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

Thin-skinned restaurateurs commonly fault food reviewers for not having worked in restaurant kitchens; it’s a silly argument, of course, since the reviewer’s function is to tell readers what it’s like to eat at a particular restaurant, not what it’s like to cook there. In any event, LaBan has a background that largely immunizes him against such criticism. Besides having attended journalism school at Columbia, he spent a year in Burgundy at La Varenne, the French cooking school. This was in addition to his junior year of college spent studying abroad in Paris. (A student of guitar since age three, he also passed that year playing jazz once a week at the bistro across from his apartment in the Fifth Arrondisement.) This makes it harder for rationalization-prone chefs to disregard LaBan’s bell ratings.

These were the topic of conversation when, the week after being interviewed by LaBan, Dominique and Sabine Filoni sat in an upholstered nook off the main dining room at Bianca. LaBan and restaurant owners might like to believe that Inquirer readers take the time to read the full text of the reviews, with all of their elaborations and nuances, but restaurants live and die by the number of bells awarded them by LaBan. Dominique Filoni was saying he reads LaBan’s reviews only “sometimes,” but then he walked through an impressively clear-eyed exegesis of the bell system, which suggested he had given more than a little thought to the matter.

“If you get zero bells, you’re done,” Filoni said. “If you get one, there’s a lot to fix. If you get two or three, it’s a work in progress. Even if you get four bells, it doesn’t prove you’ve arrived. You’ve got to keep proving it.” Sabine knew just how much was riding on this: not only their own reputations, but the trust their investors had put in them. It was hard not to be nervous, not to worry about the man who held so much power over them.

“There are many stories about him,” Dominique said. “He’s like an urban legend.”

“I understand he has dark hair,” Sabine said.

“I hear many descriptions of him,” Dominique said. “He is tall, he is thin, he is smaller, he is chubbier. … ”

The Filonis asked me if “Craig LaBan” was his real name. They seemed genuinely surprised when I told them it was.

Craig LaBan is six-foot-two, blond and bearded, with a coral surfer’s necklace bobbing amid the chest hair that issues from his open-throated shirt. Strike that. He’s a chrome-domed “little person” with a monocle and a limp. No he isn’t. I cannot, of course, describe what he looks like; that was a precondition of his allowing me to accompany him on his review meals for Bianca and write about how he forms his opinions. I can, however, quote him regarding the extent of his invisibility. “I have worn disguises in the past,” he allows. “It’s not something I regularly do.”

Among the fascinations of the food critic’s role, to the untutored wretches who think that getting paid to eat out all the time is a “dream job,” are the lengths to which critics resort in order to preserve their anonymity. The New York Times’s Ruth Reichl famously cycled through a collection of wigs. One of the reasons LaBan made a splash when he started as the Inquirer’s critic in 1998 was that he replaced a critic, Elaine Tait, whose headshot had accompanied many of her reviews and who, in her decades as the paper’s critic, had become a cozily familiar fixture in the restaurant community. She didn’t even use a rating system. Suddenly, the Inquirer’s reviewer was issuing grades — and faceless; restaurateurs upped their Xanax prescriptions.