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

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?

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.