The World's 50 Best Restaurants: How a List Got Big

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ben Stansall / AFP / Getty Images

Chef René Redzepi's Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, was honored with the top spot on the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list in London on April 18, 2011

There was something for almost everyone on this year's list of the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants. Beneath the stained-glass windows of London's Guildhall, an audience of journalists, chefs and ardent foodies learned that, for the second year in a row, the terroir-centered cuisine of René Redzepi, the brilliant young chef of Copenhagen's Noma, had again taken the top spot. For Spain, bereft of longtime winner Ferran Adrià now that his restaurant El Bulli is set to close, there was the consolation that three of its restaurants had placed in the top 10.

For the winners, the evening offered plenty of thrills. Massimo Bottura, chef at Osteria Francescana in the Italian city of Modena, couldn't stop smiling after he learned that he came in fourth. "It's incredible," he gushed as tears welled in his eyes. "It's approbation. They're telling us we're on the right path."

The list this year did manage to ameliorate, slightly, one source of controversy: the paucity of restaurants from regions of the world outside Europe and the U.S. Last year, for example, there were only eight restaurants out of 50 for all of Latin America, Asia and Africa. With only two restaurants on the list, Japan, whose capital city, Tokyo, has more Michelin stars than Paris, seemed especially slighted, as did China (outside Hong Kong), with none.

This year, the count was nine. But beyond that slight numerical improvement, the list as a whole seemed more inclusive. A restaurant in mainland China made the list for the first time ever. And Japan's two restaurants both jumped in the rankings, moving up to 12 and 20. "After the earthquake and the tsunami, it's definitely a much-needed boost," said Yoshihiro Narisawa, whose restaurant Les Créations de Narisawa in Tokyo was the highest-ranked Asian restaurant. "When we get home on Thursday, we're going to have a party."

Latin America also improved its standings, in part because, for the first time, the organization created a separate jury for Brazil. The strategy worked: not only did Peru make the top 50 for the first time ever (Gastón Acurio's Astrid y Gastón came in at 42), but Alex Atala's highly regarded D.O.M. in São Paolo came in seventh. "It's a dream," said Atala. "And for Brazil, it's going to be an inspiration for our young chefs and producers."

That sentiment represents, in part, just how powerful the 50 Best list has become. When Redzepi and his crew stepped onto the stage wearing horned helmets and waving Danish flags they had picked up the day before at the airport, they already knew what the award would mean. "It was incredible," said Redzepi. "Ever since we made No. 1, we've been booked three months in advance."

It wasn't always thus. Founded in 2002 by the U.K.-based trade magazine Restaurant, the list began as a publicity stunt. "Restaurant magazine had just launched in 2001 and it wanted to do something to draw attention to itself," says Joe Warwick, who was then an editorial assistant. "So we came up with the idea of a list like Mojo or Q [British music magazines] do for best albums. But it was nothing scientific, just me asking a bunch of chefs, 'What are the best restaurants?' "

Now, however, the list has become a major player within the restaurant industry. Unlike the Michelin guides, which employ anonymous inspectors to rate locales, the 50 Best ranking is decided by more than 800 voters, divided into 27 regions. Allotted seven votes each (only four of which may go to a restaurant in his or her region), jurors are instructed to select only restaurants in which they have dined during the previous 18 months. The organization also ranks the restaurants that come in 51-100.

Many chefs embrace the list, and not only because they (along with food journalists and gourmets) are part of its voting mechanism. "Chefs don't like Michelin because it's cloaked in secrecy and no one understands the criteria," says Nathan Garnett, who until recently was the 50 Best event director. "But 50 Best is open, it's democratic, they're part of it."

And for many in the industry, the list offers a more faithful snapshot of where people want to be eating now. Michelin doesn't offer a guide to South Africa, but even if it did, says chef Margot Janse, of Franschhoek's Le Quartier Francais (No. 39), she would prefer a high ranking on 50 Best to three stars. Says Janse: "Michelin has so many rules and expectations. With 50 Best you can be who you are, and be judged on that." Daniel Patterson, whose San Francisco restaurant Coi has two Michelin stars, has longed to be on the list for the most basic of reasons. "It's where all my friends are," Patterson says. "All the people whose cooking I really admire." He more or less got his wish: his restaurant came in at 75.

But for those who prefer a little controversy with their celebration, the list didn't disappoint. With the casual neo-bistro Le Chateaubriand again winning the highest ranking of any French restaurant (9), it was sure to continue to provoke discontent among certain critics who wonder how it is that the young, rule-breaking chef Inaki Aizpitarte could beat out heavyweights like Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon.

Because the rules that govern voting are few and fairly laxly enforced (jurors are not required, for example, to prove that they ate in the restaurants for which they voted), various forms of lobbying, from the innocent to the not-so-much, take place. At a press conference earlier this year, the father of French cuisine, Michel Guérard, referred to 50 Best as "the Bernie Madoff" of the restaurant industry. Asked to explain what he meant, Guérard said he intended the comment as more joke than criticism. "It was in jest that I mentioned the Madoff system, whose skillful construction and lack of transparency could make you think of the people heading the ranking of the 50 best restaurants in the world," Guérard said.

After emotionally congratulating his team and urging them to work for the same prize one more time, Redzepi posed for photos before a swarm of popping cameras — yet another reminder of just how far the 50 Best list has come from its rock-'n'-roll origins. And then he joined the dozens of other chefs who had left the heat and stress of their kitchens to go to London for a celebratory drink. Because along with everything else, 50 Best is a good excuse for a party.