Who wins is no small matter here: Just as an Academy Award can mean financial riches for the film in question, a high spot on the 50 Best list can fill up reservation books; after ascending to the top in 2013, El Celler told Bloomberg it had to hire extra reservationists just to tell guests there were no spaces available.
The guide, formerly known as the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants (I always thought water was a stronger branding opportunity for restaurants than, let’s say, tires) deserves credit: There’s no other high-profile international list highlighting such a deep bench of venues from South America and Mexico. But surely, a guide that claims to represent the world can do better than a single venue from China, a country of 1.6 billion people (a venue that is, incidentally, a $600 French-y spot specializing in "psycho-taste"). And kudos to the judges for putting a fantastic Indian restaurant in Bangkok in the top 50, perhaps it can find one in India, too? Whether any of this happens we’ll find out next week, but for now, let’s take a look at the potential winners, examine why the guide raises so many eyebrows, and hear from William Drew, the guide’s editor, about criticisms of the list.
Prediction: The top 10 might not change much in 2016.
Who Will Win?
Assuming there’s no collusion among the 1,500 judges — split equally among chefs and restaurateurs, culinary journalists, and gastronomes — past lists won’t necessarily predict future ones ("all votes and comments are confidential," the rules state). That said, careful observers will note that Noma has occupied the top spot for five out of the last six years, while El Celler has won twice in that same time frame. Twenty restaurants have slid into the top 10 list over the past six years, ostensibly indicating a good dose of variety, but only two to four new entrants actually penetrate that elite tranche every year. In fact, six of the restaurants in the top 10 (Noma, El Celler, Mugaritz, Eleven Madison Park, D.O.M, and Arzak) have been hung around in that space for four or more years.
Translation: The top 10 might not change much in 2016.
The smart money is on either Noma or El Celler taking the top spot. Judges aren’t allowed to vote for pop-ups, meaning Noma’s heralded Sydney pop-up shouldn’t count, but if you believe critical praise for René Redzepi’s Australia endeavor doesn’t impact voting, then I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Voters might also be inclined to give a nostalgic hat tip to Noma before it shutters and moves to a new location at the end of the year. Of course, Osteria Francescana, currently ranked No. 2, might sneak into that number-one spot based on the following statistic: Since the list began in 2002, the only restaurant to have occupied the number-two spot without eventually ascending to win is Gordon Ramsay.
Who Will Be the New Entrants on the 50 Best List?
No one knows, but since the runner-up 51-100 rankings have already been released and since eight restaurants previously on the proper list are now members of the "back 50," (including Le Chateaubriand, Per Se, and the French Laundry), we know there will be at least just as many newcomers during Monday’s full reveal.
Replacing them, naturally, will likely be a few restaurants absent from the back 50 this year. Saison, champion of the nouveau-prehistoric cook-over-wood-movement, is a surefire candidate to move up from its previous spot at 56. The NoMad will almost certainly rise a few notches, too, if for no other reason than the fact that golden boys Will Guidara and Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park run the joint. And two small-plates places in NYC could even squeeze in: Estela, where President Obama dined nearly two years ago, as well as Wildair, a brand-new venue that’s a regular refueling point for major European chefs passing through NYC.
Will There Be Any Women on This Year’s List?
The World’s 50 Best list has, in the words of GQ’s Brett Martin, an "overwhelmingly testosteronic bent." Only three women-run restaurants made it last year: Arzak in San Sebastian, Central in Lima (where chef Pia Leon runs the No. 4 venue with her husband Virgilio Martinez), and Helena Rizzo's Mani in Sao Paulo. Unfortunately, Rizzo was relegated to the back 50 this year. Female representation is generally so limited that the guide created a "Veuve Clicquot Best Female Chef Award" in 2011, a fact that doesn’t so much address the guide’s gender problem as it highlights it.
"The lack of female chefs on the 50 Best list is a reflection of the state of the industry rather than an endorsement of it."
A general rule of thumb is that a more diverse group of judges produces a more diverse outcome, but Drew wouldn’t comment about the gender composition of the voters. "We don’t believe a female critic is going to vote for a female chef just as we don’t believe a male critic is going to vote for a male chef," he said. (GQ reported that the 2015 U.S. and Canada voters consisted of 73 men and 35 women.)
Drew also said that "the lack of female chefs heading up restaurants on the 50 Best list is a reflection of the state of the industry rather than an endorsement of it," and he noted that "the voters aren’t voting for chefs, they’re voting for restaurants." So how can the 50 Best acknowledge more restaurants run by female chefs, just as Michelin and local critics celebrate venues like Take Root, Elizabeth, and April Bloomfield's The Breslin with high honors? "The industry gets more chefs on the list by promoting or encouraging female chefs to do their own thing, open up their own restaurants, head up the kitchens, and then if those restaurants are good enough," Drew said, "then they’ll get onto the list."
Is it a Big Deal That the List Doesn’t Mention Prices?
You bet. The list gives no indication that it’s essentially a collection of the world’s most expensive culinary establishments. Even Michelin gives a vague impression of how much a meal costs, though often disingenuously: It lists Masa, a restaurant where dinner for two costs more than a MacBook Pro, at $75-$150 per person. The World’s 50 Best list, by contrast, makes scant reference to the price of dinner. This is an unfortunate omission for a variety of reasons, some practical: Many gourmands spend thousands of dollars on airfare and hotels to dine at these global destinations; they’d like to know which ones they can afford.
But more broadly, prices act as an objective way for readers to make their own judgement on a restaurant. Even if you don’t speak English, the language of the 50 Best list, you'll understand the more universal numerals that convey cost. And even if a description of Saison, with its reserve osetra caviar over fish bone gelee, makes it seem like one of the world’s great restaurants, the price ($398 before tip) lets the potential guest make an assessment that goes beyond the strict financial question of whether it's affordable. It lets the reader ask: Is this worth it? The World’s 50 Best guide fails to provide that context: According to Drew, however, most guests would check the prices themselves before visiting.
There’s something dangerously homogenizing about unifying international gastronomy through the tasting menu.
This Isn’t the Way We Eat Now
The World’s 50 Best list, taken by itself, is a fine collection of restaurants. But there’s something dangerously homogenizing about unifying international gastronomy through a relatively inaccessible instrument: the tasting menu, the predominant (but not exclusive) format for restaurants making the cut. There’s also something patently boring about the thought of well-traveled gourmands criss-crossing the globe for the sole purpose of experiencing a foreign cuisine’s idiosyncrasies through the standardized safety goggles of a three-hour meal paired with wines.
This stands in contrast to our larger post-recessionary gastronomic zeitgeist, wherein diners, critics, and gastro-celebrities like Anthony Bourdain have increasingly turned their attention to cheaper wares like street food, ambitious small plates, refined regional wares, stripped down neo-bistrots (like Paris's Chateubriand, knocked off the list), and in the States, ambitious pizza, ramen, hamburgers, and barbecue.
The prevailing trend of recent times has been accessibility: This is partly why you’ll wait two hours to get a table at Roberta’s in NYC or State Bird Provisions in San Francisco. The best restaurants by definition do not have to be the most expensive restaurants, or most elite restaurants, and the sooner the 50 Best organizers and judges find a way to rejigger the list to reflect that, the most it will reflect the way we really eat now.
Judges Don’t Necessarily Have to Pay for Their Meals — and This Matters
As a 2015 New Yorker profile of the 50 Best List noted, the guide does not reimburse judges for their meals. But Lauren Collins, the author of that piece, astutely wrote, "the simple brilliance of the 50 Best business model is that, in the manner of a news aggregator, it monetizes things for which other people bear the cost." Accordingly, freebies, taboo in the world of professional criticism, are acceptable here. "The World's 50 Best Restaurants places no restrictions on... how [voters] pay for travel to restaurants," Drew told told Eater last last year. "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." Drew, in yesterday's interview, added that he’s still comfortable with that policy, but added that "the vast majority of the voters pay for the vast majority of their meals."
The logical question that follows is whether voters are disproportionately visiting restaurants and regions they’ve been drawn to by outside sources, rather than their own (however biased) journalistic judgement. Peru, well represented on the list with two venues in the top 20, has a famously forward tourism board; it invited me down on a press trip this year even though I’m not a judge. I declined.
None of this is to cynically say you’re more likely to vote for the free meal than the one you paid for. But more practically, you’re more inclined to vote for the restaurant located in a country whose tourist board paid for your airfare than the restaurant you never dined at because it couldn’t afford to fly you to Mumbai. It all makes one wonder why Atelier Crenn, one of the world’s great avant-garde restaurants, didn’t even make the top 100 last year, while an admittedly celebrated Moscow hangout (during a political climate when many are wary to travel to Russia), has somehow reached No. 23. Two more venues in that Eastern European city have already made it onto the back 50 this year.
Here’s hoping Crenn sneaks onto the list with the Moscow crew in 2016.
The Back 50 Are Largely Ignored
The 50 Best deserves credit for highlighting, in its 51-100 list, a variety of restaurants that aren’t necessarily known to casual observers, including venues from Turkey, China, Portugal, Russia, India, Singapore, and elsewhere. Problem is: those establishments, which are perhaps most in need of elaboration or context, are not given write-ups like in the top 50. The guide doesn’t even list phone numbers, addresses, or websites. It just lists the name of the restaurants. You'd learn more about Mikla, a restaurant in Istanbul, via a three-second Google than via its entry on the guide (No. 56), which consists of nothing other than a name, a city, and a country. Three words.
Let’s Talk About the Rest of the World
"The 50 Best aims to be the anti-Michelin, but it can be equally Eurocentric," The New Yorker notes, but one could also credit the list for finally pushing Michelin into the Southern Hemisphere with its recently debuted Brazil guides. And as I reported last year, restaurants outside Europe and the UK have gone from making up roughly a third of the list to over half of it.
So some might question why, across such a post-Colonial continent comprising myriad geographic regions, cultures, and languages, the only African restaurant on the list is the Test Kitchen, a Cape Town spot run by a British-born guy hawking European-style tasting menus. "If there were great restaurants throughout the African continent, that are considered of high enough quality to be voted for regularly by sufficient numbers of people, fantastic, that probably means that those societies are richer than they were previously," Drew said. "And hopefully that’s not just the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. We want the world to be a fairer and better fed place."
When pressed about Test Kitchen being the only African restaurant on the list, Drew provides a thought that could be applied to the World’s 50 Best a whole: He’s not "asking judges to play politics in the sense of changing society, for all its good and ills," he said. "We’re asking them to vote for the best restaurants they’ve been to."
Photos in lead illustration: Redzepi by Cindy Ord/Getty Images; Bottura by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images; Roca by Mike Pont/Getty Images for NYCWFF; stage by Per Gregory/Shutterstock
Ryan Sutton is Eater NY's chief critic and data lead.
Editor: Erin DeJesus