San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best: A Global Guide to Dining or Killer of Spontaneous Appreciation?June 16, 2015
What has become arguably the most influential ratings in the food world today were published at the beginning of this month, naming the Spanish restaurant El Celler de Can Roca as the number one rated restaurant in the world, at the top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. More than enough criticism of the methods and results can already be found on the Internet, including its Euro-centrism, lack of representation from China, India, the Middle East, and Africa, and the relative absence of female chefs. The guide has two spinoffs, the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, where Tonyboy Escalante’s Antonio’s occupies the number 48 slot.
The lists, both the regional variants and the main worldwide list, like a certain kind of cuisine: intricate to the point of being fussy and overwrought, regional and reflective of local culture and ingredients (the obvious counterpoint here being the Guide Michelin, which still privileges classical French cooking and its derivatives, even when reviewing Japan or Hong Kong), and innovative; restaurants don’t usually stay in the top spot for very long, and have to do more than tread water to keep their rankings or even stay on the list.
If the Michelin Guide was a guide born out of the era of the car (it is still affiliated with the eponymous tyre manufacturer, who conceived it in 1900 as a sort of promotional adjunct, which would have the added advantage of getting people to drive around more and buy more tires), the World’s 50 Best Restaurants is a product of the jet age, a time when air travel is so accessible that people will hop on a plane just to visit Noma in Copenhagen or D.O.M. in São Paulo, Brazil. The list is not so much the cause, as the symptom of a degenerative disease of the global restaurant industry, which has given rise to that most awful of bores: the culinary tourist.
“Have you been to that restaurant?”
“Oh, yes, the third best restaurant in the world. I’ve been to the second best, and I had to take a plane, a train, and a camel to get there.”
Culinary tourists are bores because they treat restaurants like notches on a bedpost: they have to get there first and tick it off the list. It’s thus in the interest of the World’s 50 Best to continually shift the rankings, so that its slavish devotees don’t stay complacent for long. Gone are the days of having to visit cathedrals and monuments; now it’s all about shopping and eating. So restaurants that reflect the local culture are preferred; rather than an immersive fortnight spent wandering the alleyways and imbibing the spirit of the place, one expects to have it served up on a plate. It also explains why the degustation menus are so long; if you’ve travelled thousands of miles for a seat at the table, a perfunctory three-course meal is not going to be rewarding enough.
Even as this sounds like an indictment of the list, it remains the closest thing we have to a global guide to dining; and the romance of the far-flung cities and a luxurious table of exotic ingredients is alluring enough to make one want to book a flight to Spain or Peru or Japan. It’s killing the spontaneous appreciation of good food and cooking, and making traveling for food a status indicator instead of an immersion into another culture’s culinary world. Each age, it seems, gets the guide it deserves.