Trying to Understand The World’s 50 Best List

The #1 restaurant in the world is in Modena, Italy. That is, if you believe in the validity of lists.

The World’s 50 Best Restaurants held its annual awards ceremony in New York City Monday night, at Cipriani Wall Street, the first time it has taken place outside of London since the awards began 14 years ago, and once again, there is some hand-wringing going on today.

Last year’s top two winners changed places. Osteria Francescana became the first Italian restaurant to reach #1, while El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, dropped to #2. Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan moved up from #5 to #3. One of the biggest surprises of the night was the news that Copenhagen’s Noma came in at #5, since it had been in the top three every year since 2009.

The dearth of North American restaurants was disappointing, but not surprising. Yet again, not one restaurant from Canada made the Top 50, or even the 51 – 100 list (Montreal’s Joe Beef came in at #81 last year), while two American restaurants placed in the top 50 for the first time: Saison in San Francisco (#27), and Estela, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (#44). Alinea moved up to #15 from #26, while venerable spots like The French Laundry and Daniel moved out of the top 50, far down into the bottom tier. Why is this not surprising? Because when you think about where travelers (and ultimately, voters) tend to visit in North America to eat, they tend to hit three cities: New York, Chicago and San Francisco. How else to explain the Canadian shut-out? Are there places missing from this list? Absolutely. For every Vij’s, Hawksworth, Bar Isabel, Buca and Joe Beef missing from Canada, there are just as many like The Publican, Topolobampo, Next, Blackbird, August, Shaya, Husk and Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in America that aren’t even in the top 100, and that’s a shame. I think one remedy would be the establishment of a North America’s 50 Best, which I have a feeling is coming down the line.

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 and Alain Ducasse haven’t appeared on the 50 Best 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. Brazilian chef Alex Atala, of D.O.M. (#11) didn’t even go to the awards last year in London, allegedly due to a rift he had with the Latin American 50 Best then. 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, both internationally and in the U.S. For example, 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 (#30) and Maido (rocketing from #44 last year to #13 this year) are three of the most frequently visited places during the week.

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. More recently, 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. It produces Latin American 50 Best as well as Asia’s 50 Best.

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. I have been a Chairman on the panel – unpaid – for nine years. Every year, we must rotate out 10 voters and bring in 10 new ones, to keep ideas and opinions fresh. On that note, four of my fellow Academy Chairs were rotated out last year (France, China/S. Korea, North America – West, Spain), and have been replaced; this also keeps things fresh; there will be some Academy Chair rotation each year from now on.

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, Michalene Busico (The Robb Report) handles the Western section of North America; I oversee the middle and Mitchell Davis (The 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 no longer sponsored by San Pellegrino, while Diners Club International sponsors the Academy Chairs. Deloitte is the independent auditor for the voting process. To read more about the voting policy, go here.

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