Philly Food Critic is “Not Valerie Plame”

In the latest salvo of critic-versus-restaurant-versus–media circus, Philadelpia Magazine has published a photo of Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan (photo is on page two of the website feature). If you’ve been following the situation, you know that a suburban Philly restaurant called Chops filed a libel lawsuit against LaBan back in February, after the Inquirer published a 44-word sidebar review that deemed LaBan’s meal at Chops “expensive and disappointing, from the soggy and sour chopped salad to a miserably tough and fatty strip steak.” Chops owner Alex Plotkin’s lawsuit claims that LaBan was mistaken—he dined on a steak sandwich without bread, not a strip steak, calling into question his whole review. LaBan says he has a receipt that proves he ordered steak frites, the “steak” part of which was described by a waiter as a “strip steak.”

The real meat of the case, however, has been LaBan’s right to remain anonymous. As a restaurant critic, LaBan has attempted to remain “faceless.” He wears disguises at readings for his book, The Philadelphia Inquirer Restaurant Guide, and when he won a 2000 James Beard Award he declined to attend the awards ceremony. He has argued that a videotaped deposition that shows his face should not be allowed in court, saying his livelihood depends, in part, on his anonymity.

Philadelphia Magazine’s decision to publish LaBan’s photo appears to render all this moot. Why do it? Because LaBan is news, Editor Larry Platt says, and because “everyone in the restaurant community knows what he looks like anyway.”

But mostly, we’re running a shot of LaBan because this whole debate about his anonymity just smacks of so much self-importance. Listen, the guy eats meals and writes about them. He’s not Valerie Plame, okay?

As a Philadelphia Weekly article points out, however,

The Association of Food Journalists lists 13 guidelines for food critics, and the second one, after ethics, is anonymity.

‘Reviews should be conducted anonymously whenever possible,’ it reads. ‘Critics should experience the restaurant just as ordinary patrons do. Reservations should be made in a name other than that of the reviewer and meals should be paid for using cash or credit cards in a name other than the critic.’

But then, the Association of Food Journalists is not the CIA.