Sunday, May 26, 2013

Gaming the World's 50 Best Restaurants list

Late last month, the 2013 edition of the World's 50 Best restaurants was announced to great fanfare, with a new No. 1: El Celler de Can Roca. In just a few years, the list — put together by Restaurant magazine in the U.K. — has superseded the Michelin guidebooks as the list that's most important to world-class chefs. ...

But here's where the ranking can be skewed: Restaurant instructs its 900-plus voters — made up of non-anonymous chefs, critics, and "highly regarded ‘foodies’" (their words) — to vote only for restaurants they've visited in the past eighteen months. ...

Achatz brings up the Mistura gastronomic conference in Lima, Peru, as an example. "It brings worldwide chefs in, who are all voters," he says. "So now this year all of these Lima restaurants pop up on the 50 Best — that's not a coincidence." ...

Of course, a restaurant can't change its location, so chefs and owners are also forced to give voters a reason to return year after year. No wonder El Bulli, which closed and completely overhauled its entire menu each year, dominated the list for so long. Because the menu was always different (and because Ferran Adrià is a master of theatrical promotion), judges always had a reason to go check it out.

Just look at Eleven Madison Park, a restaurant that has over the past few years steadily risen the ranks of the World's 50 Best list (it's currently ranked No. 5). As recently as four years ago, it was just an expertly run restaurant, specializing in luxe ingredients, disarmingly warm service, and lovely meals. It got as many stars as it could from every venue that gave them out, but as a New Yorker story last September made clear, to get a high ranking on the World's 50 Best list, the restaurant had to do something different, so they moved from a standard menu to a "grid" menu in 2010 that was designed to offer diners a greater sense of control over their meals. It ranked 50th on the 2010 list, 24th on the 2011 list, and 10th when the 2012 list was announced in April of that year. In July 2012, the restaurant announced they'd be switching formats yet again, this time to a single tasting menu focused on New York terroir. ...

So, having great food and service are just part of getting on the list — a restaurant must be the best-promoted, which means not just changing a restaurant's menu, but also creating events that give people something to write about: Noma's René Redzepi takes journalists foraging every chance he has and opened the Nordic Food Lab to constantly come up with new food. Alinea and Eleven Madison Park, meanwhile, spent a couple of weeks last year flip-flopping and taking over each other's dining rooms. Le Bernardin overhauled their entire dining room and bar a year and a half ago. Pujol chef Enrique Olvera cooked a dinner at Empellón Cocina last October, and Le Chateaubriand's Iñaki Aizpitarte does pop-up dinners on a regular basis. Even Thomas Keller did a French Laundry pop-up at Harrods last year.

But how important is newness among these restaurants, really? For journalists and other people who cover these spots, it's very important ("Great restaurant is still great" isn't exactly a compelling thesis.) But for most "regular" customers — the very small number of people who can actually get a reservation at one of these spots, travel to the far-flung corner of the Earth where the restaurant is located, and drop $1,000 or so on a meal for two — it's hard to believe they'd go back to a spot more than once, possibly twice.
--Alan Sytsma, New York, on change for the sake of salience