Man Bites Dog: Serious Critic Reviews a Chain Restaurant


Photographs by Robyn Lee

Craig LaBan, restaurant critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, recently reviewed the first Legal Sea Foods restaurant to open in Philadelphia. He liked much of the food he ate there (the raw bar, chowder, fried clams, fish and chips) but was left cold by other dishes (the "leaden" stuffed shrimp, desserts, "odd" "everything" tuna).

What's interesting is that he decided to review it at all. Serious restaurant critics in cities with vibrant independent restaurant scenes like Philly typically thumb their noses at chain restaurants and don't deign to review them. But places like Legal Sea Foods, Houston's, and The Cheesecake Factory, to name three, are in fact decent restaurants that should be taken seriously. I have had decent to very good meals at all three. That doesn't mean that there aren't loser dishes to be had at them, but chain restaurants don't have a monopoly on loser dishes.

I guess what I'm saying is that not all national restaurant chains are created equal. There are chains with pretty awful food (Olive Garden, Applebee's, Cracker Barrel), and there are chains with damn good food. We allow ourselves to glorify In-N-Out, Five Guys, and other burger chains because, well, they're burgers, reasonably fast food. And they are great, don't get me wrong. But chain restaurants cooking more upscale food are regarded as beneath contempt or at the very least unreviewable by fancy-pants local or national restaurant critics.

But eaters vote with their appetites and their pocketbooks. Restaurant critics should do the same.