LONDON – The battle between three of the world’s gastronomic heavyweights continues. Like a three-way race during a TV timeout on a Jumbotron between animatronic sausages/bags of candy, the top restaurants in Copenhagen, Spain and Italy once again jostled for the top spot on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
El Celler de Can Roca, from Girona, Spain, took the top slot, while Modena, Italy’s Osteria Francescana moved up one position to #2. Copenhagen’s Noma moved down two slots to #3. The biggest surprise of the night – along with a number of new entries from Mexico, Russia and Peru – was the puzzling move for Chicago’s Alinea from #9 down to #26. “I’m actually o.k. with it,” said a very zen-like Grant Achatz, Alinea’s Chef/Co-Owner, shortly after the awards were announced last night here at The Guildhall in Central London. Other American restaurants to place in the top 50 included The French Laundry (#50), Blue Hill at Stone Barns (#49), Per Se (#40), Le Bernardin (#18) and 11 Madison Park (#5).
Last year, Noma returned to the top spot, knocking El Cellar de Can Roca down to #2. Osteria Francescana remained at #3. As for North America, New York City’s 11 Madison Park came in at #4 last year, while Alinea came in at #9, a surprise even then to Achatz. “I didn’t think we’d crack the top ten,” Achatz confessed after the awards ceremony last year. Incidentally, the restaurant recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, and will close its doors for two months beginning in January, to undergo a complete overhaul and redesign, thus launching version 2.0.
Like any list, it’s subjective, and certainly not without controversy. Of course, there’s no such thing as “The Best Restaurant in the World,” that kind of pronouncement is just ripe for mockery since every diner has a different experience. The headline sure makes for attention-grabbing copy and brings a lot of eyeballs to the 50 Best website (where you can see not only the top 50, but 51 – 100 as well). I think what this list does do is provide a snapshot of where the food scene is, right now, around the globe, at least as determined by the 972 industry folks and food-obsessed people who make dining a priority whenever they travel. As one of my colleagues put it, it is a reflection of the food world’s travel patterns.
Interestingly enough, old-guard establishments like Gordon Ramsay, Alain Ducasse and in his last few years, Charlie Trotter, haven’t appeared on the top 50 in years, as more cutting-edge, avant garde chefs have taken over the world stage (and the press’ attention). When Alain Ducasse received the Lifetime Achievement Award a couple of years ago, his restaurant didn’t even make the top 50. Brazil chef Alex Atala, of D.O.M. (#9) didn’t even come to the awards this year, allegedly due to a rift he had with the Latin American 50 Best last year. Personally, I think part of the reason a particular restaurant might not get placed (or even drop a few notches, as Noma and Alinea have done in recent years) is because they become victims of their own success; if you can’t get in, then you certainly can’t vote. But the the other issue is that as voters experience new places like Lima and Singapore and Bangkok, more of those potential votes get siphoned off, and that certainly seemed to be the case this year. Mistura – the massive, week-long food event in Lima in the fall – attracts thousands of visitors and food professionals, who spend a lot of time checking out that city’s best restaurants. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Central (#4), Astrid y Gastón (#14) and Maido (#44) were three of the most frequently visited places that week. By the same token, it was heartening to see a well-deserved nod to Montreal’s Joe Beef (#81), which has deserved international attention for years.
The “50 Best” awards started in 2002 as a feature in Restaurant, a small British trade magazine owned by William Reed Business Media. The marketing folks thought it was a good way to attract readers and gain some buzz. This year, The World’s 50 Best spun off into its own company (still beneath the William Reed umbrella) into its own brand, separate from the magazine.
The list is compiled from the votes of 27 panels around the world. Each panel has a chairman who picks 35 voters, consisting of equal parts food writers, chefs/restaurateurs and what I like to call “gastronauts”- that is, people who have enough money to travel and eat. The magazine started an “Academy” of chairmen in 2006. Every year, we must rotate out 10 voters and bring in 10 new ones, to keep ideas and opinions fresh. On that note, five of my fellow Academy Chairs were rotated out last year, and have been replaced; this also keeps things fresh; there will be Academy Chair rotation each year from now on. I have been a Chairman on the panel – unpaid – for eight years; the first few years, the U.S./Canada region had only 30 voters, which is one of the reasons why The List was often criticized for being too Euro-centric. Eventually, the U.S. was split into thirds – with 30 votes for each region, resulting in 90 voters from North America – and I had Canada as well as the middle of the U.S., forming a kind of “T” region. This also proved to be difficult for Canadian restaurants to make the list, since few residents up north travel cross-country.
A few years ago, I convinced the organizers to split North America vertically, into thirds, while each region in the world was given five more votes, bringing the number of voters up to 36 in each region (including the Chairman’s vote). Thus, S. Irene Virbila (L.A. Times) handles the Western section of North America; I oversee the middle and Mitchell Davis (James Beard Foundation) is in charge of the Eastern section of North America. My hope was that if each of us made sure 11 or 12 of our 36 voters were from Canada, our northern neighbor would have a de facto region, consisting of equal parts British Columbia, Ontario and Quebéc. (For the record, nearly half of my 36 voters this year are from Canada, but I’m not at liberty to reveal any of their identities, so as to prevent lobbying from restaurants).
Panelists must have dined at the restaurants they vote for at some point in the 18 months before voting, although we don’t require proof of receipts – a frequent criticism – but the same “no receipt” policy holds for the James Beard Awards too, and there is no requirement for Beard judging regarding proof of the date the voter dined in the restaurant; nor is there annual rotation of the Regional Judging Chairmen. For 50 Best, judges have to rank seven restaurants in order of preference, with the higher ranked ones getting more weight in case of a tie. The list of seven has to include at least three restaurants outside of the voter’s geographical region. So for example, if you were one of my voters in Toronto, you could vote for up to four places in our region – Toronto, Minneapolis, Chicago, New Orleans, Dallas, etc., – then you would need to vote for three places from anywhere else in the world, including the East and West Coasts of North America. The votes are due in November, and the chairmen never know the results before they are published; we don’t even know how our judges vote in our own region.
El Bulli won in the first year of the awards, back in 2002, and pulled a four-peat from 2006-2009. Other winners include the French Laundry (2003, 2004), the Fat Duck (2005), Noma (2010-12, 2014) and El Celler de Can Roca (2013).
The awards are sponsored by San Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, while Diners Club International sponsors the Academy and the Lifetime Achievement Award. Deloitte is the independent auditor for the voting process. To read more about the voting policy, go here.