Finding the Frauds – John Mariani on the Absurdity of the World’s 50 Best List


It’s that time of year again, when Restaurant magazine, an industry journal published out of London, names the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants,” an annual list so nonsensical as to make “Alice in Wonderland” seem like a serious guidebook.

Years ago I was invited to be one of the hundreds of judges for this awards program (and I was to pick the other North American judges), now made up of more than a thousand food writers, chefs and restaurateurs, and well-traveled gastronomes. Each judge casts seven votes, “three of which must apply toward restaurants outside of his or her home region. Voters must have dined at a restaurant within the past 18 months.”  After that first year on the panel I realized the whole thing was a farce, for several reasons.

First, judges were not required to show any proof that they’d eaten in a restaurant they voted for within the previous 18 months, or ever.  This meant, in my case, that I could not vote for my favorite restaurant in the world, Le Bernardin in NYC, because I hadn’t dined there within 18 months.  And, in meeting with my colleagues in London that year, from as far away as Tokyo and Mumbai, it was clear that many of them had never visited France, Italy, the U.S. or South America, and none had the kind of expense account necessary to do so. No food journalist does, and many of those American restaurant critics I asked about joining the panel said they never really got out of the city where they worked.

Yet in the end, that year’s top winners were all the most extravagant, most expensive, most molecular/modernist, and most impossible to get into restaurants in the world. So, how did anyone on our panel actually get to dine in so many of them within the prior 18  months?  None of it made sense to me, and as each year passes, the list gets curiouser and curiouser. The top spot for several years (2010, 2011, 2012, 2014) went to Noma in Copenhagen, which is notoriously difficult to get into. This year for some reason Noma, praised for serving plates of moss, lichen and live ants (right) dropped down to number five, which could suggest scores of judges went back within the past year and found it lacking. Yeah, right.

Thomas Keller’s bicoastal restaurants, The French Laundry and Per Se, consistently made the list; this year neither did.  Indeed, U.S. restaurants rarely came anywhere near the top ten, though this year NYC’s Eleven Madison Park, which serves a $295 tasting menu, got bumped up to number three.  London superstar chef Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck once held number one and is now off the list completely.  Not even the vaunted Momofuku Ko of David Chang has a place among the top 50 any longer.

The top spot this year is the marvelous Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, whose chef Massimo Bottura is one of Italy’s rare modernist chefs.  I love Bottura’s cooking, but haven’t eaten there in two years, so I couldn’t vote for him, were I still on the panel.  And you know that Modena (250 miles from Rome, 80 from Florence) is not exactly on the expense account of most food writers.  Imagine the editor of the Mumbai Times telling its restaurant critic, “Why not just pop over to Modena to check this place out this weekend … keep your receipts.”

Then there are those restaurants on the list that I doubt more than a handful of committed food experts and “well-traveled gastronomes” have ever even heard of:  Mirazur in Menton, France (No. 6), Quintonil in Mexico City (No. 12), White Rabbit in Moscow (No. 18),  Gagan in Bangkok (No 23, one slot ahead of Le Bernardin), Vendôme in Bergsich Gladback, Germany (No. 35), or QuiQui in Dacosta, Spain (No. 49).

Since the list is so screwy, it’s hardly surprising that only three restaurants each in the U.S., France, and Italy make the cut–the same number as Lima, Peru!—and two in Japan. The award for The World’s Best Female Chef 2016 went to Dominique Crenn of L’Atelier Crenn and Petit Crenn  in San Francisco, but her restaurants didn’t even make the top 50 list. Doh!

Such imbalance begins to make the Guide Michelin’s star ratings look wholly rational, but that’s another story. Yet, despite their obvious uselessness, the Restaurant magazine awards have in some media reports been called the most powerful in the world while at the same time being widely dismissed by most establishment media.

It’s a preposterous list, but even more important it’s just plain silly.  Yet, I expect any day now to be asked, “My God! Has Le Bernardin gotten all that bad?  Is Thomas Keller’s reign over?  Is Heston Blumenthal passé?” It’s almost like a Monty Python list whereon you’d expect to find non-existent restaurants with funny names like The Passionate Lizard or Chef Ding’s Dong. – John Mariani

ELV weighs in:

We get it. Restaurants and chefs love publicity. Especially free publicity. So, all of them named on these lists make a big to-do about their inclusion. (In that way they are willing co-conspirators with San Pellegrino in helping hype the importance of the list.) But, as Mariani says, the whole thing is a big publicity stunt/popularity contest based upon who or what received the most mentions in the most periodicals that year.

Yours truly was on the voting panel for four years less than a decade ago, until he noticed how the list (“voted on by our esteemed panel of judges”) was basically hand-picked by a handful of editors who enjoy playing power broker, and who are (no doubt) under instruction to spread the award love around the world — the better to increase the sales of sparkling water. The fact that classic places like Daniel, Le Bernadin, Dal Pescatore or Maison Troisgros get bumped down the list (or omitted entirely) in favor of some place no one outside of that country has ever been to (or heard of), also infuriates us no end. Anyone who knows anything in depth about a subject usually considers “Best of” lists to be a joke, and the San Pellegrino list is the biggest joke of all.

Before some of our loyal readers weigh in with “how dare you criticize a ‘best of’ list when you publish your own book that deigns to name the best restaurants in Vegas,” let us point out the obvious difference: We have eaten in every one of our “50 Essential Restaurants” multiple times. Every year. We’ve spent 22 years masticating and cogitating about what separates and distinguishes our best eateries from each other, and the decisions are not based upon whim or fashion. You may disagree with our selections, but you can’t fault our boots-on-the-ground/food-in-the-gut methodology.

18 thoughts on “Finding the Frauds – John Mariani on the Absurdity of the World’s 50 Best List

  1. …hey dont stop there…I can guarantee there are less corporate frauds on this list than there are on a certain top 50 list- also recently published-in a certain valley I reside in….something about glass houses….LOL…Dude in all honesty you really should take down this post….just sayn

  2. Hector,
    Be real, my person! You are full of it. Mr. Curtas remains the authentic fine dining critic (no BS) in all of Las Vegas. I don’t always agree with him but 85-90% ain’t bad! AND I fully agree with this posting. Ridiculous. Am I correct that no Vegas restaurant made this TOP 50 List? Or if one did, it was just one?
    Vegas is THE top fine dining destination, all things considered, in the world. Period. Let’s debate!

  3. Hector appears to be a poser who I suspect hasn’t eaten in a high class restaurant in years. The proof that ELV reviews are legit is that I have eaten in these local restaurants and like Brook Winter agree with 90% ( subject to differences in taste and cuisine) of what has been written by this local critic. Hence the high credibility John Curtis has with the restaurateurs and local patrons in Las Vegas. With respect to magazine reviews and top listings of so call “best”. I take them all with a grain of salt and realize most are PR or pay to play reviews.

  4. ….children relax….so…why again did TWO Jose Andres food joints make the top ten in Vegas…hmmmm… a comrade of mine awhile back said as he was walking into Bazaar Meats he saw the ever talented Vandy grad giving the Bazaar Meats GM a very LONG WET KISS…tell me again…LOL…that said…e by Andres is a shameful con job…but what do I know….LMFAO….Curtas please take this post down…I am not joking…it is so tramatic to me I almost want to give money to the Clinton Library Foundation….gosh….and…I love my Taco Bell bean burritos with green sauce and extra onions…

  5. It’s a shame that the Internet gives s faux sense of empowerment to people like Hector. I’ve been to Andres restaurants in three cities and they’ve all been great. e at Jaleo was one of the greatest dining experiences of my life. John please don’t change a damn thing. I just pray Max recovers enough for you and he and Mancini to do another one together. Las Vegas is foodie Nirvana and you’re the ultimate Sherpa.

  6. ELV responds: Hector (who comments somewhat frequently on our posts) has always sounded to us like a disgruntled ex-employee of a Vegas hotel restaurant. He takes continual issue with our bestowing accolades on certain celeb chef spots, and implies that we are in the pocket of this or that large casino/hotel, and readily bribed by outright cash (would that it were true!) or the comps that we receive.
    As we have said many times before, at this point in our food writing career, sometimes we pay for our meals and sometimes we don’t, but we always disclose when a comp has occurred.
    What he has against Jose Andres’ restaurants (that are uniformly excellent) is anyone’s guess.
    As for long wet kisses, as attractive as we find the staff at Bazaar Meat, none of them, least of all Yassine (the male GM) has offered up his tonsils for diving. Even if they did, we now reserve all sloppy kissing for the Food Gal.
    Many thanks to all of you for your loyal support.

  7. …so…for the record I am a huge fan of the top end of those delightful establishments in our little valley…most of which are French…Bazaar Meats is very good…my issue is with -e- a complete and total con…that said I am not now or have I ever been in the restuarant business…but….I have lots of friends who are and they see the ever delightful bowtie being comped time and time and time again and wonder why…and please tell me again why Japaniero didnt make your top 50 and yet several on that list are already out of business and more will be shortly…maybe you could explain to me if it were possible how Goodwich could use any worse selection of bread for their sandwichs….LOL…TOP FIFTY BABY….glad you liked my metaphor of the long wet kiss…regardless your relationship with a certain Moroccan employee of Mr Andres has allowed you to sup on the teat of the Andres empire in exchange for two places on your top ten list….which…in case we forgot was the orginial theme of my first post…glasses houses and your post FINDING THE FRAUDS…and finally in the age of Obmana all criticism is personal…this is not a personal attack- I am just trying to help you improve your skillset…no shame in that is there….just sayn :)

  8. Hector,

    For clarification, can you back up your statement about -e- being a total con. How many times have you dined there? What causes you to call it a “con”? Is it the food, the service, the atmosphere,….? Details please.

    And if you’re so inclined, what the heck does the Clinton Library Foundation have to do with anything? I feel like I walked into the middle of a conversation.

  9. ELV responds (in a rare rebuttal): My food tasting/judging skillset(sic) are always being refined (that’s why I travel the world eating in good restaurants), but I doubt anyone who thinks ‘e’ is terrible can help me improve them.
    Hector seems to have a problem with me getting comped at Bazaar Meat, implying a quid pro quo and ignoring the fact that (as his “little birds” might inform him), we’ve also paid full boat for meals there. The last time being over $300 if memory serves.
    At this point, the freebies we receive are much more about a restaurant saying “thank you” and being gracious about past things we have written, not buying us off for a good review or listing in the book.
    On a side note: Japaniero was very close to being included as a Top 10 Steakhouse (even though it is not, technically, a steak house), and with some of our previous top 50 dropping out (four and counting right now), it may yet get additional recognition. (Stay tuned for our ’17 Edition!)
    I’m not keen on SOME of the bread in Goodwich’s sandwiches, but calling it “the worst” just exposes Hector as someone with an ax to grind.

  10. Even this site gets a troll and that’s what Hector is. Saying inane and ridiculous things to receive the attention he pines for in real life.

  11. ….so…a quick note on Andres and “e” for Dave P …first the wine pairings…I went with several friends from LA who are big time foodies…the wine pairing they ordered were $300 each…there were four others in our party and they all ordered the same pairing…I on the other hand had called a couple of days before and gotten the names of the wines for the pairing and knew it was going to be a disaster…that said I have a rule of thumb when supping with those spending boatloads of money on food and wine and that is to stay positive regardless…no one wants a killjoy when they are spending $700 per person…and that night was no exception…I told my friend I was not feeling well and didn’t think the adult beverages would sit well…hmmmm…by the end of the night the wife of my friend just kept looking at me and shaking her head NO each time she sipped from her wine…once I had to turn away as I started to laugh….oh one more thing…the TOTAL cost to Andres for each wine pairing was less than the cost of a single bottle in the Picasso tasting put together by Robert Smith (for which Picasso charges $200 per pairing less) and for me that is unconscionable…and the service- not bad but simply vapid- no one smiled, no one tried to have any engagement with the patrons and they all looked like they were doing a job they clearly were not happy about…and now the food…LOL…yes that minor detail…”e” is all about Molecular gastronomy plain and simple…to pay homage to the political leaning of Mr. Curtas I would like to paraphrase a quote by the famous Russian Marxist Plekonov if it had been applied to Andres instead of Lenin would have said- Andres is a first class chef- still in the first class…yes, molecular gastronomy at its most remedial level….as the dinner ended something happened I will never forget…the server placed a card and pen in front of us and said- We would like you to write comments here on your dinner experience….LMFAO…my friends wife turned to me and for the first time ever I heard her drop the F Bomb…at that point I jumped up and said- We had a great meal and I know where we can get some great cocktails and finish the night…and with that I hustled my crew out the door…BRUTAL…ON EVERY LEVEL….so in my mind the word con applies…remember Andres now has TWO eateries in the infamous top ten of our beloved valley

    …and…so Mr Curtas you dropped $300 at Bazaar Meats…REALLY …at Bazaar Meats three bills gets you the Robuchon mashed potatoes and a cheap glass of white wine…and only if you are eating alone…hmmmm….truly my issue you is not that you are comped meals but that you post articles like the one above…Finding the Frauds….when in truth…well you know where I am going…and John by the way did you drop three bills in that very very very expensive restaurant you dined at very recently….hmmmm…you might have consumed almost $2k in wine alone…but I digress…and yes I will be looking for a future review on said establishment…JUST SAYN…

    Finally, Doug nice use of the word TROLL …troll is like the word fascist…always invoked when one had lost an argument or clearly has nothing to say…

  12. Hector – thanks for taking the time and providing the details of your experience.

  13. Hector I regret feeding you but it’s very hard to believe this about e. My experience was light years from this. The wine pairing was not close to this cost and it was very good. The servers’ behavior was utterly different. My guess is that your experience was most likely due to the behavior of your group. I was with another couple and our entire group gave the servers an ovation at the end of the March 2015 dinner. My guess is that your group was impossible and didn’t understand the experience it was experiencing.

    PS-Leave the rightist politics away from here. They just further diminish your already intensely weak arguments.

  14. John. Hector appears to be a real meshuggina boychick if he is stalking you in restaurants where you may be dining for reviews. Take note from former Clark County Sheriff Ralph Lamb and if this kook gets too close for comfort part his hair with a sap and be done with him.

  15. Hey Art I have friends in the restaurant business…they mention when they see Mr Curtas…period…lol…Doug- my friends were as meek as mice…actually I think your experience says more about you than anything…its says you are clueless about fine dining and willing to shill for any out of town huckster…who mentioned right wing politics…I quoted a Marxist…reread my post and review of e again….and…be more civil….bless you

  16. ELV responds: I don’t know where or how “Hector” is trolling me (not the web site), but I’ve never consumed $2k worth of wine at one sitting in my life, ever. My dining habits are documented daily (as anyone who follows me on FB, Twitter or Instagram knows), and the last very, very expensive restaurant I dined in was in Tokyo…..and as wonderful as the pairings were (of sake and Japanese wine) they weren’t worth $2,000. And $300 at Bazaar Meat gets you a lot more than potatoes and a sauv blanc. Put it all together and I can only conclude that, despite “Hector’s” attempt at civility (and documentation), he is one of those diners with a major chip on his shoulder (despite his protestations to the contrary) and is full of shit.

  17. I’ve eaten at the White Rabbit in Moscow. One of the best restaurants in the world? Meh. The best thing about it was the presence of dolled-up dyevushkas sitting on the laps of beefy leather-jacketed Ivans whose declared business is “import-export.”

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