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Lawsuit could unmask paper's restaurant critic

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

PHILADELPHIA -- In a case that involves issues as lofty as the First Amendment and as basic as which cut of meat was served, a restaurant critic is being sued for libel for describing a $15 piece of beef as "miserably tough and fatty."

The restaurant is seeking unspecified damages. But the stakes for Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LaBan have been raised immeasurably by a judge's ruling that forced LaBan to give a deposition on camera.

If the footage becomes public, LaBan could be unmasked for all the city's chefs to see.

Attorneys for the newspaper say that would be the unkindest cut of all.

"Mr. LaBan's anonymity is important to the process by which he reviews restaurants," Inquirer lawyers said in court papers. "If a restaurant knew Mr. LaBan was in its dining room, it might put on a show for him that would not be provided to the general dining public."

It all began with a Feb. 4 capsule review of Chops restaurant, a steakhouse owned by Alex Plotkin in nearby Bala Cynwyd. The last two sentences read: "A recent meal, though, was expensive and disappointing, from the soggy and sour chopped salad to a miserably tough and fatty strip steak. The crab cake, though, was excellent."

In a lawsuit filed the same month, Plotkin contends that LaBan didn't eat a strip steak, but instead had a "steak sandwich without bread."

"No legitimate food critic would ever mistake, or compare, a steak sandwich with a strip steak," the lawsuit says.

The case is unusual among libel suits. Restaurant and movie reviews are generally regarded as opinion, and opinion is firmly protected by the First Amendment. In this case, though, the reviewer is accused of making a false assertion of fact.

The Inquirer is claiming First Amendment protection. But more than that, it is arguing that LaBan was accurate.

They point to LaBan's notes and his receipt for the meal, which shows he was charged for steak frites -- steak and french fries. They also submitted to the court copies of steak frites recipes from celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray, both of which call for strip steaks.

LaBan "dots his i's, he crosses his t's, and anyone who reads his reviews knows that he is meticulous, fastidious and fair as one can be," said Inquirer editor Bill Marimow. "In the long run, our work will be vindicated because Craig is a stellar journalist and a stellar reviewer."

Lost anonymity

Nevertheless, his ability to do his job could be compromised.

The critic, who has been at the paper for nearly 10 years, takes pains to remain anonymous, occasionally wearing disguises and never using his name while dining out. On the cover of the Inquirer's restaurant guide, LaBan appears with five baguettes shielding his face.

And yet there he was, baguette-less, answering lawyers' questions in front of a camera at a deposition earlier this month. The Inquirer had tried to ban cameras at the deposition, arguing that LaBan's face constitutes a trade secret. The deposition will remain under seal until the trial, which is at least a year away.

Phyllis Richman, a former longtime restaurant critic at The Washington Post, acknowledged she was treated differently after restaurateurs began to recognize her.

"What changes most when I am recognized as a critic is not the quality of the food, but the service and sometimes the portion size," Richman said in 1996, while discussing a dining guide she wrote.

Plotkin's lawyer, Dion Rassias, said Tuesday that the parties now agree LaBan ate steak frites. But Rassias said it was a rib-eye, not a strip steak.

So would Plotkin still have a beef with LaBan if the critic had called it a "miserably tough and fatty rib-eye steak"?

"That's a little bit of a complicated question," Rassias said. "What we do know is that what he wrote was false."

Inquirer attorney Maura Fay declined to comment.


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