The first time I waited on Craig LaBan I forgot his potato soup.
For me, making my living as a writer also involves having a side hustle in the restaurant industry. Since October I've been hustling away at Aldine, a lovely Rittenhouse Square restaurant that belongs to Jennifer and George Sabatino, friends of mine.
A few weeks ago Aldine hit a milestone that the staff at every new restaurant both anticipates and dreads: we were reviewed by Craig LaBan, the restaurant critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
For all of the blogs and all of the reviewers in town, LaBan’s voice remains the loudest, and his benediction of bells, from zero to the coveted four, remains law.
For a restaurant, a good LaBan review is a boon. It can act as an introduction, sharing the story of the restaurant and its best dishes and drinks with an audience that extends beyond those who read the food blogs and troll social media for the latest industry gossip. But just as a good review can provide valuable critique and compliments, a bad review can be the first nail in the coffin.
At the time of the potato soup incident, I was just out of college, desperately anxious about my lack of a five year plan, and rushing between a job in Pennsauken coaching rowing to high schoolers and my nearly nightly shifts waiting tables at Pumpkin, Ian Moroney and Hillary Bor’s then newly opened South Street BYOB.
Back then, I was neither aware of Craig LaBan, nor of the impact his opinion would have on my livelihood. But reading Pumpkin’s review I remembered the night, weeks before, when a table of four had ordered, piecemeal, every single appetizer on the menu and I had forgotten to add the soup to the line-up until the plates were already leaving the kitchen.
The second time, I wasn’t flawless either, and for that I partially blame Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It was election night, 2012. Tables were sparse to begin with and both the guests and the staff were distracted, surreptitiously checking election returns on their phones between courses. The venue this time was another BYOB called Will, opened by a fellow Pumpkin alum, Christopher Kearse. While LaBan loved the dishes from the regular menu, a few from that Tuesday’s one time only tasting fell flat, and I have a hunch that the strange, tense energy in the room didn’t help.
When LaBan dined at Avance, Justin Bogle’s noble but flawed attempt to reinvent the restaurant space that had once housed Le Bec Fin, the weight of waiting on Laban fell upon someone else on the team. Though reading the less than complimentary review of the restaurant was still gut-wrenching, I felt relieved to have been spared the burden of that particular responsibility.
At Aldine, however, the burden had been mine, and the review was scheduled to appear online Valentine’s Day morning.
Making breakfast, my phone lit up with a text message from one of my coworkers. It was out. My stomach in knots, I sank down on the couch to read it. What detail had we overlooked? Had I incorrectly identified an ingredient in a dish? Did he hate the wine list? Was the restaurant too warm? Too cold? Too loud? Too…anything?
Ten years later, I feel as though I’ve finally redeemed myself for the soup.