World's 50 Best Restaurants: which restaurant will be the 2014 winner?

Date:28-04-2014 07:58:06 read:0

World's 50 Best Restaurants: which restaurant will be the 2014 winner?

Tomorrow, the world's best restaurant will be named at a glittering London awards ceremony. Xanthe Clay places her bets

Spain’s Celler de Can Roca was named the world's best restaurant last year Photo: Alamy

Restaurant lovers, take note. If you want to bump into a famous chef, get to London now. The odds have never been better, as the capital is a seething bouillabaisse of internationally renowned professional cooks, from The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller, and former El Bulli chef-turned-gastronomic-philosopher Ferran Adria, to Noma’s quiet head honcho, Rene Redzepi.

They are here, along with dozens of others, for announcement of the annual Restaurant Magazine World’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by San Pellegrino and Aqua Panna, at a ceremony at London’s Guildhall. Last year the number one spot was taken by Spain’s Celler de Can Roca, and previous holders include Spain’s El Bulli (five times), Copenhagen’s Noma (three times), The French Laundry in California (twice) and our own Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Bray.

Now, all these culinary luminaries undoubtedly enjoy the yearly chance to get together – chefs’ hours don’t lend themselves to socializing, and certainly not with their mates across the globe. It’s no accident that the awards are always held on a Monday, a day when many restaurants are closed, and the champagne-fuelled after party in the crypt below the Guildhall is a hubbub of over excited men (and top chefs, still, are mostly men) slapping each other on the back like long-lost school friends.

But this is far more than just giant chef’s jolly. A place at no1 on the list guarantees a an asparagus-like spike in Google hits, a vat of press coverage and a butter mountain of bookings – meaning, presumably, financial security for the restaurant, eternal fame for the chef and a licence to name their menu price.

Sometimes this is, in business terms, lifesaving. Restaurant Noma, with its sometimes austere avant-garde dishes and rigourously local Danish ingredients, was struggling to fill tables until it started to appear in the 50 Best list. The day it won the number one slot there were still spaces that week. Not for long though. Within hours it had received enough requests for reservations, they estimated, to fill the restaurant for eight years – if only they accepted bookings for more than a couple of months in advance.

The influence of the awards is extraordinary, and the interest spreads far beyond traditional foodie circles, with award winners garnering front page coverage – like today’s Guardian, which sports a mugshot of the benign Fergus Henderson, winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award this year.

This phenomenon started as a bit of a joke. Rewind to 2001, and three blokes, editors of the new Restaurant Magazine, sat in a London office, looking for ways to promote their new trade rag. As journalist Joe Warwick, then a staffer on the magazine, remembers, the ideas were ever more hare brained until “some one said, let’s do a list of the best British restaurants. Then someone else chipped in, let’s do the world.”

Chandos Elletson was one of the editors, along with Chris Maillard and David Lancaster - all three have since moved on from Restaurant Magazine, as has Warwick, and none are invited to this year’s awards ceremony. He explains that while it was part publicity stunt, it was also a reaction to Michelin Guide’s hegemony when it came to ranking out great restaurants with their star system in the iconic red Guide. “We felt that Michelin had it all, and it was very Euro-centric. If you had a restaurant in Asia or America, you didn’t have a chance. To say that restaurants out of Europe had no place in the world’s cannon – I objected to that.”

Warwick was charged with putting the plan into practice. He admits that at the start “it was a bit perfunctory, a magazine feature that got out of hand, just asking a few chefs and food people what their favourite restaurant was.” Elletson is more fortright. ““We made up the first one. There were votes, but it was pretty slapdash.”

The feature was such a success that the next year they repeated the exercise and held a proper awards ceremony, even persuading Roger Moore to compere. The power of the list snowballed, in parallel with the burgeoning World Wide Web. Serious sponsorship followed, and an awareness that the process needed to be more formalized. When Warwick took over as Restaurant Magazine editor in 2005 he set up an awards “Academy” whereby local experts in each of 26 areas of the world choose a jury to vote. This year the international jury members number more than 900.

Michelin certainly appeared to take notice. In 2005 they published their first red guide to the USA, and in 2007 the Tokyo edition was launched, with a Hong Kong and Macau guide following a year later. None of this has stopped wide reports that Michelin has lost its power. At a “Culinary Conclave” held by Ferran Adria, appropriately in a former monastery, Spain’s Hotel Abadia Retuerta Le Domaine last month, the chef announced, “The Michelin Guide has no weight any more. I have respect for them but their monopoly is over.”

Maybe, maybe not. While Michelin may not hog the limelight anymore, to say that Michelin is dead is premature, says Elletson. “Michelin is still the barometer that serious people judge restaurants. But from a bookings point of view, 50 Best is the leader.” Warwick agrees. “50 Best is much more knee jerk, a barometer of fashion, while Michelin is more considered.” Still, it’s easy to see why chefs hanker after a ranking, he adds. “In terms of getting bums on seats, 50 Best is the one.”

But, adds Elletson, it was never meant to be taken that seriously. “We were just a bunch of journalists having a laugh.” Nor was it meant to be purely high end restaurants – the list is dominated by expensive, often modernist establishments. “There was meant to a greasy spoon and a crabshack in amongst the fine dining establishments, a mingling of what makes restaurants great.”

But it is, after all, a democratic system, voted for by those 900-odd who can each nominate seven restaurants, at least three of which must be in other areas than their own. As for the reports of lobbying of jury members, Warwick is phlegmatic, “You get that at the Oscars too.” And while there were stories of tourist boards flying groups of jury members out on all-expenses paid trips to visit overseas restaurants, in an attempt to get them on the list, these days the jury list is secret and members are not allowed to reveal themselves, on pain of expulsion, so it is harder for the judging to be manipulated.

So, with so much riding on the results, there is naturally plenty of speculation about who will garner the top spot this year. Each of the 50 best restaurants on the list are tipped off in advance so that they can send representatives to the ceremony, but they don’t know their position. This year 47 of the restaurants are sending chefs, sometimes the entire kitchen team. Such is the measure of these awards, that chefs like Ben Shewry of Melbourne’s Attica restaurant will fly from the other side of the globe to attend.

All of which is fuel to the rumour charcoal-grill. The presence – for instance – of French chef Yannick Alléno, cooking dinner at London restaurant Hibiscus last night might mean that he has finally entered the top 50 for his traditional restaurant at Paris’ Hotel Meurice, currently languishing at 99 on the 2013 list. More likely, given the list’s penchant for the avant-garde, it’s his luxe winter-only gaff Le 1947 at Le Cheval Blanc hotel in Courcheval that has made the grade. The restaurant’s details are found under the heading “Art Culinaire” on the hotel’s website – this isn’t just food, this is artistry.

More placings might be inferred by the press conference on Monday morning, with Jordi Roca from the current no 1 restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca and Brett Graham from London’s The Ledbury (currently no 13, and the second highest placed British restaurant after Dinner by Heston Blumenthal). Also present will be Virgilio Martinez from Central in Lima (50 in 2013), the aforementioned Ben Shewry from Attica in Melbourne (21), Andre Chiang from Restaurant Andre in Singapore (38) and both Daniel Humm (chef) & Will Guidara (restaurateur) from Eleven Madison Park, New York (5th in 2013). Yes, that’s right – two representatives from the Manhattan palace restaurant, where the others earned just one place at the microphone. If I had a beard, I’d be stroking it thoughtfully.

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013