Are These Really ‘the ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurants’?

June 7, 2024
Dining & Wine
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To be media literate these days is to understand that no ranked list, whether it is the “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time” or the “35 Cutest Dog Breeds to Ever Exist,” should be taken too literally. We all know that the cuteness of the Maltipoo and the awesomeness of Keith Moon are matters of opinion.

When it comes to parsing the annual dining survey known as The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, though, you really have to open your mind. Forget asking whether these establishments are the best in the world. The bigger question is: Are they restaurants?

Consider some of the highest-ranking winners from this year’s edition, which was announced Wednesday night in a ceremony at the Wynn Las Vegas that began with feathered and painted dancers twirling light sticks to electronic dance music on a darkened stage.

Gaggan, in Bangkok, was named not just the ninth-best restaurant in the world but the single best restaurant in Asia. The chef, Gaggan Anand, greets diners at his 14-seat table facing the kitchen with “Welcome to my … .” completing the sentence with a term, meaning a chaotic situation, that will not be appearing in The New York Times.

What follows are about two dozen dishes organized in two acts (with intermission). The menu is written in emojis. Each bite is accompanied by a long story from Mr. Anand that may or may not be true. The furrowed white orb splotched with what appears to be blood, he claims, is the brain of a rat raised in a basement feedlot.

Brains are big in other restaurants on the list. Rasmus Munk, chef of the eighth-best restaurant in the world, Alchemist, in Copenhagen, pipes a mousse of lamb brains and foie gras into a bleached lamb skull, then garnishes it with ants and roasted mealworms. Another of the 50 or so courses — the restaurant calls them “impressions”— lurks inside the cavity of a realistic, life-size model of a man’s head with the top of the cranium removed.

Now, among the 50 Best are a number of establishments where they let you see a menu written in real words and order things you actually want to eat. Some of these, like Asador Etxebarri in Spain and Schloss Schauenstein in Switzerland, are hard to reach. Nearly all are very expensive. Still, there are places on the list where a relatively normal person might eat a relatively normal dinner and go home feeling relatively well-fed.

But the list is dominated by places that normal people can’t get into, where the few diners who will go to almost any length for reservations will go home feeling bloated and drunk. They are not restaurants, or not just restaurants. They are endurance tests, theatrical spectacles, monuments to ego and — the two most frightening words in dining — “immersive experiences.”

Whether the World’s 50 Best seeks out these spectacular spectaculars or has simply been hijacked by them is impossible to tell. The list’s website is a model that should be studied by anyone who wants to arrange words that sound important and don’t mean anything.

On the subject of what it takes to win the attention of the 1,080 “independent experts” who make up the organization’s voting body, the website has this to say: “What constitutes ‘best’ is up to each voter to decide — as everyone’s tastes are different, so is everyone’s idea of what constitutes a great restaurant experience. Of course, the quality of food is going to be central, as is the service — but the style of both, the surroundings, atmosphere and indeed the price level are each more or less important for each different individual.”

Well, that clears up that.

The World’s 50 Best Restaurants and its spinoff awards, by now almost too numerous to count, weren’t always so rarefied. In the early years, when the list was being published by Restaurants magazine, the editors saw it as a kind of anti-Michelin, and took pride in recognizing spots that would never, ever make Michelin’s little red guidebooks. Carnivore, an open-air meat buffet in a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya, came in at No. 47 in 2003.

No. 1 on the list that year, though, was the Spanish restaurant El Bulli, which set a standard for kitchen experimentation, highly manipulated food, restless change and marathon tastings to which the highest end of the business is still in thrall. The more famous the list became, the harder it was for a place like Carnivore to land a spot. Nobody much noticed, because the game that El Bulli played was starting to become the only one that mattered.

Today the list is dominated by tasting-menu restaurants, and every year those menus seem to get longer and more unforgiving. There are more courses than any rational person would choose to eat, and more tastes of more wines than anyone can possibly remember the next day. The spiraling, metastasizing length of these meals seems designed to convince you that there’s just no way a mere 10 or 15 courses could contain all the genius in the kitchen.

One well-traveled diner told me about a recent, four-hour meal at Disfrutar, in Barcelona — No. 1 this year. He said he was “blown away” and at the same time he never wants to go back. “It was an assault, and not fun,” he said.

Visits to the kitchen and other locations around the property, once an entertaining surprise, are now almost mandatory in any restaurant that aspires to a place on the list. The formula for success is so well-known that the structure of a meal in these restaurants is weirdly, depressingly conformist, even though you’re supposed to be amazed by the originality of it all. Once a revolt against stuffy, conservative dining hierarchies, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants now rewards a different kind of stuffiness and conservatism.

The contradiction at the core of the list is that it has become a publicity machine that directs enormous amounts of attention and business toward some of the least-accessible dining rooms in the world.

The chefs may fool themselves into believing that they’re operating idea factories, that they’re offering intellectual journeys and emotional wallops. But they’re really just competing for votes on a listicle that will reduce whatever they achieve in the dining room to strings of clichés on the World’s 50 Best Website. Table by Bruno Verjus, this year’s third-best restaurant, offers “stunning wine and incredible food.” A meal at Disfrutar is “the dining experience of a lifetime.”

That sounds stunning! And incredible! You know, though, the thing I’m wondering about this experience of a lifetime is whether I’m going to have a good time. But that’s not a question the World’s 50 Best Restaurants is set up to answer.

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