As a guide to restaurants where you can go and eat, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list is basically worthless. It’s merely a tally of restaurants — the most recent of which were announced yesterday — that are extravagantly expensive and where it’s often impossible to secure a reservation. They’re also spread all over the world, so unless your 2014 travel itinerary involves Tokyo, London, Copenhagen, Cape Town, Lima, and Modena, you won’t be able to make much of a dent in the list before it’s updated next year. But that doesn’t mean the list is without value. In fact, it’s one of the most influential restaurant directories there is.
Writing today, Guardian restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin lays out a common complaint of the list, and the ceremony surrounding its announcement: "[F]or the normal restaurant-goer, these hyperbolic junkets just feed the fear of missing out and raise expectations … that are forever destined to be dashed." It’s a valid point, but I also think it’s the wrong way to appreciate this list and the impact that it has. Even if you never eat at Noma or Mugaritz, you will eventually eat somewhere that is directly influenced by what those restaurants are doing.
Unlike Michelin, whose inspectors are said to be anonymous and aren’t in the restaurant industry, the World’s 50 Best voters contain a large number of chefs. The downside is that this can make the list feel extremely insular — chefs voting for their pals year after year. But it also means the list rewards chefs whose work is most interesting to the people actually working in the trenches. As a result, the restaurants that rank highly are not necessarily the same old-guard luxury palaces that win Michelin stars year after year (though there is admittedly plenty of crossover between the guides). The World’s 50 Best list is dominated by smaller, highly creative restaurants where the meal is guided less by tradition and more by a chef’s specific, unique point of view.
In turn, the visibility of the list — aided by stellar PR and San Pellegrino’s considerable marketing budget — brings exposure to, and creates demand for, exactly the kinds of restaurants that young, talented cooks strive to open themselves. Even if you can’t spend $300 per person for a 20-course meal at Noma, you can spend $58 for dinner at Contra, or $95 for dinner at Luksus, two New York City restaurants heavily influenced by the Noma model (and run by people who worked there). Restaurants like Alma in Los Angeles, Oxheart in Houston, or even the Catbird Seat in Nashville aren’t on the World’s 50 Best list, but they’re all in the same mold and they’re all excellent (and also much easier to score seats at).
As the prominence of the World’s 50 Best list has grown, so have the complaints surrounding its elitism. That’s inevitable, and not entirely unwarranted. But even if this list doesn’t directly affect where you eat dinner in the next few months, it has an incredible effect on where you’ll be eating dinner in the next few years.