Defining greatness can be as difficult as attaining it. Virtually every restaurant rating system in the world has at times been the subject of virulent attack—usually by establishments that failed to receive awards or high ratings. For many years, Michelin was criticized for being a French monopoly. When they broadened their scope, they were accused of being Euro-centric. Now that Michelin Red Guides cover places such as Japan, New York, San Francisco and Brazil, critics have been forced to look elsewhere.
The Euro-centric charge has fallen squarely on The World’s Top 50 Restaurants, an annual list sponsored by San Pellegrino and Aqua Panna, and organized by William Reed Business Media. Over the past few years, astute promotion has catapulted this list to the forefront of the foodie brain. In the recently announced results, Osteria Francescana of Modena, Italy captured the number one slot, a position formerly held by El Bulli, Noma and El Celler de Can Roca.
The criticism of this year’s results appears to be led by Bloomberg food critic Ryan Sutton, who points out that more than half of the Top 50 (27) come from Europe, while only eight hail from North America (including Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park, which captured the #3 spot). He is also scornful about the lack of women chefs on the list: only two of them are included, in restaurants that are jointly owned by men. Granted that there’s a worldwide paucity of female chefs, but one would think that Dominique Crenn and Anne-Sophie Pic would at least be worthy of inclusion.
Sutton’s most interesting line of attack concerns the heavy concentration of restaurants that serve expensive tasting menus. They are mandatory at the vast majority of the Top 50, with an average price of $235. When you add tax, gratuity and drinkable wine, you’re close to a $1000 tab for two. This raises the question of whether these places are really the world’s leading establishments, or whether they are simply the best restaurants available to a wealthy subset of international travelers.
Beyond that, of course, is the question of what constitutes a great dining experience, something which is as variable as the individual. Is it a five-hour dinner in a glittering culinary palace, at the cost of a month’s mortgage payment for most of us? Or is it the place around the corner, with reliably good food and comfortable surroundings, where everyone knows your name?
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. for more information, go to amazon.com