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 Lagasse was rumored to have hired a private investigator to get a picture of him. In Philadelphia, many restaurateurs have gotten their hands on copies of a private photograph from LaBan’s wedding. (He’s heard rumors it was filched from his trash by a waiter who used to be his neighbor.) And as serious as LaBan is about staying incognito, he is otherwise quite laid-back and outgoing.

The rationale for anonymity boils down to the Heisenberg principle: Things change when they are observed. In her recent memoir, Mimi Sheraton, the former Times critic, enumerates the ways in which a restaurant hip to the presence of a critic can game the system — cooking two versions of everything in order to choose the better one, selecting the most elegant vegetables and cuts of fish, giving the sauce extra attention, assigning a dedicated server to the critic’s table. Ironically, LaBan, who is as rigorous as any critic about preserving anonymity, maintains there is little a restaurant can do to appear better than it is. “You’d be shocked by how often I’ve had crappy food or service at places where they recognized me,” he says.