“Hi, I’m Craig LaBan,” said Craig LaBan, Philadelphia’s dining critic of record, as he bounded aboard a van headed for the Newark airport and a flight to Tel Aviv.
We were embarking on a three-day eating bonanza in search of inspiration for three projects, each delving into a different aspect of Israeli food culture and each to be helmed by a chef who was also on this van.
Thus began the most surreal episode of our 15-year careers in the Philadelphia restaurant scene.
It was hard not to feel as if the enemy were among us. For more than a decade, we’ve devoted considerable energy to figuring out when our most powerful guest would walk in the door, possibly altering the trajectory (for better or worse) of our restaurant. For his part, Craig has spent considerable energy thwarting those efforts.
People often ask us if we know when Craig LaBan is eating in our restaurants. We do. And he knows we know. But we pretend not to, and he pretends not to know that we’re pretending.
This was different. This was just a bunch of intrepid, food-obsessed travelers chasing down flavor at its source. Philadelphia seemed so distant that the protocol that normally separates us seemed to fade away.
Almost. It was hard to escape the childhood feeling of discovering that your elementary teacher does not, in fact, live in her classroom. Or that God himself was riding shotgun with us, à la George Burns in the movie Oh, God!
But in spite of the power of his pen, Craig LaBan is not God.
We know this because, like us, he had trouble sleeping on the long flight, because his iPhone battery life was as short as the rest of ours, and because he had a knack for dribbling rugelach filling down the front of his shirt.
Once the curtain was drawn on the great and powerful Oz, we could relax. In many ways, the lives of a restaurateur and a food critic run in parallel: We both make our livings with our palates, trying to understand the nuances that separate an ordinary eating experience from an extraordinary one. But our paths rarely cross, and when they do, the interaction (at least on our end) is fraught with anxiety. A typical restaurant review call with Craig is about as revealing as a Robert Mueller news conference. He is a master interviewer, and you never know what he thinks (or what carefully laid traps you’ve walked into) until his reviews are published.
It was thrilling to compare notes for the first time on neutral turf. There was the moment of anticipation watching Craig take a bite of our favorite falafel, or schnitzel or sabich sandwich, and wondering if it would live up to the hype. And in a reversal of his normal role, it was Craig seeking our opinions. What made that grill restaurant superior to this one? Were those notes of mushroom in the cheese from Tzfat? What were we tasting in the different varieties of tehina being milled in front of our eyes in Abu Ghosh?
Craig turned out to be an excellent travel companion. Journalists are never short on questions (c’mon, Craig, we have 10 more places to eat at today), and his relentless curiosity helped draw out the most from each stop. On the one hand, he was a total newbie. On the other hand, we were eating our way through Israel with the man with the golden palate. The net effect was more than the sum of its parts.
All of this was a pleasant surprise, but why did we invite him on the trip in the first place? Were we fishing for bells?
We led him directly to the wellspring of inspiration for almost everything we do. Of all the things we worry about when Craig eats at our restaurants — even if he will not be the critic giving the initial reviews of our new projects — now add the fear that our pita will never live up to the perfect specimens we encountered on this trip. And then add to that the pressure that Craig, in later visits, will no doubt feel to avoid any appearance that we are getting special treatment.
We took Craig to Israel because that’s what we do. As Mike says, Zahav is the next best thing to putting all of our guests on a plane to Israel. It is a complicated country perhaps best understood on the ground. The more our guests know about where we come from, the more they can appreciate what our restaurants offer. And that includes critics, too.
Most restaurants follow a standard operating procedure when they discover a critic in the dining room. We may fire two of each dish — eating one ourselves, before sending out the better-looking one to the table. We may lighten the load of the servers assigned to that section (or better yet, replace them with a manager) to give the critic better service. We may be extra attentive to the surrounding tables to disabuse the critics of the notion that they have been made and are getting special treatment. But ultimately, you can never be better than your best.
We don’t open restaurants to please critics or earn bells. We open restaurants to tell a story about who we are and what moves us. And we hope like hell that it resonates with our guests. Critics are the tuning fork (pun intended) that helps us determine if we are singing in key. They benchmark the standards of excellence, providing a service to their readers and setting the bar to which we all aspire.
Craig has been writing about us since before we had our own restaurants. After the tragic death of Mike’s brother, David, Craig wrote about a Passover Seder at Vetri featuring Mike’s mother’s coffee-braised brisket. A framed copy of the article hangs in David’s old room in the family apartment in K’Far Saba. He has had a front-row seat for our entire careers, chronicling our efforts even as we strove to understand where we were going ourselves. We parsed every word he wrote about us, glossing over the praise to get to the stuff that hurt our feelings but that we also knew was true and honest and would help light the way forward.
And that’s why we invited Craig to Israel. Because he makes us better.