Craig LaBan Unmasked?

The Inquirer food critic is facing the greatest assault yet to his anonymity.

By Steve Volk
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 6 | Posted Jun. 13, 2007

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This is about the most revealing photograph of Craig LaBan the public has ever seen. Photo by David Snyder, Philafoodie.

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.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 6 of 6
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1. Anonymous said... on Jul 8, 2009 at 09:12PM

“He is out of his mind When I read the article about Johnny's Cafe in Margate it sounded like a personnal vendetta I,ve eaten at Johnny's and never had a bad meal I've also eaten at Domenico's in Ventnor in which this man raved about I had to RUN home for fear I would SHIT MY PANTS
Your opinion on food doesnt hold dirt to me and my colleages. In my opinion you should be FIRED”

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2. Anonymous said... on Jul 9, 2009 at 12:48PM

“I’m a former restaurant owner and know what is good and bad. About1 year ago I took my 15 yo twin girls who ONLY eat pizza and pasta to Johnny's Cafe. The meal was so bad that none of us could swallow the food. I did not create a disturbance and just chalked it off as a big mistake. About 15 minutes after we tasted the food I asked for the check. The server and the management saw that the food was not even touched and did not ask if everything was OK or if there was a problem. They did ask if I wanted to take it home! I swore that I would never subject myself to that again. Now the story takes an abrupt turn. We are going to their new location Friday (July 10th) to celebrate my wife’s birthday. My wife's mother flew in from Florida for the occasion but Johnny's was the only place in town that had an opening for 6 at 6 ish. Some would say that was a bad move considering my past experience but there were no non-casino reservations even at my favorite Il Mulino. Check out my post on July 11th .Better? I hope!”

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3. Anonymous said... on Mar 18, 2010 at 06:24PM

“Just like most critics they are FAILED chefs whose opinion is worthless because they can't cut it as a chef. So they choose to write about other chefs when they themselves know absolutely nothing about food. F THEM and this guy.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Mar 18, 2010 at 06:28PM

“Hey former restaurant owner your'e an A-HOLE for even going back to a place where you claim to hate just because they were the only place to make a reservation at ay "6-ish". There are plenty of earterys where you are moron, and you didn't even plan ahead knowing your mother in law was flying in from FLA moron, that is your own Fing fault douchebag.”

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5. Chef Jon said... on May 24, 2010 at 11:28AM

“Is a critic reviewing your restaurant so bad? I say no! If your food and service is so bad that you fear review then do the rest of us a favor and close up shop. I own a restaurant in Downingtown called Amani's BYOB, and I would welcome the likes of Craig Laban at my tables. I know that our service and food is the best we can offer and I would love to hear what he has to say. Critisisim only makes you better. So the rest of you should suck it up and do better, or close up and make it easier to find a good place to eat!”

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6. Joe C said... on Mar 30, 2012 at 12:26PM

“I have come across this article that is now 5 years old while looking up reviews for Johnny's Cafe in Margate. I see that some people who had a bad experience in the past. I invite you to try Johnny's again. We are now more experienced and have made some dramatic changes in the last 5 years starting with a whole new building. Johnny started out with an ice cream store. He knew very little about being a full time chef. Now with many years under his belt he has made quite a great name for himself in the restaurant world. If you read some of the new reviews of his restaurant on sites like urbanspoon you will see that he has grown tremendously over the years and now has one of the best restaurants at the shore. I give Johnny a lot of credit for what he was able to do in 5 short years. Going from a little ice cream store to a 140 seat restaurant takes talent and Johnny has a lot of talent. Give us another shot if you had a bad experience in the past you will be pleasantly suprised”

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