The fifth-best restaurant in the world? Spoon des Îles in Mauritius. Number eight? 1884 in Mendoza, Argentina. Some others in the top 50? Tangerine in Philadelphia (#12), Vong in New York City (#15), The Lone Star in Barbados (#25), Blue Lagoon in Grindavík, Iceland (#44), and Carnivore in Nairobi, Kenya (#47).
Umm... according to whom? According to the British food-service trade magazine Restaurant, in the first iteration of its "World's 50 Best Restaurants," back in 2002. It's a funny list. El Bulli held first place, which is reasonable enough. Restaurant Gordon Ramsay was number two (in those days Ramsay was better known as a chef than as a TV sorehead), with The French Laundry in the third slot. And there were certainly some reasonable entries elsewhere on the roster — Tetsuya's, Charlie Trotter's, Dal Pescatore, the River Café, Ginza Sushi-Ko (the one in L.A., run by Masa Takayama before he moved to Manhattan and opened Masa), Michel Bras…
But where were Michel Guérard, Louis XV, Arzak, Daniel? And when the great restaurant critics of the world sat around and reminisced, not quite a decade ago, about the most memorable meals of their lives, did they really salivate over The Ivy (an enjoyable London bistro but not much more), La Coupole (a reconstituted chain-owned Parisian brasserie), and Nepenthe (a Big Sur institution where you go to drink and watch sunsets, or maybe to get married) — number eight, 13, and 34, respectively?
Of course, that was in the "50 Best's" early years. What for some reason has come to be considered a credible ranking of the world's top eateries, the list now called "The S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants" — originally sponsored not by an Italian mineral water company, but by the Wedgwood china people — was dreamed up by the editors of Restaurant as a publicity and subscription-building device for what is, after all, a publication you would have no good reason to read unless you ran a food-service business in the United Kingdom.
The honored establishments are selected by an "Academy" of (to quote the official website) "over 800 international leaders in the restaurant industry, each selected for their [sic] expert opinion of the international restaurant scene." These leaders include restaurant critics, chefs, restaurateurs, and "highly regarded 'gastronomes,'" divided into 27 regional panels around the world, each with 31 members. Each participant nominates seven restaurants, four from within his or her region, three from without — all places where he or she is supposed to have eaten over the previous 18-month period. Other than the fact that chefs and restaurateurs can't vote for places in which they have a financial interest (no mention of places that their friends or relatives might own), "There are no criteria that a restaurant has to meet."
I was asked to be one of the critics (or maybe it was one of the highly regarded gastronomes; a guy can dream) in the first year of the thing, and politely declined, pointing out the impossibility — the absurdity — of trying to compare and rank eating places from half a dozen continents, with no criteria. (Hey, it was hard enough for The Daily Meal to narrow our own list down to The 101 Best Restaurants in America.) To my disappointment, my demure didn't scuttle the entire project, and the list went on to become probably the single most prominent and oft-cited international restaurant ranking after the collective Guides Michelin — a tribute, presumably, to the human obsession with numerical appraisal.
Well, okay. And to be fair, there is a lot less dross on the 2011 list — released last week — than there was on the original one. You can't really complain about a roster that places Noma, El Celler de Can Roca, Mugaritz, Osteria Francescana, The Fat Duck, Alinea, Arzak, and Per Se in its top ten.
But are the hipster-minimalist Parisian bistro Le Chateaubriand (a restaurant which I will freely admit that I just don't get) or the derivative Ledbury in London really better restaurants, in any sense at all, than the aforementioned Per Se (which Le Chateaubriand edges out by one place), or Daniel, or Le Bernardin, or L'Arpège, or Michel Bras, or, or, or? Is Momofuku Ssäm Bar, much though we enjoy it, really the fifth-best Asian restaurant in the entire universe — a universe which, incidentally, includes no restaurants at all from Hong Kong (not even the exquisite Lung King Heen) or elsewhere in China and only two from Japan (a nation, it might be noted, that currently boasts 26 Michelin three-star places — two more than France does).
And where, come to think of it, is The French Laundry? It's down among the also-rans, at #56 — presumably because it's so different from and so inferior to its tenth-place New York cousin. And…wait a minute…Where is El Bulli — the Numero Uno restaurant for five of the nine previous "50 Best" lists (and number two for three of them)? Nowhere. Not even in the bottom 50. Not even down at #100, below Momofuku Ko (really?), WD-50 (really?), and the London — not the New York — incarnation of Bar Boulud (really?).
El Bulli has been stricken from the list, apparently, because it is going to close as a restaurant at the end of July. And its celebrated chef and co-owner, Ferran Adrià has reportedly okayed the omission. But so what? Is "The S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants" supposed to be predictive, rating establishments on what they're going to be rather than what they've been in the recent past? Surely not. Surely it's a ranking — however imperfect (which is plenty) — based on meals the Academicians have already had (in the past 18 months, remember), not meals they will never get the chance to enjoy.
Maybe in their assembled wisdom the voters might have considered El Bulli to have slipped a few more notches (it was knocked back down to number two last year by Noma) — maybe even to have slipped a lot of notches, down below Momofuku Ssäm Bar or somesuch, say. Maybe they might have included it, at whatever position, with an asterisk explaining its special circumstances. But to publish this list without it is about as silly as naming an Alain Ducasse spin-off in the Indian Ocean as the fifth-best restaurant in the world.