The Inquirer food critic is facing the greatest assault yet to his anonymity.
Craig LaBan is caught in a high-stakes dispute over ... steaks. And the Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic stands to lose something even more important than a pending lawsuit. He could lose his anonymity.
A recent ruling in the libel case 401 Restaurant Associates v. LaBan determined that the longtime food reviewer would be forced to give a videotaped deposition.
Worse, the video would be admissible at trial.
The suit arose from a three-sentence review LaBan wrote dissing the "strip steak" at the Bala Cynwyd restaurant Chops.
The suit alleges that what LaBan ate wasn't strip steak, and that the reviewer should've known that. But what's really important here is whether the courtroom witnesses will get to see LaBan's face or hear his voice.
Like many restaurant critics, LaBan guards his identity closely. Attorneys for Philadelphia Media Holdings (PMH), which owns the Inquirer, argued in court that his appearance and working methods constitute trade secrets, and therefore LaBan shouldn't be forced to submit to videotaping or photography.
According to Judge William Manfredi's written ruling, they lost. The upshot? LaBan was forced to provide videotaped testimony as himself--without wigs, masks or fake voices.
"He gave his deposition on June 5," says Dion Rassias, an attorney with the firm representing Chops owner Alex Plotkin. "And we would expect to use the video when the case comes to trial."
Both LaBan and Maura Fay, the attorney representing the critic and co-defendant PMH, declined to comment.
But the importance of guarding his identity is evident throughout the brief filed on his behalf.
"Craig LaBan's photographic or video image, as well as the methods he uses while reviewing restaurants, meet the definition of trade secrets ... Keeping this information secret assists Mr. LaBan in performing his job and thus has economic value to him. His anonymity allows him to better assess what the average customer will be served because the restaurant does not know the meal is being reviewed by the Inquirer."
From that perspective, the public will be better off if LaBan's identity remains as secret as possible. It's an identity he's gone to great lengths over the years to protect.
Rassias is unaware if LaBan has attended any court proceedings prior to giving his deposition. "I didn't see anyone dressed as Batman, Spider-Man or the Green Lantern," he says.
The superhero reference stems from LaBan's identity--or lack thereof--around town. Known largely for being unknown, LaBan wears elaborate disguises during public appearances. Given the history of food criticism, the costumes do make great theater, but they aren't just for show. The Association of Food Journalists lists 13 guidelines for food critics, and the second one, after ethics, is anonymity.