The Unknown Critic

Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan goes to extreme lengths to keep his identity hidden. But his power over local ­restaurants is anything but a secret

Three days before Christmas, Craig LaBan called Dominique and Sabine Filoni and informed them that he would be reviewing Bianca, their new restaurant on the Main Line, in an upcoming edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

What? So soon? The restaurant, located in the two-story Bryn Mawr building that formerly housed Toscana, had been open less than three months, and wasn’t yet performing at the level the Filonis knew it could. Just in the past few weeks they had corrected several flaws. They were frustrated by how quickly LaBan was reviewing them, but, as Sabine, 38, acknowledged, “Anytime you open the door, you put yourself out there.”

The Filonis had been reviewed by LaBan once before. At Savona, the white-tablecloth French-Italian in Gulph Mills where Dominique ran the kitchen for seven years and Sabine was general manager, LaBan had awarded three out of four bells, an honor he bestows on few restaurants. LaBan had quibbled with the identity of Savona’s cuisine (billed as Italian, but notably Francophile), but had been generous with his praise. The impact on the restaurant had been swift and powerful. “It kind of made us,” Dominique, 35, says. Then Food & Wine put Filoni on its cover as one of 10 “best new chefs” of 2004.

But with Savona, LaBan had waited until four years after its opening to do his review, by which time the Filonis were perfectly confident of what they were doing. And at Savona, the Filonis had been hired guns. (They eventually were offered a small ownership stake.) Bianca was their baby — was, in fact, named after their first child, and launched only 10 days before the birth of their second. They had spent nearly $1 million of their own and investors’ money to open it. This was personal.

On Christmas Eve, LaBan called the Filonis to interview them, as is his custom after eating at a restaurant but before writing a review. And as happens in every one of these conversations, the Filonis tried to glean what LaBan might think of their restaurant. He was pleasant, and he asked many questions. But he was practiced at deflecting such probes, and it was impossible to know what he thought.

Along with his sphinxy phone demeanor, the not-difficult-to-identify source of LaBan’s mystique is the difficult-to-overestimate significance, to a Philadelphia-area restaurateur, of a review by him. Other critics nibble at his turf, but LaBan, as the restaurant arbiter for the region’s newspaper of record, is the only one approaching make-or-break power, or at least the perception of it. Understandably, this capacity to shut down a business with a few well-chosen words can be unnerving to someone who might have spent several hundred thousands of dollars to open his restaurant. Trust, at 13th and Sansom, closed its doors a year after LaBan decimated it (“sputtering on autopilot” was his summation), damning it with “no bells.” Conversely, a hardworking young couple who’ve scraped together family funds and a modest SBA loan to open an unassuming BYOB might sauté in obscurity until LaBan comes along. If he likes their restaurant, suddenly they’re turning their tables three times on Saturday nights. Tried getting into Melograno lately?