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

Of course he was. Few pastimes are as enjoyable for Philadelphia foodies, each Saturday, as debating the bells LaBan has just awarded to some new restaurant. And since shortly after LaBan became the Inquirer’s reviewer and rang in his tintinnabulary rating system, the Chowhound set has kvetched about what might be called the Two-Bell Problem. It comes down to the widely held impression, which isn’t without foundation, that LaBan awards two bells to most of the places he reviews. So you get restaurants that at first blush seem wildly divergent in quality (the lame, forgettable Italian BYO Casta Diva, the infinitely more atmospheric and toothsome Alma de Cuba) receiving the same middling grade.

Of course, LaBan wouldn’t say it’s “middling.” The box accompanying his reviews describes two bells as denoting “very good,” and he elaborates, in an interview, that two bells are “a green light, with qualifications.” Maybe I’ve been hanging out with the wrong crowd, but no one I know would describe even half of the restaurants that have gotten two bells as “very good.” So perhaps it’s just a nomenclature thing. Or maybe it’s a question of grade inflation: “If anything, I think he’s given four bells out too often,” says restaurateur Stephen Starr. “I don’t know that anyone in Philadelphia deserves four bells, including me.” LaBan also allows that in his head, he thinks of restaurants as being “a high two, a middle two, and a low two.” But that’s in his head. To add more gradations to his scale, he says, would lead to hair-splitting and the suggestion that this is a science, which it’s not. The bells are merely a sifting device; his discursive comments are what really matter. “Most of what I do is in the review,” he says, “in the soft-tissue experience.”

A related phenomenon is restaurants of vastly different ambition and sophistication not receiving ratings reflective of that fact. So the Country Club diner, a bustling Northeast lox/pancake/omelet factory, received three bells, the same number awarded to Nectar, a David Rockwell-designed Asian-fusion show palace in Berwyn where the chef is Patrick Feury, late of Susanna Foo. LaBan’s answer, which is entirely reasonable (though readers can be forgiven for not divining it themselves, since there’s no mention of it in the box accompanying reviews), is that he’s comparing apples to apples. In his view, the Country Club was a three-bell diner.

Then there are simple differences of opinion, which are what make it so fun to read any critic and compare his take with one’s own. LaBan gave two bells to Twenty Manning, which has a very pleasant drinks lounge but has several times served me lackluster food; he initially gave one bell (later upgraded to, big surprise, two bells) to Tria, a lovely and much needed wine-and-tapas bar on 18th Street that uses excellent ingredients and is unique in what it offers; and he gave three bells to the absurdly pretentious, weirdly conceived restaurant Meritage. And giving the same “excellent” rating (three bells) to distinctive, polished restaurants like Morimoto and Lacroix as to such bland, workmanlike BYOBs as Max’s in Cinnaminson and Alison at Blue Bell is, frankly, insane.

Partly, this is explicable in terms of LaBan’s more comprehensive sampling of a restaurant. “My experience is very different from the average diner’s, because by the time I’m done with my dinners, I’ve tasted everything on their menu,” he says. “I mean, nobody gets the global view. They’ll have, like, one dish, and either they really love it or they really hate it, and that forms their entire impression of the restaurant.” Partly, too, the gap is explicable in terms of his personal prejudices. Some restaurants, like Meritage, he seems to romanticize, while other restaurants, like Tria, he seems to penalize for trappings of elitism. Of the two restaurants’ respective pretensions, he says, “I was charmed by it at one place and annoyed by it at another place. I have to allow myself to be true to my own reactions.”