The World’s 50 Best Restaurants: or are they?

The Staff Canteen

Child prodigy or Frankenstein’s monster; media circus or harmless fun? Whatever it has created, Restaurant magazine’s World 50 Best Restaurants sponsored by San Pellegrinno and Acqua Panna, has grown into something bigger than anyone could have predicted. With the 2013 awards fast approaching, The Staff Canteen decided to investigate.

It started off in 2002 as an idea for a quirky one-off article in Restaurant magazine. The idea, the brainchild of ex-Restaurant magazine writer, Joe Warwick, was to ask a group of industry insiders – food writers, chefs and restaurateurs – for their top five restaurants and use the results to compile a top 50 list.

The feature sparked so much interest that the following year it returned, this time with a spangly awards night attached. Since then it has snowballed into a global phenomenon (some would say monster) surrounded by a PR machine of frightening intensity which can see small, unknown restaurants plucked from obscurity and catapulted into global superstardom with the mere flick of a few voters’ pens. Since the competition’s rise to world prominence there have been mutterings – mutterings about too much PR influence on voters; mutterings about why Guardian food critic Jay Rainer stepped down as the UK chair of judges; mutterings, even, about less-than-healthy practices amongst voters and hopeful contenders. Mutterings are mutterings of course because they don’t stand up to public scrutiny.

But the awards certainly do divide opinions, with much of the criticism focusing on the increasing PR influence and the somewhat creaky voting procedure. The believers, on the other hand, say it’s a harmless celebration of good food and sheds light on what might otherwise remain the hidden gems of the restaurant world.

How it all works

So Let’s shed a bit of light of our own, starting with the voting mechanism – 936 voters comprising 35 panellists and a chair from 26 geographical regions around the world make up The Diners Club World 50 Best Restaurants Academy. This panel of voters comprises industry experts including chefs, restaurateurs, food critics and bloggers headed by a regional chair chosen for his or her knowledge of that part of the restaurant world. The chair chooses the panellists for their region and is responsible for changing at least ten voters every year. Each panellist gets seven votes, at least three of which must be outside their geographical region. Voters list their choices in order of preference from one to seven and the tally of all 6,552 votes goes to make up the list of the world’s 50 best restaurants. Simple, no? Er, kind of. The UK and Ireland form one voting region. Bloomberg food critic, Richard Vines is the chair and last year’s panellists included such reverend names as Sat Bains, Jason Atherton, Marcus Wareing and Claude Bosi to name but a few. Other stellar panellists from around the world include people like René Redzepi of Noma and Rasmus Kofoed of Geranium so expertise is one commodity that the voting panels certainly don’t lack.

Divided opinions and quirky entries

But whilst the insider knowledge of the voting panellists is a strength to some, to others it is one of the competition’s weaknesses. One doubter is food writer and ex-editor of the Good Food Guide, Drew Smith. He said: “If you look at the list of voters you’ll probably find that 75% of them have got some sort of vested interest or other. It was ok to be arbitrary to start with but you’d think it should get more rigorous as it has evolved. There are no criteria. At least with Michelin, whether you agree with it or not, you roughly know why they’re doing it and you can follow the logic.” PR is Drew Smith’s other bug bear. Media hype, according to Drew, is what accounts for some rather wild swings in the placings from year to year with some restaurants changing as much as 27 places in successive competitions. “It works on gossip,” he said. “so you get a sort of perceived wisdom which isn’t really checked.”

Others disagree like Maureen Mills, a member of the UK voting panel and director of restaurant PR company, Network London PR. “Look at El Bulli,” said Maureen. “It didn’t come to prominence just from 50 best. In New York, Eleven Madison Park is climbing the ladders as well; it just got its third Michelin star and it’s got four out four from the New York Times. It’s not just 50 Best celebrating these places.” It’s often the quirkier entries such as Sweden’s Faviken or Le Chateaubriand in Paris that become the battle ground for conflicting opinions about the competition. Faviken is a 12-seater restaurant near the Arctic Circle where the chefs serve diced cow’s heart with marrowbone extracted ‘live’ at the table. Le Chateaubriand is a modern bistro that serves simple, almost austere combinations and sticks two fingers up at its high-end, hoity-toity neighbours. Neither has a single Michelin star. For detractors like Drew Smith, Faviken, which was new to the list in 2012, is evidence of the less-than-rigorous guidelines – how can a tiny restaurant in the middle of nowhere be compared meaningfully with a big city brasserie doing 500 covers a day?

Whereas for Maureen Mills the same restaurant is brilliant evidence of the ground-breaking, unpretentious celebration of good food that is at the heart of 50 best. Stephen Harris, chef patron at Michelin-starred The Sportsman in Kent, is a UK panellist who has a fondness for the competition but is also realistic about its limitations. Stephen also cites the examples of Faviken and Le Chateaubriand; the first of which he thinks is a positive inclusion because of its very obscurity, the second he says is, “definitely not the best restaurant in Paris but certainly the most interesting.” But should a world’s 50 best restaurant competition rank a tiny bistro as the 15th best restaurant in the world – the second highest of any Paris restaurant – because it is “interesting”? First of all, according to Stephen, everyone should calm down a bit and take a sense of humour check. 

“I just find it really funny how people get so caught up in whether it matters or not,” said Stephen. “I find it incredible that people get so worked up about something so simple.”

Media monster or harmless fun?

However Stephen Harris also admits that the light-hearted idea of the original competition may be a thing of the past. “It started off as a bit of fun in a magazine and everybody likes a list.” He said. “The trouble is, ten years down the road, to some people on the list it’s all or nothing, so what was an innocent piece of fun has now become vital to the industry; that side of it is a shame.” The heir to this empire of growing media attention and debate is the current editor of Restaurant magazine, William Drew. William seems by turns amazed and slightly apologetic about the immensity of the creation the magazine has spawned. “No one had any idea of the extent that it would grow,” he says, “or the kind of scrutiny it would come under, or the power and influence of the list, so in many ways it’s taken us by surprise.”

William admits that the system isn’t perfect but makes it clear that there is an on-going effort to tweak things and improve the process. However the lack of ‘rigour’ is something he embraces, pointing out that the non-elitist nature of the list is a direct result of the lack of restrictions on how the panellists vote. He is also dismissive of the criticisms of PR influence saying: “Of course there’s a PR influence on it. This is the modern world where there’s a PR influence on everything.” And what about those mutterings? William admits there have been isolated cases of judges doing “the odd thing they shouldn’t do” but says these have been immediately dealt with. 

However, he says: “In terms of widespread problems that people have suggested, we’ve investigated and we have found no evidence to suggest that there is any kind of broad manipulation or abuse.” Internal investigations may not, it’s safe to say, be enough to silence the critics but are you ever going to silence critics, and is that even the point? That, it would seem is simply a matter of taste.  Detractors see the competition as some kind of madcap creation of a genius inventor that got out of control; others see it as just another list – a harmless piece of entertainment. Everyone knows, after all, that lists are supposed to generate anger and disagreement – that’s half the fun.

The world’s 50 trendiest restaurants?

For Stephen Harris all the controversy – and those mutterings – could be silenced with the changing of one small word. “Calling it the World’s 50 Best Restaurants is probably the problem,” said Stephen. “If you call it something like the World’s 50 ‘Trendiest’ or ‘Coolest’ restaurants you’d probably be closer to the truth, and solve a lot of problems at the same time.” And that sounds like a down-to-earth piece of advice in an area of the industry that is currently flying high. Whether it is flying too high, and too close to the sun, is something which only time will tell.  


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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 18th April 2013

The World’s 50 Best Restaurants: or are they?