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This Is What’s Wrong With the 2016 World’s 50 Best List

Where are the women, non-European restaurants, and affordable options?

The World's 50 Best Restaurants list, which has in the past come under fire for its Eurocentric makeup, its lack of female-run restaurants, and its focus on expensive tasting menus, has unveiled a new guide with even more Eurocentric restaurants, fewer women, and as many expensive tasting menus as ever.

To the organizers of the list, the narrative they want you to remember is who won. The three Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana became the first Italian restaurant to rise to the top. Eleven Madison Park in New York ascended to the No. 3 spot, the highest ranking for a U.S. venue since the French Laundry held that same accolade in 2005. And the White Rabbit in Moscow cracked the top 20, a higher showing than any California restaurant on the list, an area of the world more typically known for attracting destination diners.

But to critics of the list, like this one, the more compelling story is how such a purportedly inclusive community could be so exuberant over a list that excludes so many. The awards, announced at Cipriani Wall Street in Manhattan, were hosted by someone who poked fun at people with lisps when discussing restaurant Schloss Schauenstein, joked about the punny nature of "in continent" while announcing an Africa award, and acted surprised when a man appeared after he announced what he thought was a woman's name. The after party involved shirtless dancing on tables and Champagne showers at a restaurant where dinner for two regularly approaches $1,000. All this celebration, for a guide that almost entirely overlooks not just an entire gender, but also India and mainland China, which collectively represent about 36 percent of the world's population.

So here's my counter-narrative yet again. Here's what's wrong with this year's World's 50 Best:

The 50 Best List Now Showcases Fewer Female-Run Restaurants

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William Drew, the guide's editor, argues that if women-run restaurants are "good enough, then they'll get onto the list." Reality, alas, suggests otherwise. In New York alone, the 2015 Michelin Guide lists eight starred restaurants run (or co-run) by women. But around the world, the 50 Best List only highlights two such venues, down from three the year before. And as noted previously, both venues happen to be co-run by male family members — Pia Leon runs Central in Lima with her husband, Virgilio Martinez, while Elena Arzak runs her eponymous San Sebastian venue with her father.

Dominique Crenn, who was separately awarded the "World's Best Female Chef" title, didn't even make the longer top 100 list. The omission creates the impression that the 50 Best organization doesn't consider what it believes to be the finest woman chef in the world to be as noteworthy as the 100th best male chef.

Drew told Eater the lack of women in the rankings are more a "reflection of the state of the industry rather than an endorsement of it." But statistics aren't necessarily on his side, at least not in the states. Women make up nearly 20 percent of the head chefs in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and yet there's not a single American female head chef on the 50 Best list.

The List Has Again Reverted to a European Majority

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The 50 Best list, in its regional guides for Latin America and Asia, deserves credit for shining a light on so many restaurants overlooked by Michelin and others. And while the guide is still more diverse than it was in 2011, this year's rankings firmly put European restaurants back in the majority at 54 percent of the list, versus last year's 48 percent.

The 50 Best List by Region

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Specifically, North America, South America, and Southeast Asia each lost spots on the list to Europe and the UK, which saw their representation increase from 24 to 27 venues. This disparity is exaggerated on the current top 10, which is fully 70 percent European (this year, the Bangkok-located Gaggan and Sao Paulo spot D.O.M. dropped out of the top 10, replaced by a Spanish and Austrian restaurant, respectively).

Also worth noting: For a second straight year, the only mainland China restaurant on the list is a $600 tasting-menu spot run by a French guy. For a third year in a row, the only African restaurant on the list is a tasting menu-only Cape Town spot run by a British-born chef (it's hard to believe there's not a single great non-tasting menu restaurant on an entire continent). And yet again, the list doesn't highlight a single venue from India or the Middle East.

The List Is Still Super Expensive and Tasting Menu Heavy

Kudos to the 50 Best folks for moving New York City's Estela, where a guest can drop by for a few small plates and a glass or two of wine for about $75, up to the full list. Also praiseworthy is the inclusion of London's Clove Club, which now occupies No. 26 spot; it's effectively the British answer to a French neo-bistrot, a venue like Septime (also on this year's list, at No. 50!) where patrons can enjoy a short tasting for under $100 per person.

But those affordable additions to the list were virtually matched with expensive new entries and re-entries like Geranium in Denmark, De Librije in the Netherlands, and Tim Raue in Berlin. Dinner at Saison, the highest new entrant from the U.S., will cost $1,000 for two before wine. And when you discount the fact that beverages are included at Ultraviolet, Saison is the most expensive restaurant on the list.

The average price of a tasting menu on the 2016 list was $235 USD, according to data compiled by Eater, compared with $217 and $224 the year before that (exchange rate fluctuations, in addition to price hikes, account for some of these year to year variations). Translation: Dinner for two with wine at many of these venues will easily scratch at or exceed $500.

That's not to say expensive tasting menu restaurants aren't deserving of accolades; I tout many of them in my own reviews. But when a list whose very name behooves it to be globally minded does more to highlight the way few can afford to eat, rather than the way more of us are increasingly eating — in venues serving high-end food in stripped down settings at more affordable prices — it sets a dangerous precedent for a gastronomic world that ultimately needs to be more accessible to succeed.

Lead photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Lavazza
Ryan Sutton is Eater NY's chief critic and data lead.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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