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The World's 50 Best Restaurants List (and Its Flaws), Explained

The World's 50 Best Restaurants list for 2015 will be unveiled this evening in London. In advance of the announcement, Eater chief critic and data lead Ryan Sutton discusses the makeup of the list and its flaws, including the curious underrepresentation of female chefs.

What precisely is the World's 50 Best Restaurants List? It is, at its heart, a listicle, an improbable 1-50 ranking of global culinary institutions. It is also, in the words of the organizers, "a globally recognized gastronomic reference point which showcases leading trends and highlights great restaurants from all corners of the Earth." That's a heck of a statement for a list that overwhelmingly showcases expensive restaurants in Europe, with little representation in Africa, Japan, the Middle East, and large swaths of South America. In fact there isn't a single venue on the 2014 list from mainland China or India, two countries with vibrant restaurant scenes and booming middle classes — not to mention billions of inhabitants who collectively make up about 37 percent of the world's population. Whoops!

When did the list debut? In a 2002 edition of Restaurant Magazine; the guide is now run independently of that publication. The composition of the list was different back then, with the now-closed elBulli occupying the top position, a Caribbean spot in the top thirty (The Lone Star), and a Persian gulf seafood restaurant (Al Mahara, UAE) and a New Delhi tandoori restaurant (Bukhara) in the top twenty.

Who's at the top of the list now? Rene Redzepi's Noma in Copenhagen has occupied the number one spot for four of the last five years, only slipping to number two when Spain's modernist El Celler de Can Roca took over for a hot second in 2013. Noma is hugely important for its pivotal role in New Nordic cooking, which eschews the ubiquitous French approach to luxury in favor of bringing a hyper-local, avant-garde ethos to a geographical region without a rich history of indigenous fine dining. That's more or less the Northern European analogue to what Gastón Acurio had done for Peru in the early 1990s, a chef who's also well represented on the 2014 list with Lima's Astrid y Gastón (no. 18).

Who else has occupied the top spot? The hyper-modernist elBulli, whose spheres and foams have been replicated around the world, occupied the number one position for five non-consecutive years. Thomas Keller's The French Laundry was number one for two years in the mid-aughts, and Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck triumphed in 2004.

fifty best restaurants are mostly european! | Create infographics

Can we expect any big changes this year? The guide will have at least nine new restaurants because Waku Ghin, The Fat Duck, Hof Van Cleve, Daniel, Geranium, De Librije, Coi, Vila Joya, and Martín Berasategui all fell to the less prestigious 51-100 list that the organizers released last Monday*. From a more technical standpoint, New York's Eleven Madison Park has moved up by at least one (or often many more) spots every year for the past five years; it was ranked at no. 50 in 2010. By 2014, it was no. 4. So the smart money is on another advancement for that establishment, which received a four star review by New York Times critic Pete Wells earlier this spring.

What type of influence does high placement on the list have on a restaurant's business? A positive influence is the intuitive answer, but the truer answer might just be an overwhelmingly insane blitzkrieg of interest in the given restaurant. When El Celler won in 2013, "The waiting list grew to one year and three people were employed to turn down requests for tables," Bloomberg's Richard Vines wrote last year, adding that, "the day after Noma won in 2010, about 100,000 people tried to book online, enough to fill the Copenhagen restaurant for years."

How expensive are the restaurants on the World's 50 Best List? Very expensive. An Eater analysis shows that the average price of a tasting menu (five or more courses) on the 2014 list, after local tax and recommended gratuity (if any), runs $220 in U.S. dollars, with 56 percent of those selections costing $250 or more. Sure, many of those same venues offer lower priced options — one can order a pitch perfect foie gras at the a la carte salon at Per Se (no. 30) in New York for $40, service included — but tasting menus are usually recommended options at those venues. In fact, only a single restaurant on the list, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (no. 5), fails to offer a tasting on a regular basis. (By the way: You wouldn't find any of this out by reading the list itself, which doesn't include prices)

How does the list compare with Zagat or Michelin? Zagat, owned by Google, ranks restaurants on a scale of 0-30 based on a popular vote; anyone can participate. Michelin, a division of Europe's largest tire maker, employs a cadre of anonymous inspectors to award highly-coveted stars to restaurants. Its scope is more global than Zagat's, but less so (nominally, at least) than the World's 50 Best. While Michelin covers restaurants in Europe, Japan, Hong Kong, Macao, Brazil, and the United States, the 50 Best guide, which compiles its list from the votes of a group of nearly 1,000 "international restaurant industry experts," can include any restaurant, anywhere in the world. In that sense, the guide deserves credit for shining an international spotlight on venues like Attica in Melbourne, The Test Kitchen in Cape Town, Central in Lima, and other establishments, often in the Southern Hemisphere, that aren't covered by Michelin.

Who are the "international restaurant industry experts" that the World's 50 Best List relies upon? Are any of them chefs? They are an "equal mix" of food writers, "well traveled gastronomes," and yes, chefs and restaurateurs. That's a big point of contrast with Michelin or professional criticism in general, where — in the interest of serving the consumer — chefs and restaurateurs have no say in the results. In the 50 Best guide, chefs make up a third of the voters.

How does the voting work? Are members required to dine at the restaurants they vote for? Each member gets seven votes, three of which need to be used outside of that voter's home region. Voters must confirm they have dined at the restaurants they vote for within the past 18 months.

Who pays for the voters' meals, and who funds their travel abroad? Do the voters even have to pay for their meals? They don't. William Drew, group editor of the 50 Best guide, said the following in a statement to Eater this morning: "The World's 50 Best Restaurants places no restrictions on whether voters of the Diners Club® Academy pay for their meals or how they pay for travel to restaurants outside or inside of their territory." He goes on: "One third of the Academy are food critics and journalists, and as is the nature of their job, may attend gastronomic press trips hosted by tourist boards, meaning that their travel and dining experience may be covered." 50 Best does not pay for the meals or travel expenses of the voters.

Julia Moskin of the New York Times reported as much on Friday, noting that "many government tourism boards, like those of Sweden, Peru, Mexico and Singapore, "have begun or increased their sponsorship of gastro-tourism for those in the food industry since the advent of the list." Drew also said in his statement that judges are required to remain anonymous.

Most professional critics and Michelin inspectors, including those from Eater and the New York Times, are not permitted to accept free meals from restaurants. On that note, here's Drew again: "We believe that the journalists who are also (anonymous) voters have the capability to discern whether the restaurant is worthy of their vote, irrespective of whether the visit to a restaurant has been paid for, courtesy of an outside source."

Gender and 2014 World's 50 Best List! | Create infographics

In practice, does the 50 Best List, despite its global intentions, provide a substantially more comprehensive view of global dining than Michelin? Not really. Expensive restaurants from Europe and the United Kingdom have made up over 60 percent of the list for the past half decade. Or consider this: while twelve restaurants in Tokyo and fourteen restaurants in Japan hold three Michelin stars, that guide's highest rating, only two restaurants from Japan are on the 2014 World's 50 Best list. And as mentioned above, there are no restaurants from the Middle East or India in the current guide, though there is an entry from Dubai, Zuma, on the longer 51-100 list. It serves Japanese food. Go figure. No restaurants from mainland China or South Korea are on the 1-50 list either. And the only restaurants from South America are from Brazil or Peru.

But there's one African restaurant on the 2014 list, which is more than can be said for Michelin, right? Yes. That venue, as mentioned above, is The Test Kitchen in South Africa (no. 48). And while that institution, with its foie gras, duck confit, and Mozambique langoustines, is surely a wonderful place to dine, one could argue that the 50 Best organization might have an image issue on its hands here. For a post-colonial continent with such a diverse culinary history at the indigenous level, is an internationally-minded Cape Town establishment led by a British-born chef really the only African restaurant deemed worthy of inclusion? And does 50 Best really need to drive that point home by declaring it the "best restaurant in all of Africa?"

How many female head chefs are on the 2014 top 50 list? Only two, making up four percent of the list, a paltry statistic in a world where chefs like Dominique Crenn, Iliana Regan, April Bloomfield, and Elise Kornack are all in charge of Michelin-starred kitchens. Those two chefs on the list, incidentally, are Elena Arzak of the namesake restaurant in San Sebastian, as well as Helena Rizzo of Mani in Brazil. According to the 50 Best list, Mani exemplifies "modern, feminine Brazilian cooking" – whatever that means. The guide goes on, stating that the chef's approach is "so effective, in fact, that Rizzo is this year named the Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef." So, there's that.

What is Occupy 50 Best? A new, small movement that takes issue with the guide's methods, voting process, and lack of female representation. 50 Best, naturally, disagrees with many of the criticisms and points out that the voting process is being adjudicated by worldwide consulting firm Deloitte.

What are the benefits of being in the 51-100 consolation prize list? Not a whole lot. For venues in the top fifty, the organizers publish a nice bio of the restaurant, along with the phone number and a link to the website. For those venues in the 51-100 class, only the name of the establishment is published, without even a link to that venue's website.

So to summarize, the World's 50 Best Restaurants are mostly a group of European institutions serving expensive tasting menus? Yep. For a global list, a lot of these admittedly outstanding and groundbreaking restaurants feel awfully similar. Does it really make sense to include both Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York and The French Laundry in Napa Valley on the list? Having dined at both, I can confirm that, environments notwithstanding, they're essentially the same restaurant.

None of this make the 50 Best a bad list, but it makes the all-encompassing name feel a bit more disingenuous than it already sounds to a level-headed gourmand. How could the guide, after all, overlook Russia, with its eleven time zones? How could it forget Central Asia, with its exquisite rice pilafs, or the Caucasus, with its succulent Georgian shashliks? Okay, fair enough, the name of the list is the World's Best Restaurants," not the World's Best Food – Uzbekistan obviously doesn't have as strong of a dining culture as France. That said, while the guide deserves kudos for its separate lists for Latin America and Asia, future global guides, this afternoon's 2015 list included, must surely include stronger regional representation, including for African countries without a daily direct flight to New York. Can I get a hell yeah on this one?

*This post was updated to reflect the fact that the 2015 list will have at least nine new entrants.

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