December 14, 2006

Craig LaBan Unmasked

To be quite honest, I was surprised to learn that Craig LaBan—the restaurant critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer—would be appearing live and in person Tuesday evening to give a talk at the Penn Bookstore. Anonymity is a restaurant critic’s stock-in-trade. It is what gives him or her the luxury to experience a restaurant the way we do—in its normal state of affairs with all of its little imperfections on display. In LaBan’s case, if the restaurant staff discovered they were serving the only critic in town who has the power to move the market, things could get a bit awkward. LaBan maintains that he does not need anonymity to craft an effective review—after all, he says, they still have to cook the food, and ultimately that’s the focus of the review. Yet, he has gone to great lengths in the past to protect his identity. One of the most famous examples took place when LaBan won the James Beard Foundation award in 2000, food writing’s most prestigious award; he refused to attend the banquet because the industry reps in attendance would see what he looked like. And so the question became: How would LaBan pull off his appearance at the Penn Bookstore? Would he even show at all?

The purpose of this rare public appearance was for LaBan to promote his new book—The Philadelphia Inquirer Restaurant Guide. LaBan’s guide is an essential read not only for those who enjoy exploring the Philadelphia restaurant scene but also for those who appreciate good food writing. As you would expect, the book provides you with all of the utility you want in a restaurant guide, including indices that organize the restaurants by various categories. But LaBan serves up much more. The guide reads like literature. And LaBan is the consummate storyteller, treating you to a level of depth and expertise about the Philadelphia restaurant scene that only he can deliver.

LaBan feeds you detailed, eloquent reviews of his 76 favorite Philadelphia restaurants, all of which have been updated for the new book. LaBan’s prose will vividly transport you to his dinner table, his sensory details so crisp and engaging you’ll be convinced you shared the meal with him. In the margins of each of these 76 reviews, LaBan fleshes out the scene even further by delivering bullet point highlights about the menu, the wine list, the weekend noise level and even parking options, among other things. In addition to his 76 favorites, you’ll also find concise capsule reviews of over 600 more area restaurants.

But, as a guide, what sets this book apart from the others are LaBan’s essays. Peppered throughout the book are nine densely informative and richly entertaining essays about features unique to the Philadelphia restaurant scene, including the BYOB phenomenon, truck fare and (of course) cheesesteaks. Digest these and you’ll feel like you own the city.

Before LaBan emerged and took the podium at the Penn Bookstore, the buzz in the crowd was all about his identity. And when he did finally appear, he fully embraced the moment, donning a wizard’s cape and shielding his face with his signature baguettes. The crowd laughed as he distributed the bread for us to eat (we were missing dinner, after all), and before we knew it, he had opened his spell book and had already begun to mesmerize us with one of his essays. At that point, the buzz about his appearance was forgotten. All we could see was the Yue Kee truck in University City and the “soft half-moons of violet-skinned Asian eggplants” he was describing.

Afterwards, LaBan graciously posed for this picture, which he gave me permission to publish on my blog:

Craig LaBan Unmasked

So, the next time you spy a man in a wizard’s cape across the room from you at your favorite trattoria enjoying a whole, grilled Branzino prepared tableside, please don’t stare or call attention to the man. Just let him eat in peace. After all, it could be Craig LaBan.

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