It’s called The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and in recent years, it has become the most powerful, most anticipated ranking of its kind. (Sorry, Michelin.) Why does this list, above all others, generate such a zesty stew of lust, FOMO, envy, and imitation? Brett Martin digs in
Maybe the first thing you should know about the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list is that it contains 100 restaurants. If you would like a better metaphor for the contradictions and puzzlements of what has become the restaurant world’s most influential ranking, I’m not sure I can find one. Nevertheless, if you pay any attention to chefs and restaurants, you will have heard of the List, which, in 14 years of existence, has gone from an obscure curiosity to dominating the dining conversation, even eclipsing the Michelin Guide, that grand-père of restaurant judgment. For better and for worse, there can be no doubt that the World’s 50 Best has become the ranking of The Way We Eat Now—or at least The Way We Talk About Eating Now.
Like many lists, the 50 Best was born in the offices of a magazine—Britain’s Restaurant, in 2002—though it has since become its own enterprise. Until this year, it was technically The World’s 50 Best Restaurants sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna, voted on by the Diners Club World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy, presented alongside the Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef Award, the World’s Best Pastry Chef Award sponsored by Cacao Barry, and so on. Perhaps tired of it being shorthanded as “the San Pellegrino list,” the organization dropped the water company’s title rights this year, though it remains a sponsor.
Of course, it’s only fair to note that the Michelin Guide was and is named for a tire company. The organizers of the 50 Best insist that they are not in competition with Michelin, but it’s nearly impossible not to consider one without the context of the other. Philosophically, practically, even geographically, the 50 Best is, among other things, a rebuke to Michelin and its old-world—which is to say, classically French—values. In broad terms, if Michelin is the list of white tablecloths, the 50 Best is the list of no tablecloths; if Michelin rewards stolid excellence, the 50 Best rewards novelty; if Michelin’s heart lies in France, the 50 Best’s theoretically encompasses the entire world.
The List’s first No. 1, in 2002, was Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, helping to spur both the global influence of Spanish avant-garde cooking and the kind of deeply theatrical, multicourse tasting menus that the 50 Best continues to most prominently reward. Lately, the top three spots have rotated among Copenhagen’s Noma; Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy; and the current No. 1, El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain. A French restaurant has never held the top spot—an honor awarded at a lavish ceremony that has always been held in London. This year it will take place on June 13 in New York City, a move designed to emphasize the List’s global reach.
Arriving and evolving in the era of social media and a nonstop circuit of culinary conferences and festivals, the 50 Best has become a kind of house list for the cult of chef as artist and personality. (Although its makers insist that they publish a ranking of restaurants, not chefs, one glance at the gallery of winners on its website—a checkerboard of predominantly white-male head shots—tells a different story.) Michelin’s famous definition of a three-star restaurant is “worth a special journey,” but it’s the World’s 50 Best that has been embraced by a generation of eaters for whom dining experiences have become the primary reason to travel. Or just a chance to chatter: It is the list of the Instagrammed, the Snapchatted, and the Status Updated. I have a friend who religiously follows the World’s 50 Best. He keeps up with menu changes, openings, and changes in reputation the way others once followed the movie or book business. It does not strike him as the least bit odd that he has never actually eaten at any of the restaurants.
Why a restaurateur might want to get on the List is obvious: Its effects can be transformative. Winners find their profiles instantly raised. It was its climb up the ladder of the 50 Best that turned Noma, like El Bulli before it, into the most influential restaurant in the world—and, not coincidentally, filled its reservation book in perpetuity. Nor are the effects limited to the top. “We felt an immediate impact: the amount of e-mails, the amount of phone calls,” says Esben Holmboe Bang of Oslo’s Maaemo, which climbed last year from No. 79 to No. 64. “And we’re not even in the top 50.”
“People who are into the list are very perseverant,” says David McMillan of Montreal’s Joe Beef, which debuted at No. 81 last year. “You get some pretty OCD foodies: five e-mails, eight calls, begging for an eleven-fifteen reservation. There are people who just want to notch restaurants on their belts.”
And once a restaurant is on the List, that restaurant tends to stay on the List. In a self-perpetuating cycle, the ranking begets articles begets visitors begets social media begets votes.
The World’s 50 Best’s methodology is a hybrid of two very different ways of thinking about rankings: On the one hand, there’s the American love of a survey—the belief in consensus that undergirds guides like Zagat and Yelp. On the other is the European ideal of the expert, reflected in the fantasy of all-knowing, all-seeing Michelin ninjas roaming the countryside in their cloaks of invisibility. In other words, while the List is generated by voting, it’s only among a smallish group of culinary elites—just shy of 1,000.
The elites, in this case, belong to three groups: chefs, journalists, and so-called gastronauts. (The best thing that can be said about that term is that it is not foodies, though it still brings to mind a band of miniaturized scientists sailing their way through somebody’s colon in a tiny spaceship.) Some gastronauts are from sectors of the food business—wine importers, restaurant consultants—whose jobs allow them to eat widely. Most, however, are simply civilian members of the very rich. They are both the List’s authors and its customers, the people for whom each year’s edition serves as a map for future travel, future dining, and future list-making. For the rest of us, their verdicts are something to parse, debate, and salivate over.
Each voter—or “panelist”—is asked to rank seven restaurants at which he or she has eaten in the past 18 months: as many as four from their home region and at least three from anywhere else. The panelists are split among 27 gerrymandered regions around the globe. Some are small (France, Germany),some significantly larger (Africa). The U.S. and Canada are divided into three regions, each with 36 voters, while China and Korea, neither an insignificant culinary culture, share a single set of 36. This is one clue that the World’s 50 Best defines world only slightly more expansively than the World Series does.
The panelists are theoretically anonymous, but every chef I spoke to claimed with confidence to have a pretty good feel for which diners to keep an eye on. “If you have common sense, you have a good idea of who is voting,” says Maaemo’s Bang. Another chef says he has comped dozens of potential voters, just in case. This leaves aside those voters, or impostors, who identify themselves and demand reservations, favors, or outright comps. (If done by legitimate voters, those are grounds for expulsion.) One especially brazen voter, The New Yorker reported last year, had her status printed on her business card.
The world’s 50 best’s greatest success may be in the way it has captured the imaginations of chefs themselves. They speak convincingly of the sense of creative camaraderie they feel at the annual awards ceremony. “The amazing thing about 50 Best, and it transcends the single day of the ceremony, is that it has taken all of these like-minded people and created a community,” says Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park, which at No. 5 is America’s highest-ranking restaurant. “It pushes and motivates and inspires you.”
Less loftily, the river of selfies that flows from the ceremony attests to the fact that it is, by all accounts, a great deal of fucking fun. “You get there and you’re like, ‘Holy shit,’ ” says David Chang, whose first appearance on the List was in 2009 with Momofuku Ssäm Bar, at No. 31, and who is currently at No. 69 with Momofuku Ko. “Seventy percent of all the chefs I admire in the world were there. It was like being rushed by a fraternity.”
Waiting for the results each year is as fraught an experience for those who make it as it is for those who fall short. A restaurateur who consistently ranks toward the top told me, “San Pellegrino is great on the one hand because you get all these chefs together. On the other hand, it’s stressful. With Michelin, you work hard, you pray, you work harder, you pray harder. And if you lose a star, you probably know why. San Pellegrino is like your high school boyfriend. He breaks up with you in the ninth grade and you never find out why. It’s like a roller-coaster ride: It’s fun. But it will make you sick.”
Not surprisingly, the World’s 50 Best has provoked a full-blown, if half-baked, backlash. Last May, a website called Occupy 50 Best appeared. “Stop intoxicating us!” the group demanded in its manifesto. “We, the culinary connoisseurs of all countries and creeds: cooks, critics or simply lovers of Good Food, urge you to stop giving your sponsorship and support to this opaque, obsequious ranking, where nationalism trumps quality, sexism trumps diversity and the spotlight is on the Celebrity Chef instead of the health and satisfaction of the customer.”
The “movement,” as organizer Zoé Reyners, a 29-year-old French public-relations worker, calls it, had been born, more or less as a lark, over drinks at a Paris restaurant. (“I start movements all the time,” Reyners says, a shrug in her voice.) Its website may have looked like it was produced while still drunk, its manifesto could be puzzling (can you “occupy” a list, anyway?),and its complaints were less than 100 percent accurate, but Occupy 50 Best was taken more seriously than its founders expected. It ended up articulating the unease that many in the restaurant world had been feeling about the List, and the group’s petition soon drew such luminaries as Joël Robuchon, the Michelin three-star chef Georges Blanc, and the Argentine chef Francis Mallmann, who had once himself been a voter. As this year’s awards approach, Occupy 50 Best seems to have gone the way of Occupy Everything Else, but the bulk of its concerns linger on, primarily about the perceived corruptibility of the voting.
The most florid attempts to influence the World’s 50 Best have come from tourist boards that spend large amounts of money to get their restaurants on the List via junkets, press trips, and other promotions. Peru, for instance, mounted an aggressive campaign to raise its culinary profile several years ago, setting up booths at food festivals, flying in journalists and shepherding them to likely restaurant candidates. In 2015, the Lima restaurants Central and Astrid y Gastón climbed to No. 4 and No. 14, respectively, while Maido, also in Lima, debuted at No. 44. On the other hand, it seems unfair to criticize these countries and restaurants for their tactics in light of the 50 Best’s geographical biases. After all, the number one criterion for getting on the List is getting voters through the door.
As if to make up for that, the World’s 50 Best also runs two regional lists: Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Likewise, the award for Best Female Chef tacitly, if condescendingly, acknowledges the List’s overwhelmingly testosteronic bent. The organization’s frequent spokesperson William Drew argues, not unconvincingly, that anger over this gender imbalance is an instance of shooting the messenger: “This is a case, I think, of us reflecting society on the whole. You can be mad at the restaurant industry, perhaps, but not at us.” At the same time, it couldn’t hurt to at least begin with a more equal number of male and female voters. In 2015, the voters for the U.S. and Canada consisted of 73 men and 35 women.
As for other voting issues, Drew points out that the World’s 50 Best has recently enlisted a major accounting firm to independently audit its results. The ballot now requires that panelists submit the date they dined at each of their choices, to show that it was within the required 18 months, and Drew says the dates are randomly checked.
Generally, though, the organization is unperturbed about diners being fed for free—the product, perhaps, of a British journalistic culture that has long been more tolerant of junketeering than its American counterpart. In a HuffPost Live discussion last year, Drew made the surprising suggestion that a tourist board or restaurant comping a voter’s dinner was the same as a magazine or newspaper reimbursing its food critic for the cost of her meals.
“We work from the basis that there are a lot of journalists and chefs on the panel, and that a lot of those people will not have to pay the bill at a restaurant sometimes,” he tells me. “That’s a part of their lives. But that doesn’t mean that they’re going to put that restaurant as one of their seven. We think they have a bit more intelligence and integrity than that. Let’s say Thomas Keller goes to Daniel Boulud’s restaurant. Daniel is not going to present him with a bill at the end of it. We still trust him to decide if the meal he had there was the best he had in the last year or just a fun time at his friend’s restaurant. We trust the voters.”
My occupation and appetite have taken me to 11 restaurants that are listed on 2015’s 50 Best, along with nine more in the expanded 100. That’s fewer than some of the List’s voters have visited, but probably about equal to others. (Steve Dolinsky, the chair of the Mid U.S.A. and Mid Canada region, estimates that his most traveled judge in any given year has been to about five or six of the eventual winners.) My experience with the World’s 50 Best is a kind of culinary twist on Tolstoy’s maxim that all happy families are the same but all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.
Every one of the wonderful experiences I’ve had has been unique—the neighborhood charm at Septime, in Paris; the transcendent lightness of Noma; the unexpected humor of Alinea, in Chicago—while every bad one has tended to be bad in the same way: arduous, gimmicky, and cold; valuing creativity over comfort, photographability on the plate over deliciousness in the mouth; ultimately dispiriting and exhausting. Though nominally concerned with a sense of place, these restaurants seemed to exist instead in a kind of international nowhereland of signs and signifiers—the elaborate tableware; the blockbuster, money-shot presentations; the insistence on a philosophical, historical, or just clever “story” behind each dish. In short, they were restaurants that seemed engineered to make and climb the List.
Without a doubt, these places were all the products of great talent and effort; they used spectacular ingredients and demonstrated a high degree of technical difficulty. But, as with rock bands, once you start defending restaurants on such criteria, the battle is already lost. Too often, the kinds of restaurants that the 50 Best rewards are the dining equivalent of Rush. And an amuse-bouche never tastes any better just because you’ve been informed it was composed in 11/8 time.
What the List is singularly poor at rewarding is the steady excellence of 4/4 time—which is to say, the kinds of places most of us want to eat at on most occasions. But then, as Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation and the chair of the 50 Best’s East U.S.A. and East Canada region, puts it, “The List is not about ‘Where do I eat dinner tonight?’ ”
This is a difficult concept for Americans, accustomed to equating restaurant criticism with a kind of consumer advocacy. The List is not a guide. Instead, say its organizers, it is a “snapshot,” a glimpse of what interests a relatively small sample of highly engaged eaters at any given time. Almost by definition, this favors the new, the novel, and an articulable point of view that is about more than mere pleasure or hospitality. “I don’t always want to engage in a chef’s philosophical musings about the meaning of kale,” Davis admits. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not of value.”
And yet any defense of the List inevitably bumps up against its most vexing, indefensible trait: its listness. Indeed, everybody involved, from the winning restaurateurs to William Drew, ultimately seems queasy about the rankings, eager to write them off with a genially cynical wink. “We acknowledge that it’s not definitive, that it’s subjective, that it’s merely a collection of the interests of our voters,” Drew says.
You certainly don’t need to tell anybody working in media in 2016 why it is preferable to style your judgments in the form of a list. Still, inevitably one winds up asking the most naive question of them all: Why not cut out the word Best? Replace it with Most Influential or Most Interesting? Print the damn thing in alphabetical order?
“Well,” says Drew, “it’s been a pretty successful brand, wouldn’t you say? I don’t think we’re going to just chuck it out.”
Fair enough. I suppose if you’re not 50, not the World, and not the Best, what, really, is left?
Brett Martin is a GQ correspondent.