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

“I don’t want to say he’s obsessed,” says Gerald Etter, the former Inquirer food editor who hired LaBan, “but Craig takes his anonymity very seriously.” LaBan e-mailed me his unlisted home phone number one day, but asked that I delete the number after dialing it. He does not attend parties where media or restaurant people might be present. He has other people make reservations for him using their own names. When he goes out to eat, he has his dining companions call him by an alias. He has several credit cards under names other than his.

WHYY radio host Marty Moss-Coane tells a story about how, two years ago, she booked author Salman Rushdie, the man who had lived under a fatwa — under pain of death — and who for years had feared for his life. He knew a thing or two about anonymity, but he breezed in the front door, signed his name in the visitors’ register for anyone to see, and sat near the window, visible to ­passers-by. Two months later, Moss-Coane had LaBan on. He came into the waiting area wearing a box on his head, with two holes cut out for his eyes. He had come in the back door and insisted that the windows be papered over for his visit. The box, LaBan notes, was suggested by an ’HYY security guard.

All the spycraft may seem a bit much, but in his previous job, as food critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, LaBan faced several instances of counterespionage. Once, he answered the doorbell to a bulb-flash and the receding image of a photographer scurrying away. Celebrity chef Emeril 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.