Lack of representation is still a huge issue—but there's another reason this annual list is antiquated.
On April 5th, Manhattan's Eleven Madison Park landed the top spot on this year's list released by the World's 50 Best Restaurants organization. It was a big win for the much-lauded restaurant, run by chef Daniel Humm and restaurateur Will Guidara, and a big win for New York City, and a big win for the United States: this is only the second time an American restaurant has topped the list in its 15-year history. (Thomas Keller's French Laundry took the title in both 2003 and 2004.) For honorees, it's a great honor; for the rest of us, it's not worth much more than a scan and, possibly, a groan.
Criticism of the World's 50 Best list has been loud and ample over the past five years or so, mostly centering on the lack of female representation and the Eurocentric nature of its list. And yet, in 2017, the list's diversity has budged very little. This year's list includes a whopping three female head chefs, as opposed to last year's two; but all three still work under a male chef. The organization's "Best Female Chef" award is a laughable band-aid attempting to fix a much larger issue. Often, the honoree doesn't even make it to the top 50—a confusing message at best. There are zero restaurants on the list from the country of India or the entire continent of Africa. The lack of representation is nothing new, but the fact that nothing has changed by now implies that it never will.
The list itself can be fun to look at: for those interested in fine dining, international travel, and the business of ranking things, it can show us a lot about what's changing and what's popular, at least in the eyes of a select few. For aspiring chefs, it's a roadmap to what gets people's attention. (A few years ago, on Noma's heels, it was locally foraged moss; now, it's Eleven Madison Park's wily mix of theatricality and hospitality.)
As Lauren Collins noted in The New Yorker in 2015, the list began in 2002 as a whim, and was only expected to be a "onetime stunt." Since then, though, it has failed to evolve—both towards inclusivity and towards the simple fact that our bucket lists have changed.
What we want now, as explorers and adventurous eaters, is far different than what we wanted—or maybe knew we wanted—fifteen years ago. Thanks to Papa Bourdain, we've developed a desire to seek out street food and less-stuffy dining experiences when we travel. We have TripAdvisor, we have Yelp, we have innumerable guides to dining in places like Mexico City and Tokyo and Paris and friends whose Instagrams are packed with spicy boat noodles in LA and fried chicken in Nashville. (And "authentic" has all but devolved into a four-letter word thanks to its overuse.) The idea of the Fine European Restaurant still exists—and will, so long as there are anniversaries to celebrate and expense accounts to fill—and there is certainly exciting innovation and creativity happening in the rarefied world of $400 tasting menus. But the white tablecloth is no longer the end-all, be-all of eating well, and you shouldn't make the same mistake the 50 Best List does in thinking so.
Even James Beard Award-winning fine dining chefs are jumping ship from well-established jobs to open up veggie burger joints and fast-casual pasta concepts (see: Brooks Headley and Mark Ladner, respectively, both of whom worked at Michelin-starred Del Posto). At least in the United States, the visibility of non-European culinary traditions (Vietnamese, Thai, Moroccan, Israeli, Chinese, Iranian) has increased in a big way over the past decade. Our understanding of what a "great restaurant" is has changed, and our dining preferences have changed—with each passing year, the World's 50 Best List becomes more and more of a dinosaur. As Eater restaurant critic Ryan Sutton wrote, the list is not so much championing restaurants as it is creating "ample publicity for their own product." It's less a resource than a self-perpetuating hype machine.
Take a counterexample: just a day before the 50 Best List came out, Food & Wine announced its list of Best New Chefs. It's an annual list that features chefs across the United States which has in the past—just like 50 Best—come under fire for featuring mostly white guys. (Last year the list included just two women.) But this year,the 10-restaurant, 14-chef list includes four women and only four white dudes. They listened, they adapted, and they gave us a list you'll actually use when planning your next trip. See? It's actually possible.
The Tragedy-to-Triumph Story of Staplehouse, GQ's Best New Restaurant of 2016
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