Welcome to Platt Chat, where New York critic Adam Platt talks with Grub editor Alan Sytsma to discuss the dining world’s most pressing issues. This week: the inherent clubbiness of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Alan Sytsma: Let’s talk about the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Some critics have just dismissed it outright, but I’m curious what you think about this particular list, as someone who assembles restaurant rankings from time to time.
Adam Platt: Well, lists are lists. They’re a necessary evil in the service-journalism ocean in which you and I swim. I think ranking the 50 best restaurants in a city is difficult enough to do well, but the 50 best restaurants in the entire world is obviously insane. But that’s part of the fun. Of course it’s insane, but if the insanity promotes these businesses and gets people talking about all the great places to eat in the world, like we’re doing right now, then I’m all for it.
You could certainly make a case for it. Daniel Humm and his people have made no secret that clambering to the top of this list is a big priority for them. Great chefs tend to be like great athletes: They hit a sweet spot that can last eight, nine, maybe ten years. Humm is in that sweet spot right now, and I think, pound for pound, he’s the best chef in New York.
High praise. I recall you saying something like that a couple of years ago when you published your own insane list.
Ha. Of course EMP is a different restaurant now. They’ve gone to the tasting menu format, arguably in an attempt to appease the voters who compile the 50 Best list each year. The food is excellent, as always, but if you’re a regular, I’m not sure it’s such a good thing. The restaurant doesn’t really belong to New Yorkers anymore. You can’t drop in for lunch without having to wade through a marathon culinary event. The lovely dining room is as quiet as a tomb. When you dine there now, invariably you’re surrounded not by noisy New Yorkers, but by worshipful gastronauts from far-off destinations like Denmark and Beijing.
Doesn’t that happen with any restaurant that starts to generate this kind of acclaim, though? You could say the same thing about a restaurant like Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, which isn’t on this list but has gotten three Michelin stars. So I don’t think you can say what’s happened at EMP is directly related to the World’s 50 Best list.
Well, maybe. And again, I’m not complaining. I still think that Eleven Madison is a fabulous restaurant. Let the record show that I was one of the first critics to review it when the whole tasting menu controversy broke out.
Yes, you were. Someone could argue that Nomad is their restaurant for New Yorkers now. But watching a restaurant you’ve loved — and maybe felt a little proprietary about — blow up and bring in a wider audience is a bit like watching a favorite band explode and get new fans of its own that don’t necessarily have the same reverence for the old material.
That’s probably true. But I also think that — more than Michelin, even — the 50 Best list club can have an extreme effect on its members, especially when you get to the very top of the list. I haven’t been to all of these establishments, but I imagine most of them have similar giant staffs and similarly structured tasting menus. Most of them serve a multitude of expensive biodynamic wines, and their menus feature carefully sourced local ingredients, more than a few of which are served atop little hillocks of moss. If you’re going to use the band analogy, I’d argue that the chefs who run these restaurants at the rarefied, tippy-top of the culinary mountain, are like a group of extremely talented musicians who have stopped playing for old customers and now play mainly for other talented musicians, which is to say: themselves.
Well, I wrote last year that the voting system is structured so that you want to do everything you can to entice the voters, many of whom are chefs. But if the music’s excellent, is that such a bad thing?
No, it’s not. Like I say, with regards to EMP, maybe I’m just feeling a little wistful for the old days. Eleven Madison Park was originally designed as a vital Manhattan restaurant with lots of tables and lots of covers and a standard à la carte menu filled with all sorts of reliably delicious things to eat. Humm ran it that way for a bit while Danny Meyer still owned it, but as we know, serving the same reliably delicious things night after night can get tedious. It’s still a fabulous restaurant, but it’s harder to feel the pulse of the city when you go there now. That’s what happens, I suppose, in our global, food-centric, jet-set culture, when you go from being the finest restaurant in a particular city to aspiring to be one of the best restaurants in the entire world.