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.