“The Restaurant Critic’s Wife,” the debut novel for adults from Elizabeth LaBan, tells the story of a Philadelphia woman struggling to find a balance between family and career. The twist: Her husband is a major restaurant critic who fiercely protects his anonymity. It’s a lively tale that examines the highs and lows of modern marriage, motherhood and life in a big city.
But if you’re familiar with the Philly dining scene, the book is even more fun. It reads almost like a mystery, because LaBan actually is a restaurant critic’s wife. Her husband is the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan.
In almost every scene, there are moments that make you wonder how much is conjured from LaBan’s imagination, and how much is based on reality.
For example, when the book’s protagonist, Lila Soto, dines on the Avenue of the Arts and cringes as her mother loudly repeats her husband Sam’s real name, threatening to destroy his anonymity… Did that really happen? At which restaurant?
What about when Sam goes Dumpster diving after a meal, coming up with the empty tomato sauce cans that prove his intuition that the chef’s claim of scratch-made marinara was a lie — has real trash-picking occurred?
When the couple is recognized at a fancy brunch in Rittenhouse? Or when Lila has to break off a friendship with a restaurant owner’s wife because of a conflict of interest? Or when a gossip columnist skewers her for eating at a place Sam dinged with a bad review?
The book is fiction, LaBan insists. Even if some detail or event was inspired by reality, she always tweaked or embellished or adjusted it before including it in her story.
‘Did that happen, or did I write it?’
That said, sometimes even she has trouble distinguishing between the two.
“There are moments when Craig and I will look at each other and think, ‘Did that actually happen, or did I write that in the book?’” LaBan said, adding that the confusion strikes her friends, too.
“People will talk about Lila as if she’s me,” LaBan continued. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, and that part where you went to the store—’ and I’ll have to stop and correct them.”
Craig is sometimes equally flummoxed.
“I have a really bad memory for stuff — I’m always living in the moment,” he said in a separate interview. “Sometimes I don’t remember which things in the book are based in reality and which aren’t.”
Although she’s published a couple of youth novels in the interim, “Critic’s Wife” was the first book LaBan ever set out to write. She started it over a decade ago, and added bits and pieces to it over time until finally her literary agent thought it was ready to publish.
Which means there was plenty of opportunity to draw on experience, sometimes very precisely.
In one chapter, Lila and Sam take their children to the shore for a week’s vacation. For an article in the paper (which happens to be called the Philadelphia Record, not to be confused with the story’s more tabloid-esque Daily Philadelphian — ring a bell?), Sam brings along grocery store mac and cheese and challenges each seaside restaurant to prepare it for his daughter.
Longtime Inquirer readers will recall that one summer, Craig LaBan pulled a very similar stunt. In fact, the only major difference was that the store-bought food he foisted on the shore chefs was Campbell’s cream of chicken soup, not pasta elbows.
“At some places, it was beautifully prepared and served in a gorgeous bowl,” Elizabeth LaBan remembered. “And other places didn’t even mix water into it.” In the book, at the end of the mac-and-cheese adventure, she has Sam say, “Maybe next time I’ll do a soup challenge.”
Asked if he ever had qualms about his wife writing a book based around his livelihood, Craig was adamant that he hadn’t. “It’s really hard to write anything, let alone fiction. I would never stifle her,” he said. “It’s not about me.”
An inside view
Trying to suss out the real-life inspirations for the fictionalized situations can be fun, but even without worrying about those details, the book answers a question: What is life as a restaurant critic really like?
“Elizabeth is familiar with a unique perspective on the world,” Craig noted. “She’s more accurate than someone who’s just imagining what it would be like. I’ve read things where it’s obvious someone is just making it up.”
No one wants to hear a critic complain about how tough it is to go out and eat and drink for free every day, he pointed out, but the book reveals some of the harder parts of being a professional reviewer.
For instance, that having to dine out all the time isn’t always easy.
“On Saturdays, Craig is always saying, ‘Can we just have a tuna sandwich?’” Elizabeth said, laughing.
Or that wearing a disguise is not always the best way to stay under the radar. In the novel, Sam labors to keep a fake mustache from falling into his entree, drawing undue attention to his and Lila’s table.
Did that actually happen? Probably. “I always thought he looked crazy in disguise and that it was harder to blend,” LaBan said, explaining that in real life, her husband learned from his early trials and eventually decided it was better not to dress up. He hasn’t done it in years.
Anonymity: Is it worth it?
Craig LaBan did wear a disguise as recently as 2014, although it wasn’t during visits to a restaurant. It was during sessions of a class he taught at Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore, where he protected his anonymity by showing up in funny capes and crazy hats. (“It was amusing for the first five minutes,” he said, “but the rest of the three hours were just a normal class.”)
Although to some that might seem like going to extremes, it’s nowhere near as intense as what Sam Soto does in the “The Restaurant’s Critic Wife,” where his adamant insistence on anonymity forms the book’s main plot device.
At one point, Sam even bars Lila from going to review dinners with him because he’s so mad at what he sees as her carelessness with his identity.
But while in the book, Lila chafes against her husband’s requirements, Elizabeth does not. There’s a disclaimer in the acknowledgements at the end of the novel, which reads: “For the record, Craig is not obsessive or controlling like Sam — and Craig did not tell me to say that.”
Then there’s the question of whether the machinations of staying anonymous are even worthwhile in this day and age, where nearly every restaurant customer carries a camera and can instantly broadcast a location-specific photo around the entire internet. Across the nation, several major food critics have recently renounced their anonymity, from the L.A. Times’ Jonathan Gold to the Dallas Morning News’ Leslie Brenner to New York’s Adam Platt.
Don’t expect Craig LaBan to follow in their footsteps anytime soon.
“The way I look at it, anonymity isn’t the end all be all, but it is one of the tools in a critic’s box, so why would I willingly give it up?” he asked. He acknowledges that sometimes restaurant owners and chefs do spot him, but that it’s far from all the time, even though he’s now been working the beat for 18 years.
Elizabeth LaBan concurred. “It’s very surprising to me how often we are not recognized. Sometimes when we go out, we aren’t treated very well at all. So I do think it makes sense to try to have the restaurant not know you’re there.”
“By now, it’s just part of our lives,” she said. “I’m so used to not posting family pictures, not making reservations in our name, not saying his name in public. It just seems very normal.”