(Recent events created a discussion of some of the difficult issues involved in food writing and restaurant reviewing. This article delves into some of those issues.)

By Larry Levine –

With some regularity, people tell me how much they would like to be doing what I’m doing. I get to write about food, manage the restaurant web site atLarrys.com which I founded, and edit and publish this online food magazine.

If it sounds like fun that’s because it is fun. Food is one of the passions of my life and turning that passion into these two related internet ventures provides a healthy helping of pleasure.

Right beneath the surface of all the fun and satisfaction, however, bubble the ever present issues of ethics and integrity. Every so often something happens that brings that bubble to the surface and demands that we take a look at how we are doing. One such time arrived last week when L.A. Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila had a dustup with the owners of the Beverly Hills restaurant Red Medicine. From what has been reported, it appears Ms. Virbila and her party showed up with a reservation and were kept waiting about 40 minutes. Then someone affiliated with the restaurant took a photo of Ms. Virbila and told her she would not be served. The photo was then posted on a web site and spread through the blogosphere.

There are a number of issues interwoven into this situation, not the least of which is that Ms. Virbila’s ability to dine anonymously at restaurants she intends to review has been compromised. Anonymity is an important tool in the life of many restaurant critics. Ruth Reichl, former critic at the L.A. Times and N.Y. Times wrote a very interesting and funny book – Garlic and Sapphires – about the lengths to which she would go to disguise herself before dining out. On the other hand, some restaurant critics, by virtue of their physical appearance, are beyond disguising. Still others don’t care.

It turns out, in the case of Ms. Virbila, she was not at Red Medicine to write a review. Her practice is to dine at a restaurant at least three times before writing a review and this would have been her first visit. Owners of the restaurant said they had resolved when they opened that they would not serve her if she ever showed up.  They pointed to unspecified experiences they had with her at other restaurants in the past. That, of course, is their right. But was it their right to go even further and post her photo on the internet?

The incident ignited a discussion among the co-hosts of atLarrys.com regarding the question of anonymity and other related issues. At atLarrys.com, we don’t seek anonymity. We publish the photos and biographies of our co-hosts on the web site. At the same time, we have strict rules against accepting free meals or any other benefits, even those that might be available to the general dining public. It’s a delicate and tricky balancing act.

The photos and biographies are essential to our operating theory that says “a recommendation is only as good as the person making it.” Where other restaurant web sites publish reviews by faceless people who may actually be restaurant owners or family members using assumed names as they puff up their own places and criticize the competition, at atLarrys.com we want the reader to know the person making the recommendation. That way if a visitor likes a restaurant suggested by a co-host, he or she can look to other restaurants recommended by the same co-host.

Therein lies one of the major differences between atLarrys.com and Yelp or Chow Hound or dozens of other restaurant web site. There are restaurants at which I dine frequently and can attest to the quality. Yet, I can go on Yelp and find people who post negative comments about the place. I’ve had people tell me they won’t go to a restaurant I know to be excellent because they saw “mixed reviews on Yelp.” And they know nothing of the person making the negative or positive comments.

Another major difference at atLarrys.com is that we don’t do reviews – just recommendations. If a restaurant isn’t good enough to recommend to a good friend or a business colleague, it won’t appear at atLarrys.com.

We recognize our practices leave the door open to mischief. If we are recognized might we not receive service that is more attentive and prompt than what is provided to others? Might the kitchen be alerted to be extra diligent in preparing our food?  

Our charge is to be keenly alert to these potential issues and to guard against them. After the dustup at Red Medicine, I asked a series of questions of each of the co-hosts at atLarrys.com. I wanted to know if they have been recognized at a restaurant in the nearly 15-months the site has been active, if there have been any situations that threatened the integrity of the site, or if they thought we needed to review or change any of our policies and practices.

The response was a unanimous “no” to each question. atLarrys.com registers thousands of page views each month and has been visited by people in more than three dozen countries. Yet I am the only one who has had anything even approaching an uncomfortable situation. I have had four of them that are instructive of various situations we face.

Soon after the site went live, I received a phone call from the manager of Biba in Sacramento. He thanked me for the kind words. No problem here. Their internet watch turned up a mention of the restaurant and he tracked it to me. But I had been eating at that restaurant for 15 years before I even created atLarrys.com and the restaurant was on the site before he called.

Early this year, after dining at de’ Medici Cucina Italiana in San Diego, the hostess asked if I am the same Larry Levine who runs the web site. Again, I had dined at this restaurant often before creating atLarrys.com and the recommendation was up before anyone at the restaurant was aware of the connection. Also, I saw that the service we were receiving was no different than what was being provided to others.

After the management of Panzanella in Sherman Oaks received our standard letter of congratulations for having been listed at atLarrys.com, Jennifer and I were offered an after dinner drink in appreciation. I told them that if I accepted the drink I would have to take them off the site. We dine at Panzanella four or five times a month. Customers like that occasionally are offered a drink or a complimentary dessert. Because of my role with atLarrys.com and Table Talk atLarrys.com, I cannot accept those courtesies. Certainly, we are greeted in a friendly way each time we arrive, but so are many of the other regular customers we see there.

We dined recently at Buono Tavola in San Luis Obispo as the guests of the owners. It was innocent enough – arranged by a mutual friend, who also dined with us. That is a restaurant that clearly is worthy of being recommended at atLarrys.com. But I can’t do it because the owners picked up the tab and they were even were aware of my connection to the web sites at the time. Is that fair to them?

So, there you have it – some of the challenges that go along with the fun of being a food writer and managing two food oriented internet sites. What happened at Red Medicine was more than just unfortunate. But out of it came a healthy discussion by those of us devoted to protecting the integrity of atLarrys.com.

Now, take a look at the companion article on this magazine site – Unseasoned Affective Disorder by Larry Sheingold. Larry offers humorous observations about some of the comments he found on other restaurant web sites.

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