The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list 2017 was announced on 5 April at a boozy event at Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building. It hasn’t taken us ten days to recover from the party that followed but we have spent a little time reflecting upon what the list means for culinary travellers – our readers.
Every year the announcement of the industry-voted Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list, arguably the world’s most influential and most authoritative global dining guide, is accompanied by as much anticipation and fanfare as it is controversy and criticism. The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list 2017, held in Melbourne for the first time and for only the second time outside the UK, was no exception.
The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list 2017
The Oscars of the Restaurant World
Either there were more media and influencers invited to the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony than chefs, industry professionals and event sponsors, or the latter group had arrived early and were already inside sipping champagne. Because there were easily a few hundred in the media registration line when our cab pulled up at the UNESCO World Heritage-listed 19th century Royal Exhibition Building, illuminated in purple light.
Fortunately the queue moved quickly and once we had our green wrist bands secured we moved swiftly past the sponsor board, set up for chefs and restaurateurs and the post-awards press conference, but where glamorously-dressed bloggers, influencers, gourmands, and giddy chef fans now posed for selfies. It was easy to identify the different groups.
The latter group was glammed up in long frocks and expensive suits. Aside from the top echelon of chefs, just a handful of whom donned the prescribed black tie, most wore suit jackets, jeans and sneakers. Even the small number of female chefs favoured modest cocktail dress over floor-length gowns. As one young sous-chef said to me “I can’t afford to even hire a penguin suit!”
We made a beeline to friends we spotted who we’d lunched with, then, glasses of bubbly in hand, flitted between Australian chefs we hadn’t seen since our last trip home, Asia-based chefs and restaurateur friends, European chefs we’d interviewed but hadn’t seen in years, and Latin Americans we were keen to connect with. These events are as much about networking as they are celebration.
The atmosphere was electric and the sense of excitement and nervousness amongst the world’s best chefs and their business partners and spouses was palpable.
But It’s Just a Restaurant List, Right?
Travellers, especially food and wine travellers, love lists. We’re regularly asked for lists of our recommended things to do in destinations around the world and the list we’re most frequently asked for is that of our favourite restaurants.
We do it, too. The week before we flew to Australia to attend the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards I asked a handful of trusted sources – chefs and food and wine writers mainly – for a list of their top restaurants that had opened since our last Melbourne eating trip. (Worth noting: pretty much the same restaurants appeared on every list.)
The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list has long been our go-to guide if we’re spending a couple of days in a city – particularly if we’re passing through and only have time to try a few restaurants, don’t have trusted sources in that city, don’t have time to do a lot of research, and don’t want to be overwhelmed by a comprehensive restaurant guide of the likes of Michelin or Gault Millau.
In the past we’ve suggested that culinary travellers treat the lists as no more than a handy guide to the must-eat restaurants around the world. And as Terence wrote in 2015, an industry insider guide at that – and who doesn’t want tips from industry experts? (Provided the insiders know what they’re talking about, but more on that from Terence in another story.)
For chefs and restaurateurs, however, a spot high on the list can make chefs household names – think: Massimo, Rene, Ferran, Heston, the Roca Brothers – and can fill dining rooms for up to a year in advance, making the restaurant many millions of dollars.
It’s also a bucket list. Globetrotting gourmands who can afford to travel the world to eat – affluent individuals who don’t necessarily work in the industry, nor have a culinary education or even write about food – do their best to tick off as many restaurants as they can in any given year.
So the list can also be seen as an evolving “100 restaurants to dine at before you die”.
Criticisms, Controversy and Questions
This year there was the usual post-award criticism that comes up every year from the likes of Eater that I’ve written about before that we also saw online following the February announcement of the 2017 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list – Why were there so many white guys on the list? Why were most of the white guys from Europe and the US? And why were there so few female chefs? Anthony Bourdain, for one, called Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list “beyond ludicrous” on Twitter.
Because the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list 2017 was revealed in Melbourne this year there was also discussion about why there weren’t more Australian restaurants on the list. And the Aussies aren’t alone in feeling left out.
Each year chefs, restaurateurs and food media in Canada, South Africa, the Middle East, and European and Asian countries that don’t make the list, raise the same questions. The National Post asked why Canadian restaurants rarely feature on the list. Montreal restaurant Joe Beef, which debuted on the list in 2015, quietly slipped off last year.
The Australians – along with the Canadians, South Africans, Swiss, and so on – have a right to grumble. We haven’t eaten in Canada but we ate well in South Africa and we delighted in some of the most inventive meals we’ve ever eaten in Bali last year at Sangsaka and Locavore. I’d argue that Bangkok also deserves a couple of more spots, including one for Le Du, owned by Chef Ton who trained at Eleven Madison Park and Jean Georges. Both Locavore and Le Du were on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list 2017.
Over the years we’ve savoured sublime meals at countless Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe – scores in Northern Italy and the Italian Lakes area alone, dozens spread across Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and rural France – that have never appeared on the list.
What Happened to Australia?
Brae, owned by chef Dan Hunter, pictured above, and located in the Victorian countryside southwest of Melbourne, not far from the Great Ocean Road, was just one of two Australian restaurants to score a place on the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list 2017 at #44. The other was chef Ben Shewry’s Attica in Melbourne at #32. Easily two of Australia’s top restaurants, they deserve their spots.
The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list actually extends to a hundred and restaurants 51-100 were announced as a teaser the week before the awards ceremony. Sydney’s Quay, helmed by chef Peter Gilmore, widely considered to be one of Australia’s finest restaurants, came in at #95, up three spots from last year.
During the awards ceremony, the gasps around us were as audible as the screams when a certain restaurant that seems to divide its diners appeared high on the list again. During our time in Melbourne, close to a dozen people (most of whom had dined at the restaurant or knew people who had) asked us in bewilderment why we thought the restaurant was on the list. We were at a loss for words, which is partly what’s motivated these reflections.
We haven’t eaten at every restaurant on the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list 2017 but we’ve eaten at a fair chunk of them. If we take Australian restaurants as an example, Attica, Brae and Quay have provided us with a far more memorable dining experience than the restaurant in question in terms of their creativity, attention to detail and quality, whether that be of the produce used, the level of service, or, say, the wine list.
And there are countless other Australian restaurants comparable to any on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list 2017, from Sydney’s best restaurants, The Bridge Room, Sepia, Automata, Bennelong, Firedoor, and Rockpool Bar and Grill to Adelaide’s best restaurants, Orana, Africola, Magil Estate, and Hill of Grace. Melbourne’s best include everything from Cutler & Co and to newer restaurants such as Igni and IDES. Then there are rural restaurants such as Ezard at Levantine Hill, Wills Domain, Hentley Farm and more.
We’re not alone. When we were in town for the 2012 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and were interviewing chefs about Australian cuisine for a European magazine, everyone from Rene Redzepi to Massimo Bottura agreed.
Is The Tyranny of Distance to Blame?
The dearth of Aussie restaurants on the list can be explained by an age-old problem that Australians blame for a lot of things (including why so many of us become expats and spend lifetimes overseas) – the tyranny of distance. I can’t tell you how many times Europeans and North Americans have said to us over the years that they’d love to travel to Australia but it’s simply too far away, it’s costly to travel to, and it’s an expensive destination.
The one thousand odd individuals who vote on the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list come from one of three categories – restaurant and food and beverage professionals, the food media (which now includes bloggers and influencers as well as restaurant critics and food writers), and globetrotting gourmands (affluent individuals who travel to eat) – are organised by regions.
While it’s not such an effort for Asian voters to get to Australia, the cost can be prohibitive. For voters based in the USA, the Americas and Africa, it’s an epic journey at considerable expense. South Africa is equally as remote while Canada may be just across the border from the USA, but feels remote.
Lazy Research or the Herd Mentality?
Over the years we’ve often felt like PRs repping Australia as we’ve gone to great pains to convince people to embark on what for many will be a once in a lifetime trip down under. One of the best cases we’ve been able to make for undertaking the journey – apart from for some of the world’s most dramatic landscapes and most adorable animals – has been for the delicious food and wine experiences and the country’s distinctive contemporary Australian cuisine, which in our opinion is food worth flying for.
Australia is easily one of the world’s great eating and drinking destinations yet those not in-the-know have looked at us as if we were mad when we’ve told them so. Unfortunately, these days the average traveller knows very little about places beyond their specialised areas of interest and most people are lazy researchers. In the past, travellers ripped stories from magazines and their well-thumbed guidebooks rarely left their hands. These days, they tell us they’re overwhelmed by the abundance of information and rarely get past page one of Trip Advisor.
Unless you work in the restaurant industry or food/travel media, why would you do any in-depth research on the dining scene when you can Google or ask your friends where they ate? I have to confess that I already had a list of restaurants to try in Melbourne when I messaged chefs and writers for advice. I was looking for confirmation from insiders and hoping for tips on new openings.
Worth noting: my sources all recommended similar restaurants – the restaurants that everyone in the industry was talking about and that all the chefs, food media, and voters who hit town for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards would end up eating at.
Not all food and travel media conduct the sort of painstaking research that you might expect them to. If they’re full-time restaurant critics focused on one city or country maybe they’re too busy trying to keep up with their own local scene? Perhaps they find the prospect of delving into a world of dining and cuisines they know little about somewhat intimidating?
So like the average traveller, the foreign restaurant critic, food blogger or social media influencer might simply do what all lazy researchers do and ask their mates. Thankfully, they know better than to consult Trip Advisor. This partly explains why they all ended up eating at the same restaurants during their recent stay in Australia.
Thankfully, they were eating at the right restaurants in Australia. This can partly be explained by the fact that most of their meals were organised and hosted.
The Role of Tourism Bodies in Promoting Destinations
In the days surrounding the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, chefs and restaurateurs, food media and voters, attended lavish feasts and dinners arranged by Tourism Australia and Visit Victoria, who sponsored the 2017 Worlds 50 Best Restaurants event.
The two tourism bodies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to fly the planet’s finest chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers, food media and influencers down under, hosting meals, wine tastings, culinary experiences, and sightseeing excursions everywhere from the Yarra Valley to the Barossa Valley to ensure they had a wider taste of Australia than they might ordinarily get.
For the chefs, these events are about fostering a sense of camaraderie and community, as much as anything. For the rest of the participants, it’s about introducing them to Australia’s outstanding food and wine.
While this was criticised by some Australians as a waste of taxpayers’ money, it was actually a very smart move. As I pointed out above, if these people weren’t brought here, they might never have made it due to the distance and expense. The investment will pay off in word-of-mouth and editorial, and hopefully some more spots on the 2018 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for some well-deserving restaurants.
The more attention Australia’s food and wine scene gets, the more culinary travellers the country will see. In between meals they’ll want to sip coffee and cocktails, shop the markets, and do food and wine tours. And when they need to walk off the calories or work up an appetite they’ll venture beyond the cities to the beaches and countryside to learn to surf or cuddle a koala.
It’s no coincidence that Eleven Madison Park, our favourite restaurant in the US, is #1 this year and was the first US restaurant to win since 2004. The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony was held in New York City in 2016 for the first time. The fact that Asian and Latin American restaurants have more of a presence can be explained by the introduction in recent years of regional 50 Best Restaurant awards in Latin America and Asia – sponsored by tourism bodies.
And what about the question of ethics that’s often raised? While I can’t speak for the globetrotting gourmands or influencers, some of whom have suspiciously high numbers of followers, I highly doubt that industry professionals and food media who get to eat in fine dining restaurants all the time are going to vote for a restaurant just because they had a free meal. They’re going to vote for a restaurant because they had a great meal – whether they paid for it or it was hosted.
The tourism boards have simply provided their guests with opportunities they might otherwise not have. Destination NSW or South Australian Tourism would be wise to team up with Tourism Australia for 2018 and host next year’s event at the Sydney Opera House or Adelaide’s Festival Centre.
Cult of Personality, Modish Restaurants, Perennial Favourites
But how to explain that restaurant that had everyone bamboozled? And I’m sure there must be others. Some chefs and critics have called the Awards a “popularity contest”, suggesting that voters favour restaurants ran by chefs with big personalities – or chefs who are their mates. I’m not convinced that industry professionals vote for a restaurant because the chef is a good bloke. Self-styled gourmands and influencers, on the other hand, I’m not so sure about.
We witnessed chef fandom on the part of influencers in Melbourne and in recent years in Bangkok and Singapore that I’d find at tad scary if I was a chef. There was far too much gushing and not enough critiquing on restaurant blogs and Instagram and Twitter feeds. The gourmands and influencers increasingly appear more interested in snapping selfies with chefs than photos of the food.
At the Chef Masterclasses we attended at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, I heard more talk about “chef crushes” than cooking techniques from the rows of social media influencers sitting in front of me. When fans rushed to the stage at the end of each demo, it wasn’t to ask questions about dishes the chef had showcased but was for a photo with their hero. Lines for autographs and book signings were long. Chefs are the new rock stars and Hollywood idols.
“Judges vote for the restaurants that are in fashion,” one chef told us. Then how to explain the restaurants that have been around for a decade or longer? Not to mention the inclusion of French fine diners such as Arpege, L’Astrance and Alain Ducasse Au Plaza Athenee, which we ate at 15 years ago and included in a Lonely Planet Best of Paris guidebook soon after.
These establishments are the kind that William Drew, the Group Editor of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, describes as “perennial favourites that demonstrate enduring quality”. Sydney’s Quay restaurant, which chef Peter Gilmore joined in 2001, fits into this category.
Quay landed on the list at #46 in 2009, climbed up to #27 in 2010, then peaked at #26 in 2011, before gradually dropping to #29 in 2012, #48 in 2014, #58 in 2015, and #98 last year, before rising to #95 this year. Quay is a fascinating case study because it’s a restaurant that has long been considered to be one of Australia’s best.
Since Quay was awarded Restaurant of the Year in Australia’s Good Food Guide in 2003, year after year it has been named best restaurant by Australia’s most respected publications, including the 2017 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide, which awarded three hats to only three restaurants, Quay, The Bridge Room and Sepia. On the national Good Food Guide list it’s #4 after Attica, Brae and Sepia.
How a restaurant that has remained at the top of its game in its own country plummets down a global restaurant list to #95 is as bewildering as how some restaurants remain at the top.
What Does This Mean for Culinary Travellers?
Well, it all seems a bit random, doesn’t it? Some restaurants on the list are perennial favourites, others innovative newcomers. Then there are the fashionable fine diners and those helmed by popular chefs. To be honest, I’m no longer sure how helpful the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list is for the average foodie traveller.
To use Australia again as an example: if you’re only using the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list 2017 as your guide then you might only book tables at Attica and Brae and might skip Quay as it’s way down the list at #95. We guarantee that you’ll eat very well at Attica and Brae but by skipping Quay you’d be missing out on an equally inventive meal at one of Australia’s great restaurants.
You’d also be missing out on Orana, The Bridge Room, Automata, Firedoor, Bennelong, IDES, Igni, Africola, Hill of Grace, and all those other incredible Australian restaurants that I named above that are easily as special as any others on the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list 2017.
Culinary travellers would therefore be better off referencing respected local sources, such as Australian Gourmet Traveller, Time Out and the Good Food Guide in Australia, although it must be said that the latter is heavily biased toward Sydney and Melbourne. Jock Zonfrillo’s extraordinary indigenous-focused Orana in Adelaide, which we’d place in Australia’s top five restaurants is #48 on the Good Food Guide list.
But let’s look at another city, Bangkok, our one-time home and a destination we have covered in depth since writing about the restaurant revolution there in 2011. Only the “progressive Indian” restaurant, Gaggan, and Nahm, the world’s finest Thai restaurant are represented on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
While I probably wouldn’t discourage a curious chef with deep pockets from sampling El Bulli-influenced Indian food, I wouldn’t send a foodie traveller to eat Indian in Bangkok when there are half a dozen superb Thai restaurants in Bangkok that they should try first. (This is where we send food lovers to eat in Bangkok).
So what does that mean for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list? In its current form I’d have to say that it’s probably most useful to the people who vote for it – and to those of us who love lists (and writing a few thousand words about those lists.)
Worlds 50 Best Restaurants List 2017 – Full List
Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list 2017 – Restaurants 1-50
(in brackets: where the restaurant placed last year)
- Eleven Madison Park, New York City, USA (3) World’s Best Restaurant
- Osteria Francescana, Modena, Italy (1) Best Restaurant in Europe
- El Celler de Can Roca, Girona, Spain (2)
- Mirazur, Menton, France (6)
- Central, Lima, Peru Best Restaurant in South America (4)
- Asador Etxebarri, Biscay, Spain (10)
- Gaggan, Bangkok, Thailand Best Restaurant in Asia (23)
- Maido, Lima, Peru (13)
- Mugaritz, San Sebastian, Spain (7)
- Steirereck, Vienna, Austria (9)
- Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, New York, USA (48)
- Arpege, Paris, France (19)
- Alain Ducasse Au Plaza Athenee, Paris, France (58)
- Restaurant Andre, Singapore (32)
- Piazza Duomo, Alba, Italy (17)
- D.O.M., Sao Paulo, Brazil (11)
- Le Bernardin, New York City, USA (24)
- Narisawa, Tokyo, Japan (8)
- Geranium, Copenhagen, Denmark (28)
- Pujol, Mexico City, Mexico (25)
- Alinea, Chicago, USA (15)
- Quintonil, Mexico City (12)
- White Rabbit, Moscow, Russia (18)
- Amber, Hong Kong, China (20)
- Tickets, Barcelona, Spain (29)
- Clove Club, London, UK (26)
- The Ledbury, London, UK (14)
- Nahm, Bangkok, Thailand (37)
- Le Calandre, Rubano, Italy (39)
- Arzak, San Sebastian, Spain (21)
- Alleno Paris au Pavillon Ledoyen, Paris, France (72)
- Attica, Melbourne, Australia (33) Best Restaurant in Australasia
- Astrid y Gastón, Lima, Peru (30)
- De Librije, Zwolle, Netherlands (38)
- Septime, Paris, France (50)
- Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, London, UK (45)
- Saison, San Francisco, USA (27)
- Azurmendi, Larrabetzu, Spain (16)
- Relae, Copenhagen, Denmark (40)
- Cosme, New York, USA (96)
- Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet, Shanghai, China (42)
- Borago, Santiago, Chile (36)
- Reale, Castel di Sangro, Italy (84)
- Brae, Birregurra, Australia (65)
- Den, Tokyo, Japan (77)
- L’Astrance, Paris, France (57)
- Vendome, Bergisch Gladbach, Germany (35)
- Restaurant Tim Raue, Berlin, Germany (34)
- Tegui, Buenos Aires, Argentina (68)
- Hof Van Cleve, Kruishoutem, Belgium (53)
Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list 2017 – Restaurants 51-100
- Mikla, Istanbul, Turkey
- Nihonryori RyuGin, Tokyo, Japan
- Burnt Ends, Singapore
- Lyle’s, London, UK
- Disfrutar, Barcelona, Spain (New Entry)
- Nerua, Bilbao, Spain
- Fäviken, Järpen, Sweden
- Momofuku Ko, New York, USA
- Combal Zero, Rivoli, Italy
- 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana, Hong Kong, China
- Hertog Jan, Bruges, Belgium
- Quique Dacosta, Denia, Spain
- The Test Kitchen, Cape Town, South Africa
- La Grenouillère, La Madelaine sous Montreuil, France
- Biko, Mexico City, Mexico
- Estela, New York, USA
- Benu, San Francisco, USA
- The French Laundry, Yountville, USA
- Hiša Franko, Kobarid, Slovenia
- Aqua, Wolfsburg, Germany
- Lung King Heen, Hong Kong, China
- Schloss Schauenstein, Fürstenau, Switzerland
- La Colombe, Cape Town, South Africa (New Entry)
- The Jane, Antwerp, Belgium
- Sud 777, Mexico City, Mexico (New Entry)
- Lasai, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
- Martin Berasategui, Lasarte-Oria, Spain
- Indian Accent, New Delhi, India
- Maaemo, Oslo, Norway
- Le Cinq, Paris, France
- Maní, São Paulo, Brazil
- Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, New York, USA
- Atelier Crenn, San Francisco, USA (New Entry)
- The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena, USA
- Belcanto, Lisbon, Portugal
- Odette, Singapore (New Entry)
- Per Se, New York, USA
- Selfie, Moscow, Russia (New Entry)
- Mingles, Seoul, Korea (New Entry)
- Manresa, Los Gatos, USA
- St John, London, UK
- Twins, Moscow, Russia
- Le Chateaubriand, Paris, France
- Kadeau, Copenhagen, Denmark (New Entry)
- Quay, Sydney, Australia
- Epicure, Paris, France
- Sushi Saito, Tokyo, Japan (New Entry)
- Hedone, London, UK
- Florilège, Tokyo, Japan (New Entry)
- Olympe, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (New Entry)
What do you think of the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list 2017? Do you refer to the list when you travel and is it a list that you trust? Or do you use other guides and if so, which? If you liked this, you might also like our post on the World’s Best Chefs Favourite Food Destinations.