Why being one of the world’s best restaurants doesn’t actually mean anything

Twisted: Unserious food tastes seriously good.

In 2017, a South London eatery shot to international fame when it found itself as the number one ranked restaurant on TripAdvisor. The Shed in Dulwich had sprung out of obscurity to blow all other competition completely out of the water, apparently proving that money and influence weren’t the only things you need to launch an amazing restaurant. There was just one problem. The restaurant itself didn’t actually exist.

The story of The Shed and the experiment to get a non-existent dining destination to the summit of British food highlights a few of the problems within the modern restaurant industry. But perhaps most importantly, this questions how far we can trust the wealth of awards and rating systems if they can be fooled so easily?

Largely because of The Shed and freakish incidents like it, many restaurantgoers have started to take TripAdvisor with a pinch of salt. If recent global political events have taught us anything, it’s that the public can’t always be trusted to deliver a sensible outcome. But what about the other bigger, more prestigious names in the industry? Can we trust them to tell us what it takes to be the best restaurant in the world?

In June of this year, the final places were awarded for the highly prestigious “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” competition. The rankings, which have for over a decade dictated which of the world’s great restaurants can definitively call themselves number one, are a fixture in the fine dining calendar and attract attention from all over the world. This year saw the legendary Osteria Francescana return to the top spot, as well as institutions such as Mugaritz, Eleven Madison Park and Le Benardin all making strong showings.

But, despite the obvious talent on display across the competition, critics were quick to point out several flaws with this supposedly definitive ranking. For one, nearly half the restaurants to make the list hail from Europe, while Africa, America and Australia have just eight places between them. To make matters worse, the list has also been attacked for a worrying lack of diversity – not recognising acclaimed work from female chefs such as Dominique Crenn and Claire Smyth and consigning them to an entirely separate token category for “Best Female Chef”. With a select panel of a little over a 1,000 industry insiders and stalwarts, the World’s 50 Best may not be the be all and end all of restaurant rankings after all.

Despite the problems with the list, the World’s 50 Best are by no means the only organisation to have come under fire for their approach to awards. Probably the most well-known restaurant ranking system, the Michelin Guide, has also attracted its fair share of criticism. The legendary French institution, whose awards are regarded as the pinnacle of a career in the kitchen, have been accused of bias, bribery and other misdemeanours over the years, despite still being held up as the gold standard for food recognition.

One of the major problems with the Michelin system, which awards exceptional restaurants a rating of one, two or three stars depending on the standard of cooking, is its comprehensiveness. Despite being in print for over a century, there are still many countries around the world that do not have their own guide, due to the resources needed to produce one. This has left whole swathes of world-class restaurants out in the cold, without the prospect of ever getting the recognition they deserve due to their unfortunate location. This, coupled with an alleged over-emphasis on French and Japanese cooking, has left some scratching their heads.

The continuing questions over the viability of any highly regarded ranking system are clearly a headache for anyone looking to find the best of the best. But for many, the issue with organisations like “50 Best” and the Michelin Guide is not about diversity or representation, but accessibility. Most of the restaurants that feature on both lists, as well as many other lesser-known compilations, are extremely expensive fine dining destinations, with an emphasis on luxury ingredients and elaborate cooking techniques. This is the sort of food reserved for the super wealthy. It’s small wonder that many people struggle to relate.

The implicit attitude from those who hold the foodie keys of power seems to be that proper cooking, of the sort eaten by people day in day out, cannot possibly be regarded as on par with an 18-course tasting menu. Of course, many of the chefs that feature on these lists year in year out are unbelievably talented and do indeed produce some of the tastiest food on the planet. But, if cooking proves one thing, it’s that there’s more than one way to fill a stomach. A traditional pizza from the backstreets of Naples can taste just as good as a main from Osteria Francescana, and may require just as much skill and expertise. It’s tough to argue one is better than the other.   

For all the flaws with sites like TripAdvisor, they do at least help to provide a more complete picture of the sort of food that people want to eat. It might be annoying when made-up restaurants make it to the top of the tree, but the fact that pizza parlours can rank alongside Michelin-starred restaurants at least helps to partially level the playing field.

Ultimately, there are too many things that go into great food to have one definitive way of categorising it. Fine dining will always have its place in the world of cooking, but it’s certainly not the only thing that makes for a memorable evening out. If you’re interested exclusively in the sort of complex cooking that many of these lists prize above all else then you might only need a select few rankings to help you choose. The rest of us might need to start taking everything with a pinch of salt.