newspapers, online sites and blogs. This story has definitely put Red Medicine on the map, and I imagine more than a few curious readers will want to try the restaurant that brazenly kicked out a revered food critic. At the very least, the restaurant has definitely increased its visibility and awareness.
What Ellis may not have anticipated is the enormous backlash his restaurant has suffered. A quick look at the restaurant’s Yelp page shows dozens of angry people who heard the story and then gave the restaurant one-star and an angry review. Many other media and restaurant industry insiders have come out in support of Virbila and have critiqued Red Medicine’s handling of the situation, claiming a good restaurant would not fear a review. I am curious to see what other restaurant reviewers decide to do with this restaurant. Will they all want to review it, or will they ignore it (a fate which is much worse in the restaurant industry)? Will they be harsher on it?
What effect Ellis’ stunt will have on the long-term success of the restaurant remains to be seen. And, I cannot wait to see what kind of review the restaurant gets from the LA Times, who have made it clear they intend to move forward with their review. It will be interesting to see if the old adage is true, that all press is good press, or if the backlash from this stunt will damage the new restaurant for good.
Had the restaurant been my client, I would have never condoned or advised that Ellis publish the blog post or out Virbila to the public. However, now that the damage is done, Ellis is better off owning what he did and standing by his decision. Hopefully he has enough supporters who believe he was in the right – and of course, most importantly, hopefully he has great food to validate the restaurant – to get him through this crisis and make his restaurant a success. Yelp is already seeing some counter reviews supporting Red Medicine and it’s food. Would you dine at Red Medicine after Ellis’ stunt?