Craig LaBan Adds Four New Four-Bellers

But is a big, glossy, limited-release guide the best way to speak to the audience in 2016?

Laban25BestYesterday, home subscribers of the Inquirer received a slick, glossy-covered magazine called Craig LaBan’s Ultimate Dining guide that includes the Inquirer restaurant critic’s 25 favorite restaurants. We would have commented on it yesterday but, awkwardly, no one around the office actually subscribes to the Inquirer (though someone does pick up a copy from the newsstand every morning) and we didn’t have a chance to visit our septuagenarian parents and faithful subscribers to check it out firsthand.

The combination of factors that kept us from seeing the magazine is one heck of a comment about the state of media in this city. The guide is not available online yet. It is available for online purchase ($5.95), but that’s not a digital version. It’s an actual dead-tree version that will be mailed out.

It’s also not available on the same newsstands that stock the Inquirer everyday. Somehow newsstands weren’t in the rollout plan. In the afternoon, after some social media back-and-forth, copies of the guide were made available at the third floor headquarters of Philly.com at 8th and Market. But as employees of a magazine in 2016, we admittedly raised more than one eyebrow to see the paper-of-record entering the magazine business in 2016.

And yet despite all of this, Craig LaBan was trending on Twitter yesterday. So, there’s that.

As for the list itself? The big news is that LaBan elevated Laurel, Vernick Food & Drink, Fork and Vedge to his highest ranking: 4 Bells. And we agree wholeheartedly with these new picks. As a matter of fact, we agree so much that they also happen to be, in order, the number one, two, three and four restaurants on our most recent 50 Best Restaurants list.

And it’s nice when we can concur like this, sure, but such agreement also brings up a larger point about the utility of big lists like this. In Monday’s paper, LaBan talked about the months of work and 100-some meals he ate in the course of putting this package together. And we’re right there with him on that. No project like this is ever easy. And no one whose ever done one enters into the next one lightly (yes, that was a fat joke). But a couple years ago, we made the decision that the way Philly mag (and Foobooz) had always done our 50 Best Restaurants list was stupid.

We did it every two years–a massive undertaking involving multiple staff members and months of work. And almost every single time, the list that we’d put so much work into felt like it was outdated almost before it hit the newsstand.

So we changed things up. Looking at the ridiculous clip at which Philadelphia’s restaurateurs were opening new outposts, we accelerated things and started updating 50 Best Restaurants every year. Then every six months. We released our last list in June of 2016. And we’re working on the new one right now, which will go live (online) in December and be in the January issue.  This pace allows us to hone our list in as close to real-time as is possible in the magazine world. Amazing new restaurants which, once upon a time, might’ve waited two years for their shot at the Big List can now conceivably take a spot within a few months of opening night. And those that crater fast don’t last very long with the kind of competition they’re up against.

Thing is, like everything we do here at Foobooz, this accelerated schedule was an experiment. We think it provides a better service, doing things this way. The folks at the Inquirer are obviously leaning more towards the shock-and-awe roll-out of a big, stand-alone guide which subscribers can read until it’s dog-eared and ancient.

So what do you think? Did you manage to get your hands on a copy of LaBan’s guide? Is it the kind of thing you think is going to be useful for years to come? Or is the more nimble, ever-changing (and, therefore, naturally less immutable and enduring) approach what works for today’s scene? Does the perishable nature of a frequently changing list of the best restaurants in a city make the entire thing feel less considered?

50 Best Restaurants In Philadelphia [Philadelphia magazine]
Craig LaBan’s Ultimate Dining Guide [philly.com]