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A Handy Guide to Understanding Restaurant Awards

World's 50 Best Restaurants, James Beard Foundation Awards, and Michelin stars — explained

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This story was originally published on May 1, 2017 and has been updated to reflect current information.

Who runs the world’s best restaurants? Who runs the best restaurants in the U.S.? It depends upon whom you ask. Just as there is no one definitive authority on global cinema — some look to the Oscars, others to the BAFTAs or the Independent Spirit Awards — there is no single institution with a monopoly on culinary accolades. Accordingly, here’s a quick look at the World’s 50 Best List, Michelin, and the James Beard Foundation — three of the most prominent domestic and international gastronomic awards organizations — and why they matter.


WORLD’S 50 BEST RESTAURANTS

Will Guidara and Daniel Humm embrace on stage in front of a World’s 50 Best Restaurants banner.
Eleven Madison Park wins the top spot on the 2017 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list
Sam Tabone/WireImage/Getty

Who is behind the list? William Reed Media, a business-to-business media company that grew out of a grocery information service in 1862. The World’s 50 Best List, which debuted in 2002, is by far William Reed’s most high-profile brand.

How are the winners selected? By a panel of about 1,040 judges composed almost equally of food writers, chefs, and well-traveled gourmands. Those judges, who are asked to remain anonymous (save for regional chairs and vice chairs, published on the World’s 50 Best website), cannot vote for restaurants in which they have a financial stake and they must have dined at restaurants they vote for within the last 18 months.

How many restaurants make the list? Fifty (it’s called the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, duh), but recently more attention has gone to the “consolation” portion of the guide, the 51-100 slots. The so-called back fifty, released a week before the full awards, clues readers in on who’s fallen off the proper list (as was the case in 2016 with Thomas Keller’s Per Se and French Laundry) and which venues might eventually graduate to the top 50.

What’s the geographic scope of the list? Global. Having no assigned geographic scope has allowed 50 Best to bring international attention to restaurants from Australia (Attica), South America (Central, D.O.M.), and Russia (White Rabbit), areas that Michelin has either avoided or only explored after the success of 50 Best.

What does the list celebrate? The winners are largely a collection of high-end tasting menu spots. Many of the top 10 venues boast a hyper-focused sense of place. Osteria Francescana, which currently occupies the No. 1 spot, serves a tasting of five different Parmigano-Reggiano cheeses, native to the restaurant’s Emilia-Romagna locale. And Noma, which long occupied the top spot, was famous for its New Nordic cuisine, a movement that rejected imported ingredients like olive oil and foie gras in favor of indigenous, foraged, and occasionally entomophagical luxuries.

How is the list flawed? The winners are largely a collection of high-end tasting menu spots run by men. There are just five female-run restaurants on the list; three of those venue are co-run by men. And despite the list’s nominal geographic open-mindedness, there are no restaurants from Africa, India, Central America, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, or the Middle East on the top 50. The only restaurant from mainland China is run by a French guy. And the list is a zero-sum game; any entrant to the list involves another restaurant getting kicked off.

After sustained criticism, however, no shortage of it coming from this critic, 50 Best has made a number of changes that could allow for a certain shakeup of the list this June. Director Hélène Pietrini announced last September that the academy will have an equal male/female split going forward, and that voters would be encourages to “explore a diverse mix of restaurants.” Another big change is that any restaurant that reaches the top slot will no longer be eligible for the list in future years, allowing for much-needed turnover in a list with just 50 slots.

Can the list be bought? While judges are asked to remain anonymous, there are no prohibitions against taking free trips by tourist boards or free meals from restaurants.

Should I use this list as a travel guide? Not unless your idea of travel is jetting across the globe and spending three to four hours of your limited time abroad consuming 15-24 courses and listening to tableside speeches in a restaurant where dinner for two costs upwards of $700 (and where you might’ve paid for the full cost of dinner months in advance just to secure the reservation).


JAMES BEARD AWARDS

James Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach at the 2018 James Beard Media Awards.
Noam Galai/Getty Images

Who is behind the awards? The James Beard Foundation, a New York-based not-for-profit group that provides scholarships to culinary students, hosts guest chef dinners, and holds annual awards ceremonies that celebrate both the American hospitality industry and food media. The restaurant and chef awards began in 1990.

How are the winners selected? By a panel of 600-plus judges who vote online. Of those judges, 300 are previous chef and restaurant award winners; 250 are regional panelists; and 18 are members of the senior restaurant awards committee.

How many restaurants make the cut? There are 11 national categories, including Best New Restaurant, Rising Star Chef, Outstanding Pastry Chef, Outstanding Restaurateur, and Outstanding Restaurant. There are also regional Best Chef awards for New York City, the Great Lakes, the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest, Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, and West. Each category typically has five finalists and one winner.

What is the geographic scope of the list? Any restaurant anywhere in the U.S. is eligible. International restaurants are not considered.

What type of restaurants does James Beard celebrate? All sorts of venues. The national winners tend to be reasonably mainstream European-leaning spots. That said, last year’s Rising Star Chef was Zachary Engel, formerly of the modern Israeli restaurant Shaya; Michael Solomonov, in turn, won best chef for his Israeli-themed Zahav. The best new restaurant in 2018 went to Seattle’s JuneBaby, which celebrates the foods of the American South. It was the first time that award went to a black chef, Edouardo Jordan.

This year, the Asian-inclined Majordomo, the Korean Atomix, and the Middle-Eastern Bavel are all leading candidates for the best new restaurant award.

How is the list flawed? The Beards focus on regions over cities for the Best Chef categories. There is no one Best Chef for San Francisco or Los Angeles, but rather for all of California, Nevada, and Hawaii. The one exception is New York City, which has its own winner apart from the larger mid-Atlantic.

These groupings are particularly unfortunate not just because they reflect a Big Apple bias but also because picking a single winner in an arbitrary region comes at the expense of championing local nuance. Or as as a separate Eater analysis puts it more bluntly: “most winners come from large cities, shutting out small-town chefs.” And just the same, would it be the worst thing if the Beards had separate awards for, say, Dallas, Austin, and Houston, instead of throwing all of Texas together with Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Utah?

And while the Beards represent female chefs and hospitality professionals better than 50 Best (really, anyone represents women better than 50 Best), the Beards, like Michelin, still have work to do in this regard, with historical data showing that women are much less likely to be nominated, or win, than men.

Last year, however, in the first Beard awards following the ascendancy of the #MeToo movement, voters showed signs of moving away from the industry’s white male dominance. If one counts pastry and baking (but excludes non-culinary categories like service, wine, and design), women or people of color or both won 11 out of 16 national awards in 2018. Following reports of sexual harassment by Mario Batali, Ken Friedman, and others, voters were instructed to avoid nominating restaurants or chefs of concern.

Can the winners be bought? The rules are stricter than with the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Judges cannot solicit free meals nor can they vote for a restaurant or chef from which they have received a complimentary meal. Judges are asked to remain anonymous, though the names of the restaurant awards committee, who are also voters, are published on the Beard website. And I should disclose here that I’m am a Beard Award voter (not committee member).

Should I use this list as a dining travel guide? Not really, and to be fair, the Beards, unlike Michelin or 50 Best, do not market themselves as such. Generally speaking, there are too many rules regulating who qualifies for what category in a given year to make the Beards a useful travel guide (i.e. a restaurant that wins a previous year can’t win again the following year). That said, some of those same rules can give the casual reader a different and more interesting starting point for research than local publications, which often focus on newer venues. Awards like Outstanding Restaurateur and Restaurant, for example, focus on establishments open for 10 years or longer.


THE MICHELIN GUIDE

Joel Robuchon and the Michelin mascot
Joel Robuchon and the Michelin mascot
ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty

Who is behind the stars? Michelin, Europe’s largest tire maker. The Michelin brothers founded the guide in 1900 as a way to get chauffeurs to drive more — and buy more tires. The guide’s modern starred system debuted in 1936. One star indicates a “very good restaurant in its category." Two stars means “excellent cooking, worth a detour.” Three stars, the highest Michelin accolade, conveys “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.”

How are the winners selected? By anonymous inspectors whose meals are paid for by their employer. The inspectors reportedly fill out comprehensive reports following their meals. Michelin has been cagey as to precisely what’s in these reports but they’ve stated recently that for a venue to receive three stars the decision of the inspectors have to be unanimous.

How many restaurants make the guide? Unlike the 50 Best list there here is no limit to how many venues can qualify for stars or Bib Gourmands. If restaurant is in a qualifying city, and if it makes the cut, it gets the star.

What is the geographic scope? Michelin is more constrained globally than 50 Best, only awarding stars for cities in which the guide publishes. The deepest coverage is reserved for Western Europe and Japan. France is home to 27 restaurants with three stars, while Japan has 25. Together, that’s about 40 percent of the world’s 120 or so restaurant with Michelin’s top accolade. Michelin also publishes in New York, the San Francisco Bay Area (the U.S. region with the most three star spots), Chicago, Washington, Shanghai, Seoul, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Macao, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Bangkok.

There are no guides for Mexico City, Lima, anywhere in the American South, Australia, South Asia, or quite frankly most of the southern hemisphere. This year the guide will return to Los Angeles and expand its scope to all of California; the state tourism board paid $600,000 to help with the inspectors’ costs.

What type of restaurants does Michelin celebrate? Most restaurants at the two- and three-star level are expensive tasting-menu spots, though Michelin has been making an effort to show off more diverse and affordable fare at the one-star level. The anonymous inspectors have awarded stars to three separate ramen spots in Japan, and in New York, the guide has been doling out stars to slightly more affordable and accessible spots outside of Michelin’s Western European and Japanese comfort zones, like Mexican mole temple Casa Enrique, Korean noodle soup shack Jeju, and Oaxacan-themed Claro. The irony of course is that while Michelin celebrates these three restaurants it ignores venues of the same vein in Mexico City, Issan, or Mumbai, where the guide doesn’t publish.

Michelin also does a decent (if not stellar) job at representing women. It’s hard to think of too many critically heralded female chefs without a star, though the ranks of women with three stars (Elena Arzak, Anne-Sophie Pic, etc), is thin and European-heavy. This year, Michelin finally awarded Atelier Crenn in San Francisco with its highest honor, making Dominique Crenn the only female chef in the U.S. to hold three stars.

How is the guide flawed? Despite the fact that the guide doesn’t have any limitations on the style of cuisine it covers; the starred ranks largely exclude more casual fare. When the guide debuted in Bangkok, it could only find a single street vendor — Raan Jay Fai — worthy of a star. Michelin has also failed to recognize two of America’s signature cooking styles with stars: barbecue or pizza.

The restaurant blurbs themselves are poorly written. It’s almost impossible to tell why one particular venue has received a star, and another, two or three. Michelin also rarely offers compelling explanations as to why they take positions that are contrary to that of local critics (in New York, Olmsted and Cosme have been long overlooked). Inspectors are among the most diligent and well-eaten food writing professionals; it’s a shame the guide doesn’t give them more latitude to make a cogent argument for why they celebrate the restaurants they do and why they omit the restaurants they leave out.

Of particular note is the fact that Michelin shows no sign of taking reports of harassment or other abuse into consideration when awarding or withholding stars. Mario Batali’s Babbo, Casa Mono, and Del Posto all kept their honors in last year’s New York guide. The chef has since reportedly divested of his empire.

Can the winners be bought? No; the inspectors are almost impossible to spot.

Should I use this list as a travel guide? Not exclusively, but if Michelin covers the city you’re visiting, the starred restaurants will likely reflect a decent crop of the region’s more expensive and celebrated venues. At the very least, the Michelin guide is essential reading for scouting purposes; knowledge of the restaurants the red guide covers will give you a solid starting point for filtering through local reviews and opinions. And say what you will about the stars, but they’re a solid international standard for technically-competent food, if not necessarily interesting food.

Disclosure: Some Vox Media staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Foundation Awards.

Ryan Sutton is Eater New York’s chief critic. Eric Lebofsky is a visual artist and musician who lives in the suburbs of Chicago.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan

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