Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat:
Craig LaBan: You'll be hearing my thoughts on the incredible dining year we are about to close in my annual Year in Bells, coming Dec. 29. I've revisited a few places, as usual, and there will be movement among the ratings.
Reader: Read your review of Ocean Prime and saw you really stuck it to those corncobs. I was wondering about your general opinion on chain steak houses, such as Morton's or Capital Grille? Do you think you can get a better steak at a regular restaurant, or is there a best chain if you are craving a good steak?
C.L.: I don't have anything against chains in general. I've given several chains decent reviews - Cap Grille on Broad, I think, is the best of the chains (3 bells); Prime Rib in the Warwick is a chain-let, but also 3 bells. I gave 2 bells to Fleming's. When you start charging $40-plus a plate, however, I don't care whether you're a chain or an independent: you need to deliver.
Reader: Is there a checklist that you need to give a restaurant zero bells? Between food quality, service, atmosphere . . . any others that are must have/not haves?
C.L.: I never have a checklist for any review I do - they are always the result of multiple experiences, and the rating itself is the boil-it-down sum of my impressions. No Bells is never the result of just one thing, dish or slight . . . it's a feeling that a place is really bad in a big way. An epic badness, as I put it. High prices like these, also, ratchet up the stakes, especially if I'm going to recommend it to readers. The ripple effect of a recommendation for readers' wallets is significant. It's a responsibility I take seriously.
Reader: Your review of Ocean Prime was talked about on the radio. In their view you had an ax to grind. I, though, appreciate the review.
C.L.: My only agenda is seeking out good food and value for readers. I was very specific in the story about what I didn't like, from the food to the service to the ... smells. Several hundred dollars later, I think one of those radio hosts might have been peeved as well.
Reader: Was it a coincidence the review from Del Frisco's in '08 is almost the same review for Ocean Prime? With a restaurant doing 120k on a Friday it seems like another restaurant you bashed is doing well and the Philly market is still enjoying their food and service. Does this irritate you that a restaurant you tried to crush with your review is still striving in Center City?
C.L.: Not at all. These reviews are completely independent - based in independent experiences. If they're similar, it's only because they're cut from the same corporate steak house cloth and culture. I don't write reviews with the intention of affecting peoples' businesses - my reviews are written to inform readers on where to spend their money. If a place continues to thrive despite the fact I had terrible experiences there, more power to them!
Reader: What do you think about the Fountain Room at the Four Seasons?
C.L.: The Fountain is another perennial 4-beller that I keep expecting to be tired and out-of-date when I revisit. But every time I revisit, the hyper-professional staff there shows me why they're still one of the city's best. Old-school luxury, for sure. But chef William DiStefano and his crew can still bring fine dining off at its highest level.