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Drew Smith

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The 50 Best Restaurants in the World is Just a Sham

Posted: 4/05/2012 00:00

The 50 Best restaurants in the world idea began life as a random magazine article in Manchester. The girls and boys in the office of then a putative new restaurant rag to rival the industry's Caterer and Hotelkeeper rang around a few people they know, like me, who might have eaten in a few more places than they had and see what we liked.

And from there it snowballed into an industry bash with nice little bite sized chunk for the media who usually fall for it.

In the first year in 2002 the Ivy came in at number eight and La Coupole in Paris at 13... which might have been fair enough if that was the road you wanted to take it.

A personal favourite - or what I might nominate or have nominated for the past decade - came in at 16 and moved up to nine the following year, one ahead of two legendary USA restaurants that could hardly be left out in the Grammercy Tavern and Chez Panisse, but Charlie Trotter was down at 39 which if I recall was a time the restaurant was still - arguably still is - peaking.

France had a good year with eight placings in the top 30, all pretty obvious borrows from Michelin.

The next year my old favourite was ditched completely - perhaps, likely, it was just not on the circuit, although it did re-appear in 2007 for a single year, as did another Paris restaurant that I would hang my hat on for a single entry at 48. I would be surprised today in a blind tasting if my nomination would not walk into the top 10. Certainly it would feature ahead of the Fat Duck in a sensible comparison.

When I ran guide books I always felt confident that it did not really matter who voted - you could send 20 taxi drivers and the chances were that 19 - there is usually one oddball - would come back with the same verdict? So I take the arbitrary nature of good restaurants popping in and out of the list as more likely a lack of resource or knowledge than of a change of mood by the judges or collapse of standards in the restaurant. Or simply they just do not know.

I could also bitchily point out that the web site lists Charlie Trotter as in London (it is in Chicago) and the Ivy in Paris (it is in London).

The UK has done well with the Fat Duck which was even allowed to win one year - one year only, Heston Blumenthal's new Dinner storms in at number nine and London's Ledbury is up to 14 - but as sticky has been St John, which I love immensely but would never personally put in a list like this but it has - as does New York's Per Se, which is Thomas Keller's New York outpost.

Both change the menu daily, a philosophy you either approve - I do - or not in which case either should win or not be there. Per Se has been moved up four places, St John dropped completely this year.

Then we come to the Asians and you get more suspicious. Nobu has been a regular although rolling a bit of sushi does not seem that challenging, so too Vong. New York's Momofuku gets a listing but has the advantage in that it has four outlets in New York, one in Sydney and one in Toronto, so you might argue there is time for the catchy name to get remembered.

I queued for 30 minutes outside the First Avenue outlet last week and to be honest it was not worth waiting any longer. I am not being critical but to include a noodle bar alongside a three star Michelin Parisian restaurant is a joke. Equally the fact that David Thompson's Nahm has not featured until it squeezes in at 50 this year is a travesty. It just does not make any gastronomic sense. Ask your cabbie.

At least with Michelin stars there is a credible format scrupulously policed that restaurants can sign up to - the 50 best is just random PR, the votes apparently of 800 or so catering professionals, apparently, not a jury I would personally want to try me.

Rene Redzepi of Noma- the current number one - has admitted as much in saying that before the award the restaurant was empty, now it is booked till Doomsday, which is a short hand way of saying that the whole thing is just so much hype. How is it reasonably possible to award an empty restaurant an accolade like that?

You can have a pretty good idea from the places that are not included, from places that have been listed for a year or two and then dropped arbitrarily, that the whole exercise is a bogus publishing scam. Fun perhaps but complete nonsense.

The blogger TheSkinnyBib.com has eaten at 23 of the venues in the list. Without pointing a finger she describes many as a "waste of time" and offers an alternative list of 10 which includes two new listings this year and four that are not included at all - that is six out of 10 which is quite a large margin for error. And I personally would trust her more than the 50 best list if I am paying my money.

If you don't believe me you can check the photographs of the dishes on one restaurant that has featured very highly in the awards and ask yourself, do you really want to pay for that?

 
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