What’s With ‘The World’s 50 Best Restaurants?’

The annual list of the world’s top establishments has acquired prestige and attracted justified criticism

New York's Eleven Madison Park took the crown this year.

The 2017 iteration of the annual dining award list known as the World's 50 Best Restaurants was announced in the newly trendy international dining destination of Melbourne, Australia, on April 5. The first place winner was New York City’s own Eleven Madison Park, knocking Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Italy, down to second place. (In 2016, Bottura’s restaurant had supplanted the Roca brothers' El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, in Spain's Catalonia region, now in third place.) This is the first time a New York City restaurant has taken top honors, though another American establishment, The French Laundry, held the position in 2003 and 2004 (it now languishes in the associated 51-100 list, at No. 68).

Congratulations are due to Eleven Madison Park, Osteria Francescana, El Celler de Can Roca, and all the other fine dining establishments around the globe that made the roster — including Alinea in Chicago (No. 1 in our own 101 Best Restaurants in America) and Central in Lima (first place in our 101 Best Restaurants in Latin America and the Caribbean).

Just what does being named to the 50 Best list really mean, though? Good question.

The awards, now so glossily produced and widely touted, were born out of an article in a small English trade magazine. The idea was hatched in 2002 in the suburban London offices of the magazine Restaurant, a food service business monthly with circulation of under 17,000. The inspiration, then-editor Joe Warwick told an American journalist a few years back, came when he and the other editors were “sitting around smoking dope and talking” and decided that it might be fun to come up with a list of top restaurants along the lines of the annual ranking of best record albums published by the U.K. music magazine Mojo.

The first version of the awards, voted on by the aforementioned editors and some colleagues, was a little, well, uneven. Sure, the legendary elBulli took first place — but No. 5 was Alain Ducasse's now defunct Spoon des Îles in Mauritius; No. 8 was La Coupole (a chain-owned, tourist-trodden Parisian brasserie); No. 25 was a hotel restaurant in Barbados called The Lone Star.

Despite the unevenness of the initial choices, subsequent editions of the awards — decided on through an increasingly structured process — gradually captured the attention of the gastronomic world. A number of corporate sponsors signed on — most notably the Nestlé Waters brands San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna, which until last year owned naming rights to the awards, but also such blue chip brands as Diners Club International, Lavazza, Miele, and Grana Padano.

As the 50 Best became increasingly prominent, questions about its methodology and legitimacy began to be heard. Who were the judges, after all? Had they really been to all the restaurants they voted for, and, if so, did they dine anonymously (a practice considered de rigueur for honest reviews)? Why were there no restaurants run by female chefs? Why were entire continents ignored?

Criticism seemed to boil over in 2015. That year, an ad hoc French organization called Occupy 50 Best attacked the awards, criticizing the fact that the rating system had “no consistent and objective gastronomical or even sanitary requirements” and proclaiming “50 Best, Your Kitchen Smells Fishy!”

The same year, a public statement issued by a group of prominent French chefs, including Joël Robuchon, Thierry Marx, Georges Blanc, and Gilles Epié — none of whose restaurants, incidentally, were (or are) in the top 50 — described the awards as "a sexist and complacent ranking where culinary nationalism takes precedence over the quality of the food."

Around the same time, The New York Times received an email from Robuchon — arguably the most respected French chef of his generation — specifically complaining that there was no way to prove that voters had actually eaten in any of the restaurants they chose. (The organizers have been repeatedly asked to require participants to show receipts from the restaurants they vote for, but have steadfastly refused.) Robuchon noted that this opens the door to "cronyism, 'flip a coin' voting, geopolitical influence, and lobbying."

New Zealand Listener food columnist Lauraine Jacobs put it rather more directly, tweeting after the 2015 rankings were announced: "The whole thing is a complete schmozzle if you ask me."

How does the schmozzle work? The rankings are determined by the World's 50 Best Restaurants Academy, a grouping of more than 1,000 members "each selected for their [sic] expert opinion of the international restaurant scene." To refine the voting, the world is divided into 26 geographical regions, each with a chairperson. (The U.S. and Canada are split into three bi-national vertical chunks — western, central, and eastern — overseen, respectively, by Michalene Busico, dining editor of Robb Report and a former Los Angeles Times food editor; Steve Dolinsky, food reporter for ABC 7 News in Chicago and sometime travel writer for the Chicago Tribune; and James Beard Foundation executive vice-president Mitchell Davis.)

Each chairperson invites 39 additional participants (about a quarter of whom are replaced each year) — "a balanced selection of chefs, restaurateurs, food/restaurant journalists and well-traveled gourmands." Each Academy member — unlike their supervisors, they remain anonymous — votes for 10 restaurants, at least four of which must be outside his or her home region. They are asked to rank their choices in order of preference. What that preference is based on, however, is anybody's guess. The Academy's "Manifesto" states "There are no criteria that a restaurant has to meet." (Er, not even quality?) Nominations are adjudicated by Deloitte, the big international professional services firm, which performs “certain procedures to confirm the integrity and authenticity of the voting process and the resulting list.”

The rules require that voters have eaten in the restaurants they nominate within the previous 18 months and confirm the date of their last visit. As noted, though, there is no requirement that they show receipts — which would be tricky anyway, as it is well known that tourist bureaus and local governments around the world often host influential food journalists, who may or may not be (but probably are) among the present or future Academy members. And without receipts, doesn’t the Academy have to take each member’s word for the dates of his or her most recent visits? Oh, and about that anonymity: Many of the voters attend the gala 50 Best awards ceremony each year, intermingling with the chefs and restaurateurs they have presumably helped elect to positions of prominence. They do not wear masks or use pseudonyms.

However much “integrity and authenticity” might be involved in the process, the resulting list remains, as it has always been, heavily Eurocentric and largely masculine. Yes, there are women, three of them, in the 2017 top 50 — Pía León of Central (No. 5), Elena Arzak of Arzak in San Sebastián (No. 30), and Daniela Soto-Innes of Cosme in New York City (No. 40) — but all three are co-chefs with male counterparts (or bosses). Another woman, Ana Roš of Hiša Franko in Kobarid, Slovenia, was named the World’s Best Female Chef 2017 — a designation, incidentally, that many believe should not exist — by the Academy, but her restaurant shows up only in the 51-100 also-rans, at No. 69.

As for geography, in the 2017 ranking, 27 of the 50 restaurants are on the European Continent or in the U.K. Eight Latin American restaurants are included, as well as seven from Asia, six from the U.S., and two from the host country for this year’s event, Australia. Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the entire Middle East — regions full of excellent restaurants — are absent.

The smart money is betting that next year’s 50 Best will include at least a few more Australian entries, though: Tourism Australia was an official sponsor of the 50 Best this year, to the tune of about $600,000 (U.S.), and Visit Victoria, the tourism organization for Melbourne’s home state, provided the venue for the ceremony gratis. Between them, the tourist agencies also hosted attendees for meals and trips around Australia for almost two weeks, before and after the 50 Best evening. Australia is a wonderful food country. How could voters fail to be impressed? Of course, if, say, Tourism Vancouver or GoIsrael or Cape Town Tourism were to pony up the big bucks for the 2018 award ceremony, well…

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Back in 2015, one of the founders of Occupy 50 Best, Zoé Reyners, co-founder of the Paris-based public relations and lobbying firm Katch & Reyners, told The New York Times, "They [the 50 Best organization] have the sponsorship money, they have the world's ear, they have the power. All we ask is that they recognize that responsibility, and change the system accordingly."