As a rule, every trend that begins in New York ends up in Philadelphia eventually, from punk rock to New American dining. Now, according to the September issue of Philadelphia magazine, the city has inherited our most inane and pointless debate, one which continues to fester here. Craig LaBan, Philadelphia’s chief restaurant critic, is being sued by the owner of Chops Steakhouse over a review he wrote some months ago. And in the process, he’s threatened with losing his anonymity. But as the critic of record in essentially a one-paper town (with due respect to the Philadelphia Daily News), LaBan is about as mysterious to Philadelphia as cheesesteaks or Legionnaires’s disease.
What makes the story especially satisfying, aside from the usual unmistakable air of Philadephia conflict, a city specialty akin to fame in L.A. or status in New York, is the comeuppance it provides LaBan, the worst of all American critics at preening his ridiculous disguises and costumes. We always found the idea of restaurant critics going out in disguise ludicrous, especially the famous ones, like Ruth Reichl or LaBan, whom everybody knew anyway. That’s one reason we are behind the New York Daily News’ decision to allow Restaurant Girl to dine out without getting made up like an actor from a Tennessee Williams play. (LaBan has appeared in public in full theatrical whiskers, in order to avoid blinding onlookers with his power.) The truth is that most restaurant critics of note are recognizable, but it doesn’t matter: Their reviews tend to be pretty accurate, and even when fawned upon by management, they don’t necessarily get soigné treatment from the harried food runners. The problem with most critics of LaBan’s stature is not anonymity, but tablecloth fatigue. That’s one more reason why Restaurant Girl should take heart from this Philly street fight.