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Whose reviews matter most?

3 min read


This post is by Restaurant SmartBrief contributor Janet Forgrieve.

Last week’s highly publicized outing of Los Angeles Times restaurant reviewer S. Irene Virbila by Red Medicine owner Noah Ellis sparked the latest round of debate about whether restaurant critics require anonymity to do their jobs properly. Traditionally, reviewers aim to experience a restaurant’s ambience, service and food just as a patron would, and write an honest account so that readers can judge for themselves whether the eatery is worth their time and money.

Often, when a restaurateur knows a critic is in the house, the experience changes as the staff bends over backward to offer better-than-average service, and the chef goes all out to create special dishes that might not otherwise be available. Ellis took the opposite approach — he told Virbila and her party to leave, and then snapped a picture that he posted on the restaurant’s website. Ellis was apparently holding a grudge over earlier mixed reviews that panned some of the dishes at other restaurants he ran, as well as a negative critique of earlier work by Red Medicine’s chef. The photo, along with Ellis’ account of the incident, have since been removed from Red Medicine’s site, but the story made its way to many other spots on the Web.

It’s not the first time an online media outlet has revealed the identity of a high-profile restaurant critic. Earlier this year, Eater published a roster, complete with photos, known aliases and other identifying details.

In an essay on the subject that ran in the Washington Post’s Story Lab earlier this year, writer Marc Fisher argues that there’s no good reason for outing critics except for malice, and the practice can make it impossible for them to do their job. Fisher also brings up the question of whether Yelp, Chowhound and other online outlets that offer everyone a chance to review restaurants are making the work of professional critics unnecessary, and points out that online reviews can offer useful information but some seem to come from suspect sources, including PR teams.

In a separate Washington Post article earlier this year, restaurateur Julie Liu told the paper that Yelp’s ad salespeople had offered to move negative reviews lower on the page if the eatery bought an ad, a practice that rankled enough for Liu to join nine other businesses in filing a lawsuit against the site. Yelp executives disputed the claims and denied the practice, but the article went onto detail just how easy it is for companies to influence online reviewers with free meals, cash payments and other perks.

Do restaurant reviewers need to be anonymous to do their jobs? Has your restaurant had more response to professional reviews or online critiques by regular guests? Join the conversation in the comments.