Thursday, September 3, 2015

Chat: Good King Tavern report; critics' anonymity

Avance´s dining room, as viewed from balcony.
Avance's dining room, as viewed from balcony. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer

Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat of Feb. 25, 2014:

Reader: I live in the Southwark neighborhood and like a cool new place, the Good King Tavern, a cozy little place serving brasserie fare at friendly prices. They have an all-French wine list, a carafe program for good table wine, and serious classic cocktails and beer. Have you had the chance to go?

Craig LaBan: No, not yet, but I'm definitely eager to try it, because Paul Lyons is one of the rising young Philly chefs. He's worked at Barbuzzo and Jamonera, but probably more people tasted his food alongside George Sabatino, at Morgan's Pier. The space also has good karma. Chick's was a bit underappreciated.

Reader: Has Adam Platt (NY Mag food critic) outing himself given you an idea to do the same?

C.L.: No, that was very strange. He made a number of interesting points though: the fact that critics are often noticed, the fact that it makes less of a difference than people might think, and the point that what matters more are the unannounced nature of the visits, the independent source of financing (the publication pays, no freebies - ever), and a staunch refusal to have any personal relationships with the people you cover. Anonymity, when it works, is still a tool. And it still works a fair percentage of the time - even where servers are trained to recognize me. So why would anyone give up one of the tools to do their job, even if it works only part of the time? It seemed an ill-advised publicity grab . . . Very shortsighted - one-week bump in attention, but his credibility suffers in readers' eyes . . . forever.

Reader: How vegetarian-friendly is Zahav? Also, any suggestions for lesser-known places for great old-school cocktails?

C.L: Very. They make some of the best veggie salads in Philly - a course unto themselves, "salatim." I dream of the fried cauliflower. And of course, you could eat an entire meal of the hummus, which is rightfully legendary. Also, for old-school cocktails, Southwark is still the bellwether.

Reader: Alan Richman recently named Avance and Pizzeria Vetri to his list of best new restaurants in 2014. It was a little hard for me to comprehend, especially since you wait roughly 2 months before reviewing a restaurant and Avance opened late 2013. Do you think the era of "the celebrity chef" and food blogs hyping openings is starting to take away from people offering an unbiased opinion, in lieu praising someone who has been on TV?

C.L.: Well, timing is always tricky for end-of-year awards . . . I was unable to comment on Avance for nominations like Beard's "best new" resto category because they opened so late. But a national mag critic like Richman has a different mission. He's not really writing for Philadelphians who might like to go there, as I do, aiming to give you a complete guide to a restaurant, and put it in the context of the city. It's a process that really needs a couple months of breaking-in for the restaurant to make sure I get a fair take. Magazine writers can do their thing on single visit - praise a meal here, a meal there, jet from city to city. He acknowledged it was early to visit Avance - but was clearly impressed. And, well, you know I love Pizzeria Vetri. I was pleased Richman thought it was good enough to give it serious notice on a national level - because he eats around.

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