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For whom no bell tolls

Craig LaBan does not give out a "zero" very often. But when he does...


» READ MORE: this weekend's dissection of Bonchon

, the Korean fried chicken chain outlet in Chinatown, food critic Craig LaBan has delivered his 17th "no-bell" review over his 17 years at The Inquirer.

"No-bell" has nothing to do with the inventor of dynamite. It reflects a restaurant review that he says merits zero on his scale of four Liberty Bells.

Where other critics use forks or stars, LaBan has used the uniquely Philadelphian icon since his start here in May 1998. (His first review happened to be a two-beller of Bistro St. Tropez, which is still humming along in the Marketplace Design Center. LaBan's first no-bell was Solaris Grille in Chestnut Hill, about two months later.)

It has been 74 Sundays between no-bells. His last was Ocean Prime in December 2013.

A no-bell restaurant is one that "on the course of multiple visits, been deficient in numerous aspects," he has said. "There's an epic badness to it. ... It's a restaurant with almost nothing I liked about it - bad with a side of offensiveness. It's never one dish, never one person, never one thing."

LaBan says he is providing a public service. He imagines a reader going to such a restaurant - uninformed - and saying to himself or herself, "I wish someone had told me not to go there."

Is a no-bell the kiss of death? Not necessarily, given the usual churn of the restaurant business. Solaris Grille remained open for nearly 13 years after the review. Similarly, one-, two- and three-bell restaurants shut down all the time.

You can also argue that LaBan dislikes chains. Bonchon was a soft target (though crunchy on the outside).

Besides Ocean Prime, the two other no-bell chain restaurants that are still open are Serafina (2011) and Del Frisco's (2009). Chima in Logan Square initially received no bells in 2008 but saw an upgrade to one bell after a revisit. Haru in Old City stuck around for six years after its 2005 no-bell. Shula's lasted six more years at the former Wyndham Franklin Plaza Hotel after its 2001 no-bell.

(There are currently four four-bell restaurants: Bibou, Talula's Table, Vetri and Zahav.)

Here's a rundown of the restaurants that have had a brush with no bells:

Solaris Grille (1998) in Chestnut Hill: "[E]ating at Solaris Grille can sometimes feel like a disappointing vacation." The spot later was Chestnut 7 and is now El Poquito, which was awarded two bells this year.

Old Original Bookbinder's (1999): In a review that twinned the Old City institution and its Center City intrafamily rival Bookbinder's Seafood House, LaBan offered: "I found the truth to be worse than I'd ever imagined: two restaurants spiraling into the basement of faded glory for different reasons. The original is a tourist trap with lackluster food and outrageous prices. The other is a time-beaten fish house whose occasionally decent old-fashioned fare is dimmed by noticeably shabby surroundings." Old Original closed in 2001 and was awarded two bells at its reopening in 2005. The spot at Second and Walnut Streets is now Jose Garces' The Olde Bar, a recent two-bell experience. The 15th Street Seafood House closed in 2004 and is now Applebee's.

Ivy Grille (2000): The restaurant at the Inn at Penn delivered "a poorly rendered parody of pretentious eclectic cooking." It closed in 2002 and is now Penne.

Shula's (2001): "Don Shula may have been a great football coach," LaBan wrote, "but he should punt as a restaurateur." The steakhouse in what was once the Wyndham Franklin Plaza Hotel at 17th and Race Streets closed in 2007.

Trust (2002): "It is one of the few new restaurants I've experienced here to actually worsen over my three visits." It later was upgraded to one bell, but closed in 2003. It is now El Vez, at 13th and Sansom Streets.

Carmella's (2003): "Carmella's is not simply a bad idea - a blatant local knock-off of a national chain shamelessly imitating a local place - it also succeeds far less well than its corporate rivals." Once on Venice Island in Manayunk, where Arroyo Grill was in the 1990s, it closed in 2005.

Haru (2005): "Haru may be Benihana's sophisticated child, but it is still hardwired like every other corporate chain, calculated to purvey a storehouse of proven cliches to the lowest common denominator. And clumsily at that." It closed at Third and Chestnut Streets in 2011. It's due to become The Little Lion this summer.

Javier (2008): "A dramatic display of mediocrity served at outrageous prices," he opined, referring to a "$29 tuna entree alone was a five-act tragedy." It closed in 2009. Space in downtown Haddonfield is now Cross Culture.

Chima (2008): "Chima's big problem is its inability to execute that formula with any consistent skill, which at a minimum of $50 a head, is disappointing," LaBan wrote of the Brazilian steakhouse at 20th and JFK. He upgraded it at the end of the year to one bell.

Del Frisco's (2009): Initially a one-bell restaurant. The original review contained the line, "It was some of the female guests who were really turning heads, with so many surgically enhanced, body-glittered bosoms on display, the only thing missing was a brass pole." Management cheekily installed a brass pole. He revisited 15th and Chestnut Streets in December, and dropped the rating to zero, citing "several dishes bordering on inedible." (It's now among the busiest restaurants in Center City.)

Chew Man Chu (2010): "This pan-Asian eatery not only distances itself from the apparently intimidating flavors of nearby Chinatown ... it does so with cliched style, and enough lacquered sweetness to make your teeth ache." It closed six months later. Space is now Sbraga, at Broad and Pine Streets.

Thai Kuu (2011): "[N]one of the food we'd eaten that night was even remotely worthy of the wait or expense," he wrote of the Thai BYOB at the top of Chestnut Hill. He upgraded it at the end of the year to one bell.

Liberté  (2011): "[S]pelled out on a sign tacked to the sleek wood-veneer walls, is 'urban.chic.lounge' 'Slow.reheated.disaster' would be more appropriate based on the meals I recently slogged through there, a performance of incompetence on the plate and in the dining room that I've not endured in quite some time." It's now a lounge at the Sofitel at 17th and Sansom Streets.

Serafina (2011): "The kitchen doesn't help, turning out a vast but prosaic Italian menu that, by Philly standards, is dull, relatively expensive, and soullessly mass-produced." It's busy at 18th and Sansom Streets.

The Saint James (2013): "But nearly everything about my meals at the ... stylish American bistro that replaced Victoria's Secret in Suburban Square arrived in a jumbled, rush-job mess." Later upgraded to one bell but closed in 2014. Now serving pizza as Parlor Suburban Square.

Ocean Prime (2013): The luxe seafood/steak house at 15th and Sansom: "I ate some of my most expensive meals of the year at Ocean Prime. Unfortunately, they were also the worst." Still a destination at 15th and Sansom Streets.

Bonchon (2015): "[T]he kitchen ... seemed completely lost when straying from its deep fryer."