When the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan trashed the strip steak at City Line restaurant Chops, owner Alex Plotkin sued him. It’s Philly’s juiciest food fight ever—featuring money, power, a critic’s anonymity, and one man’s quest to defend his meat
Alex Plotkin came sailing out of Chops’ kitchen with a 12-pound side of beef swaddled in a cloth napkin and nestled in the crook of his arm like a baby. He presented it to me at the dinner table and pointed with pride at the USDA Prime stamp adorning the Cryovac bag. A thin film of blood kaleidoscoped inside as Plotkin shifted the meat in his hands. “This is my New York strip,” he said. “And that USDA Prime stamp is one of the things I look for with every piece of meat I receive.”
[sidebar]A former football player, Plotkin lives a life that reflects an athlete’s dedication. Though his playing days are long behind him, his hips still form a perfect triangle with his shoulders, and he gazelles through his dining room at a svelte six-foot-four and 210 pounds. His hair suggests meticulous effort, with a few perfect strands spilling down his forehead like black water over a cliff’s edge. His suits are immaculate, his shoes shine, and sometimes, when the 12- and 14-hour days at Chops steakhouse begin to weigh on him, he retires from the restaurant floor to his office, where he steals 15 minutes of sleep in a leather chair.
At age 39, Plotkin is plowing through a career in restaurants that has taken him through some of the city’s toniest spots, including Four Seasons and the Palm, where he worked in management. Like Chops, these aren’t the kinds of spots where restaurateurs normally haul sides of raw beef into dining rooms during the dinner rush. But life hasn’t exactly been normal for Plotkin since a certain February Sunday when he arrived to open his steakhouse for dinner, unaware that the following three sentences about his restaurant had been published in the Inquirer:
“A serious power-lunch crowd makes this sunny room feel like ‘the Palm on City Line.’ A recent meal, though, was expensive and disappointing, from the soggy and sour chopped salad to a miserably tough and fatty strip steak. The crab cake, though, was excellent.”
To the average reader, the 44-word mini-review of Chops probably doesn’t seem like a big deal. The quick takedown actually appeared at the end of a full review of Fleming’s steakhouse, in the “Or Try These” section. And yet because the words were written by Inquirer dining critic Craig LaBan, arguably the paper’s most influential voice, they took on an almost Biblical importance among Philadelphia restaurateurs — an importance, it’s now safe to say, that passeth all understanding.
LaBan enjoys a peculiar celebrity in our city, a famousness for being faceless. Most food critics strive to maintain their anonymity, but LaBan turns the practice into show biz, donning all manner of outrageous costumes for public appearances: Zorro masks, fake beards. He has even spread an armful of baguettes in front of his face like an Oriental fan. Some restaurant critics avoid writing negative reviews. LaBan considers himself a consumer advocate, and highlights a restaurant’s sins. As the Inquirer’s dining critic, he holds the loftiest platform for food coverage in the region. So when he cast this particular stone in the direction of Alex Plotkin, it rippled in all the pools the restaurateur cares about: at a Gladwyne mah-jongg party, where Nellie Goldman, a regular customer, says the chatter quickly turned to that morning’s write-up on Chops; at the Green Valley country club, where LaBan’s entire Sunday column was said to have been posted on the bulletin board with the three sentences about Chops circled; and in the office of Joseph Manko, a Lower Merion attorney. “I told someone I was going to Chops,” recalls Manko, “and they said, ‘Why would you want to go there? That place just got a bad review.’”
By Plotkin’s recollection, he heard 10 to 15 similar stories the first night alone. The review and his customers’ reactions touched upon an inner anxiousness — “I’m a worrier,” says Plotkin — that is another mark of his character. “I didn’t even know anything had run,” he says. “But then after I got to work, my customers started asking if something had gone wrong with the restaurant. They were asking if I was having — a problem with my meat.”
He speaks these last words with apparent difficulty, as if he is choking on … well, a miserably tough and fatty strip steak. As it turned out, he spent that first night gnawing on a mystery — had Craig LaBan ordered and eaten what he had written about?
Plotkin drove 22 minutes from Bala Cynwyd to his home in Blue Bell. He picked up the phone and left a voicemail for LaBan. He sent the critic an e-mail. And he got in bed. But he never did get any meaningful rest. “I just couldn’t believe he had my New York strip,” he says, “so that’s kind of what I spent the night thinking about. I don’t think I slept that first couple of nights. I was too upset.”
Sleepless nights? Over steak?
“My New York strip,” says Plotkin. “That’s who I am. It’s my life’s work.”
An existential crisis — Le strip, c’est moi — over meat?
Plotkin doesn’t bat an eye at the ridiculousness of what transpired. “I was questioning myself,” he says. “I wondered if I was serving the meat I thought I was. I wondered if I was as good as I thought I was.”
It was a night without end, and it was just the beginning.
THUS FAR, THE ineffable mystery of Alex Plotkin’s strip steak has spawned a libel suit, a media maelstrom, a series of, um, “threatening” conversations — and a dispute over LaBan’s self-proclaimed right to remain anonymous. LaBan was so keen to assert this right that he showed up for a recent videotaped legal proceeding — as the defendant in that libel suit — in full costume. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
This drama, like Seinfeld’s comedy, originates with a whole lot of nothing — steak! LaBan had, in fact, not eaten the strip of which Plotkin is so proud. But the seemingly picayune nature of the dispute itself is revelatory, unmasking the new foodie face of Philadelphia. Such great grief over a grilled menu item would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. But today, restaurateurs are the new Philly rock stars. Meat can mean a lawsuit.
The legal filings in Plotkin’s case exhibit the usual exaggerations associated with civil court. In the brief filed on Chops’ behalf, LaBan is a dining devil, prancing cloven-hooved through the city’s streets to drown well-meaning restaurant owners with the Inquirer’s many gallons of flaming ink. In the response filed for LaBan and the Inquirer, the critic is a consumer advocate, blameless in the eyes of the Lord.
All we know for sure is that after Plotkin’s sleepless night, LaBan called him back. As it turned out, LaBan had reviewed Chops’ lunch, ordering the steak frites, prepared with a cut of beef the menu doesn’t specify. Readers should have noticed that LaBan’s references to the “sunny room” and “power-lunch crowd” in the first sentence meant that he had eaten a midday meal, not dinner. But Plotkin says neither he nor the customers he spoke to caught the distinction — and further notes that LaBan wrote he had a New York strip, which only appears on the menu by name at dinner.
The meat Plotkin serves as a luncheon steak frites for $15 — whether culled from a strip or a rib eye — is far less impressive than and prepared differently from the New York strip he serves for dinner, priced over $30. In a July visit to Chops, I ordered both. The lunch steak was tougher and fattier, and appeared to have been flattened by a steamroller. The dinner steak was leaner and more tender, and appeared to have been inflated by a tire pump.
Chops, like other high-end steakhouses, carves its own beef — reserving less savory portions for lunch. In Plotkin’s conception of Chops, the two-inch-plus-thick New York strip served at dinner is his signature dish, like the filet mignon at Ruth’s Chris or the porterhouse at Peter Luger. “When we finally talked,” says Plotkin, “I told him, ‘Craig, you made me feel so much better! You didn’t eat the New York strip!’”
In hindsight, perhaps there was some ground here for a resolution that would have prevented Plotkin’s later legal action. A clarification of 20 words — “In his February 4th ‘Or Try These’ on Chops, Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan ate the steak frites for lunch” — might have offset Plotkin’s angst over the earlier 44 words. But LaBan, who declined to be interviewed for this article, probably never made such calculations. And why would he?
Suits over restaurant reviews are traditionally pronounced dead on arrival, since such reviews are protected as opinion under the First Amendment. In the defense’s response, LaBan contends that the waiter told him the steak frites was a strip steak. To take a brief dip into the insanity of the case, the waiter, Angelo Becker, contends he declared the frites meat a “chef’s choice” between a strip and a rib eye. Both Becker and Plotkin say a rib eye is what LaBan ultimately got.
But even if LaBan made a small mis-steak, who cares? Maybe Plotkin should serve better cuts of beef for lunch. More than likely, a lawsuit never entered LaBan’s mind — though it did enter Plotkin’s. “I’m a steakhouse,” says Plotkin. “My New York strip — that’s what I hang my hat on!”
When Plotkin hammered at the difference between his lunch and dinner steaks and asked for a retraction, LaBan refused. Instead, the critic offered Plotkin the chance to attend his February 6th online chat session at Philly.com. At first, the restaurateur agreed. But when he arrived in the chatroom, he saw the following lines of text posted by LaBan and another user:
LaBan: “I got an upset — though quite professional — call this morning from a restaurateur who bristled at an unsavory two-sentence capsule review of his place that appeared recently in my column. I hope he writes in today, as I encouraged, so we can discuss the issue in the forum. … ”
Don: “Let me guess the angry restaurant guy. Alex Plotkin CHOPS. You were right on the money there though. I’m curious on the grade of beef they are serving there.”
LaBan: “You might be right there, Don. But I’d like to let Alex speak for himself. He plans to write in, he says, but we may not get to it until next week.”
The defense flatly denies that LaBan arranged for anyone to be in the chatroom to confront Plotkin. But Plotkin felt duped. “I thought he was trying to punk me,” he says. “First he wasn’t going to run a correction. Now he was trying to embarrass me.”
He signed off without typing a word.
On February 15th, the suit was filed.
A DECADE AGO, such a dispute would never have captured the public’s imagination. But today, Philadelphians enjoy a more intimate relationship with the food they eat. The evidence of this revolution often comes walking right into South Philly’s D’Angelo Bros. Meat Market. “Customers are so much more sophisticated than they were five years ago,” says proprietor Sonny D’Angelo. “They don’t ask for lamb chops. They ask for Colorado lamb chops, or New Zealand lamb chops, because they know which regions are producing quality.”
Foodies like David Snyder, of Philafoodie.com, and Sandy Smith, a regular on the eGullet site, spend hours each day monitoring message boards and reading about good eats. And the revolution includes our children. D’Angelo says he is aware of five- and six-year-olds who already demonstrate foodie tendencies. In July, a customer in his store spun a tale about trying to get his nine-year-old daughter to turn off a food show and go to bed. “But, Daddy,” the little girl cried, “they’re getting ready to plate!”
Food culture may also prove just another outlet for people desperately seeking a higher social stratum. “You see 20-somethings now who think of where they eat as a kind of status symbol,” says Holly Moore, a former Center City restaurateur now best known for his blog, HollyEats. “It’s not just what kind of bag they’re carrying, but where they’re going for dinner.”
International foodie message boards like eGullet.com are great repositories of culinary information, and according to co-founder Steven Shaw, Philadelphia has soared in the past five years from the 10th most active city on the site to third, just behind New York and Vancouver and ahead of Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. But the boards are also home to a refined posturing. Witness the poster Vadouvan’s cultured takedown of one “Mr. Gordon,” who — ha! ha! — laughably lifted a forkful of cabrales cheese and foie gras to his lips.
“And to you Mr. Gordon,” writes Vadouvan, “YES, foie gras does not work with cabrales cheese, let alone with the addition of filet mignon which generally has no flavor in any restaurant.”
The atmosphere in Philadelphia might be a little food-crazy at the moment. In fact, the current moderator of the Pennsylvania eGullet forum — dominated by Philadelphians — will soon relinquish that job. “Issuing infractions and keeping posters to the topic rather than ‘so’s your mama’ talk takes too much time,” says Katie Loeb.
Food — it’s Philadelphia’s new contact sport. And Chops v. LaBan is the main event. The lawsuit has garnered press in the New York Times and dozens of American newspapers, on CNN and drive-time New York radio, even in New Zealand. It has burned up local foodie message boards and blogs. In most accounts, the restaurateur gets his ass handed to him — Alex Plotkin as human rump roast. In point of fact, however, he is just a man, like many Philadelphians, who really cares about his meat.
AS RESTAURANTS GO, Chops is distinguished from the average ominously dark, wood-paneled steakhouse by towering windows that dominate the room. Like its owner, who dresses in fine suits but smiles like a schoolboy, the restaurant is serious without being stuffy.
Leaning over a raw side of beef in his dining room, Plotkin says receipts are pretty much back to normal after a short dip. He could just walk away from the LaBan suit, no lasting economic harm done. In fact, looking around his restaurant on a crowded Thursday night, Plotkin could tout Chops as testament to the limits of LaBan’s much ballyhooed power. For him, however, the suit isn’t about money. “I think he should be accurate about what he ate,” says Plotkin.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Plotkin’s meat purveyors consider him one of their most intense customers. “Only a few restaurants buy prime beef,” says Bernard Loke, of Ashley Foods. “Chops is one of them, and Alex is as particular about what he receives as anybody.”
“He’s fanatical,” says Bruce Milstein, of U.S. Foodservice. “And I mean that as a compliment.”
Plotkin doesn’t just buy USDA-certified prime beef, the highest and most expensive grade (not counting specialty meats like wagyu and Kobe). He also purchases meat solely from grain-fed Midwestern steers, which are fatter and more flavorful than their grass-fed, warm-weather counterparts. He reviews his competitors every six months to ensure he underprices them, earning a narrow $7 profit on every strip. He personally inspects every piece of beef he orders. And both Loke and Milstein say it’s common for Plotkin to reject sides that fall outside his specifications.
Focusing on meat is perhaps not what Plotkin had in mind as a kid growing up in Peoria, Illinois, where his mom sold real estate and his father made Caterpillar tractor parts. He was an accomplished athlete, and his first foodie love was wine. Prior to becoming Chops’ managing owner, he’d enjoyed a long, successful run as a sommelier, touring restaurants throughout the country as a traveling wine expert before settling in as a manager at Four Seasons and the Palm.
In 2002, he was approached by Susquehanna Financial Group president Drew Milstein, who offered him the opportunity to become managing owner of a restaurant on the ground floor of an office tower at 401 City Avenue. Plotkin saw the offer as a lucky break, though he understood that the previous tenant, Marabella’s, enjoyed only a brief run of success before closing. When Plotkin walked into the abandoned kitchen for the first time, he saw the last fateful words Marabella’s staff ever wrote still scrawled on the “86” board in chalk: “Where did all the customers go?”
Plotkin admits he experienced a small chill. But mostly, he felt determined. “Athletics taught me a lot,” he says, “about commitment and dedication.”
Football was once Plotkin’s calling card. He played tight end and defensive end in high school, and then on scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh. He later dressed for eight games as a New York Jet, though he never played in one. “Ten years ago,” says Plotkin, “I would have found a way to work that into the conversation. But not anymore. This restaurant is who I am now; this is all I do.”
In a sense, Plotkin hasn’t changed very much. He once identified himself as a former football player. Now he is his New York strip. In both instances, he was looking for some accomplishment to cite as his public face. He wouldn’t be the first. And when you listen to him talk, it’s easy to see why Plotkin over-identifies with his work: In his limited time off, he runs and plays basketball. A relationship with a live-in girlfriend of four years recently ended. If we are what we do on a daily basis, Plotkin is mostly his work — pushing through the tedium of 12- and 14-hour workdays.
He doesn’t expect sympathy. He understands that the public didn’t gather around one night and implore him to take out a second mortgage on his home so he could open a steakhouse. In fact, he seems to pine, a little, for the days when owning and operating a steakhouse was all he did.
ON JUNE 5, 2007, Craig LaBan showed up at the law offices of Dilworth Paxson wearing an exaggeratedly large, bushy gray and white wig with a matching beard. And, contends Plotkin, he spoke in a distorted baritone, trying to mask the sound of his voice.
The Inquirer’s attorneys argued that LaBan’s likeness and work methods comprise trade secrets and asked that he not be filmed or photographed during the deposition process. But Judge William Manfredi ruled against them, and also decreed that LaBan appear without costume. So this last-ditch effort to keep his identity a secret, in defiance of a court order, smacked of desperation and perhaps a certain self-seriousness of his own.
Plotkin says his attorney, Dion Rassias, of the Jim Beasley firm, quickly whisked LaBan and opposing counsel into another room: “I don’t know specifically what was said, but I know when they came out he wasn’t wearing his costume anymore.”
Plotkin says LaBan looked “spooked,” like Superman without his cape. His filmed deposition, sans disguises, is eligible to be shown at trial, which could occur in the first half of 2008. But in this case about nothing, even the furor over LaBan’s “right” to remain anonymous may prove a non-issue. In theory, such anonymity is important so that restaurant owners can’t single him out for special treatment. But I easily obtained two separate photos of LaBan, both of which circulate within the Philadelphia restaurant community, and one of which was previously reproduced in both the Chestnut Hill Local and Real Philly. Under such circumstances, is LaBan really anonymous?
In court papers, the defense argues he is, and that “disclosure of Mr. LaBan’s identity would be highly detrimental to his ability to review restaurants.”
Then again, it’s not like his job depends on it. Inquirer editor Bill Marimow understandably didn’t want to comment on the litigation itself, and declined to clear up whether or not the Inquirer ever considered running some kind of clarification. He did say, “Craig LaBan’s job security is by no means threatened, but to the extent that he can remain anonymous, he should, because it better serves the reader.”
Some think that after LaBan’s 10 years working in this marketplace, his cover is so blown among area restaurateurs that readers are the only ones in the dark. “I don’t know Craig,” says Zack Stalberg, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy and former editor of the Daily News, “but he seems like a guy who takes himself too fucking seriously. It’s the disguises that I think are over-the-top, and I have to believe the people in that business know what that guy looks like, so I think it’s just a gimmick.”
That Craig LaBan is even in Philadelphia, let alone that the courts are making rulings on his wigs, is a potent symbol of the city’s food revolution. His predecessor, Elaine Tait, acted more as a booster for the local restaurant community than as a critic. Her photo sometimes ran with her column. LaBan is an altogether more serious journalist — the prime cut to her choice. In 2000, he won the prestigious James Beard Award for excellence in restaurant reviews. He studied culinary arts at French cooking school La Varenne. And his arrival, 10 years ago, coincided with the city’s turn toward finer, more adventurous and compelling restaurants.
It might be giving the Inquirer too much credit to say it saw the restaurant revolution coming. But LaBan is the kind of serious food journalist a serious restaurant town requires. And it isn’t because he dresses funny. “He knows his food,” says Greg Welsh, co-owner of the Chestnut Grill. “I give him that.”
Even so, Welsh passes LaBan’s photo to any restaurateur who asks — and serves as a kind of unofficial culinary theologian, calling for limits on LaBan’s perceived God-like power. “I frequently get a call from some new restaurant owner who wants his picture,” says Welsh, “because they’re afraid of him. If they knew he was in their restaurant, they’d strap on their knee pads and do whatever it took to make him happy. So I give them the picture. Consumer advocate! He’s not Ralph Nader, putting seatbelts in cars. For God’s sake, it’s dinner!”
JUDGING PURELY FROM his demeanor — his nervous laugh, his unsettled body language — Alex Plotkin seems uncomfortable with the attention his suit has brought. Just being interviewed for this article taxed his nerves.
He called repeatedly to address small issues, at one point phoning every 15 or 20 minutes for several hours. He also looked up Philadelphia magazine’s number and faxed, unrequested, the past three years of Chops’ highly sensitive profit-and-loss statements. (He wanted to prove Chops suffered a small financial hit in the two weeks after LaBan’s review ran. Judging from the documents he sent, it did.) And he recounted a couple of conversations he interpreted as threatening, including one in which someone suggested the Inquirer could retaliate against him and dig into other aspects of his life beyond meat.
This suggestion wasn’t made by an employee of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It was just idle chatter. But it added another sleepless night to Plotkin’s total. Some might think needless worry is just what the restaurateur deserves for filing suit. But in person, Plotkin professes loftier ideals. “I don’t wish Craig LaBan any ill will,” he says. “I really don’t. I’d just like him to write about what he ordered. Just write that you ate the steak frites, not my New York strip.”
It would be easy to dismiss Plotkin as needlessly obsessive. But mostly, he is a product of the age. In a time and place when people proudly call themselves “foodies” and write long Internet treatises on tapas, is Plotkin really so odd for suing on behalf of the steak his livelihood hinges on?
I spent a long night hanging out at Chops, and during one of Plotkin’s absences, a man in another booth spoke to me. “Did you like your steak?” he asked.
“Yes,” I told him. “That was the first I’ve eaten here.”
“Really?” he said. “I must have had 25. I come here all the time.”
When Plotkin returned, I told him about the conversation, and his face brightened for a brief moment. He estimates he received roughly 30 nasty phone calls and e-mails during the largest wave of media coverage. He also had to take down his restaurant’s online message board, because some of the verbiage, post-lawsuit, was inappropriate for public consumption. “I try not to read food blogs or message boards at all now,” he says. “This hasn’t been good publicity. And that’s fine. I didn’t do this for publicity. I did this on principle.”
Of course, in principle, Plotkin could just look at that guy in his restaurant who’s eaten 25 of his steaks and realize he’s already beaten Craig LaBan. In a perfect world, in a different age, the restaurateur and the critic might even come together like the lion and the lamb, and settle their differences free of the stress and tension a courtroom figures to provide. With some aromatic dish between them and a bottle of fine wine on the table, Plotkin and LaBan could see their way toward a resolution that would assuage one without injuring the other.
The prospect of such a sit-down shouldn’t be so far-fetched. Food is an increasingly important part of Philadelphia’s identity. It is a means by which those dedicated to eating its finest variations seek to distinguish themselves from one another. But once upon a time, food was also celebrated for its power to bring us together.