The 'anonymous' restaurant critic?

Craig LaBan at his desk.

Many newspaper and magazine critics seek to maintain an air of anonymity as they go about their work - under the notion that if they are "known" to restaurant staff, they may receive better food or service.

Slate's L.V. Anderson weighs in on Pete Wells' New York Times review of Daniel. Wells, who prefers to work in anonymity, clearly received better treatment at Daniel than did a colleague seated at another table that evening.

Anderson posits that the "charade" ought to stop.

"It’s great for Wells to acknowledge the truth about 21st-century restaurant criticism, but it would be better for him to go one step further, do away with the whole pretense of being an everyman, and go public with his real face," Anderson says. "Wells should by all means continue to enlist nonfamous to get a sense of how restaurants treat the masses, but it’s time for him to stop pretending he blends in with the masses. As far as elite restaurateurs are concerned, he doesn’t."

Craig LaBan has been reviewing for The Inquirer since 1998, and there's no plan for him to be public, says Inquirer food editor Maureen Fitzgerald. (LaBan is on vacation now.)

"He doesn't want to be Anton Ego," she said, referring to the dour, persnickety (and "out") critic in the film Ratatouille. "He wants to write of the experience of every reader. He tries to get an honest meal."

As you might imagine, after 15 years this is not easy. Still, LaBan tries to run under the radar. He makes reservations under other names, pays with a credit card under a different name, and even arrives late (after his tablemates are seated) to test whether the restaurant recognizes him and wants to upgrade the table.

Even so, Fitzgerald told me, LaBan is recognized, especially by the big-name restaurateurs. When LaBan knows he is recognized, he sometimes mentions it in the review. Fitzgerald said she had on good authority that at the big-name restaurants, after LaBan's reviews are published, "they're no longer on high alert," so restaurants sometimes relax. That's why, she said, he will demote restaurants sometimes on subsequent visits.

That LaBan might be recognized, she said, does not always improve the meal: "They can’t upgrade the chef’s cooking chops after he walks in the door.“