IF you had called for a reservation at the restaurant Noma in Copenhagen on Saturday, April 24, 2010, you could have dined there that night. By the time it next opened, the following Monday, you would have faced competition from 100,000 people to get a table. In the intervening 48 hours, Noma had won the top spot on the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
In the nine years since the list was started by the British trade magazine Restaurant, a place on the 50 Best list has become one of the most sought-after honors for restaurateurs. As many will learn Monday, when the 2011 rankings are announced in London, a spot can catapult a place from insider favorite to impossible-to-get-into destination.
Even coming in 49th has benefits. In 2010, six years after it earned its second Michelin star, Claude Bosi’s restaurant, Hibiscus, in London made the list for the first time, in that position. “Business after the awards was, like, stupid,” Mr. Bosi said. “Until then, we would be pretty dead during the summer because all the locals go out of town. But we were full of tourists, lots of people from Asia.”
As a spot on the list has become more valuable, the votes that put a restaurant there have become more eagerly sought. At their inception, the awards, sponsored by San Pellegrino water since 2007, were based on informal polling of people in the food world. Now there’s a judging bureaucracy, which divides the world into 27 regions.
A chairman for each region appoints 30 jurors, who are supposed to be divided among journalists, chefs and restaurateurs, and food lovers. (While the panels span the globe, the 2010 list includes only eight restaurants in all of Asia, Africa and Latin America.)
Each juror can vote for seven restaurants (before this year it was five), only four of which may be in a juror’s region. They are told to vote only for restaurants where they have dined in the previous 18 months. Votes are cast online, and neither individual votes nor vote totals are revealed. The same does not hold for jurors’ identities; chairmen appear on the 50 Best Web site, along with the list of the previous year’s jurors, many of whom stay on.
Increasingly, voters have recognized the cutting edge in cuisine, more so than the traditional arbiter of excellence, the Michelin guides. Inclusion brings a cachet because it reflects where many in the industry — and well-informed diners — want to be eating now. As the British juror Ali Kurshat Altinsoy, who falls under the “food lover” category, puts it, “Fifty Best is about what’s cool.”
That emphasis on coolness has ruffled some feathers. An 11th-place ranking in 2010 put Le Chateaubriand, a casual Parisian “neo-bistro” that is a favorite of the city’s hipsters, higher than any other French restaurant.
The chairman of the French panel, Andrea Petrini, said he makes a point of choosing jurors “who travel a lot, and are open-minded,” and has complained that France’s major chefs and food critics can be too hidebound. Officials at Restaurant magazine asked him to include more traditional representatives of French gastronomy, but he said he had little success. “It’s like they had an omerta code against the list,” Mr. Petrini said of the chefs he contacted.
Guy Savoy, who has not been on the list since 2005, said he turned down Mr. Petrini’s request because “I don’t see how you can be both on the jury and one of the candidates at the same time.” (Others don’t share his qualms; several chefs on the list have also been jurors.)
Questions have also been raised because the 50 Best organization does not require jurors to prove they went to the restaurants for which they vote.
“El Bulli got the top spot two years in a row,” John Willoughby, a frequent contributor to the Dining section of The New York Times and a former regional chair for the awards, said of the restaurant in Roses, Spain, that has been one of the toughest reservations in the world. “But it’s not possible for that number of people to have eaten there within 18 months.” Organizers acknowledge that at least a few jurors rely on hearsay to vote for restaurants that they haven’t visited in the last 18 months, but they don’t think it’s a serious problem.
“We devolve trust to the voters,” Willam Drew, the editor of Restaurant magazine and spokesman for the awards, said in an interview at a London restaurant. “If a few people pick restaurants they haven’t been to, it’s not the end of the world. There are 837 people voting.”
Given the number of contenders (Nathan Garnett, the former event director of the awards, said more than 5,000 restaurants have been on at least one ballot in the last three years) as well as the limited number of world-class restaurants that even industry professionals visit each year, a ranking can be a matter of a few votes. “There’s a clear gap between the top 10 and the rest,” Mr. Garnett said. “But between 31 and 80, one or two votes makes all the difference.” (Restaurants 51 through 100 are also ranked.) He said the top 10 have vote totals in “three figures.”
Many believe that winning a spot can be a matter of simply getting the right people through the door. To that end, some governmental agencies have tried to work things in their favor.
The Swedish government has decided to try to make Sweden the foremost gastronomic force in Europe, said Lars Peder Hedberg, chairman of the jury for Norway, Denmark and Sweden. So after being invited on several press trips to Spain, he got the idea of doing the same thing in his country. “I told them that one thing that would help would be to organize a gastro-tour and invite the regional chairs, plus other journalists. It wouldn’t necessarily mean that they would vote for Swedish restaurants, but at least they’d report back about them to others.” In 2010, the Swedish tourism bureau brought 11 journalists, 8 of whom were 50 Best voters, on an all-expenses-paid trip to eat at several of the country’s leading restaurants.
The 50 Best organization does not believe that these junkets unduly influence voting. “So many things go into a person’s experience of a restaurant, and whether or not someone paid their own way or not is only one of them,” Mr. Drew said. “It may not influence anything at all.”
Mr. Garnett even sees a benefit: “If these kinds of trips allow some voters to get to know restaurants they wouldn’t otherwise be able to travel to, it only makes the list more comprehensive.”
That’s why Steve Dolinsky, chairman of the Mid United States and Canada region, said he joined a trip to Stockholm paid for by the tourist bureau. “There’s a lot happening in Sweden gastronomically right now, and it gave me the chance to experience that,” he said. “But it didn’t influence my vote.”
He said that there’s a lot more lobbying going on than even three years ago. Since becoming chairman of his region, he said, he’s received a lot more press releases from restaurants around the globe, “telling me what they’re up to, mentioning other industry awards/Michelin stars they’ve received, etc.”
Since becoming chairman for the United States East region, Mitchell Davis, vice president of the James Beard Foundation, said he had received invitations (which he said he declined) not only from Swedish officials, but from restaurants in his region and elsewhere.
Lobbying also occurs within the voting panels. Alessandro Porcelli, founder of the freewheeling chefs’ gathering Cook it Raw, and a member of the Italian jury, said in a telephone interview that he and fellow members of the panel for Italy, which has five restaurants on the list, occasionally consult one another to decide which restaurants to back.
“It’s natural that each country would want to protect its rankings,” Mr. Porcelli. “We’re human.”
There were concerns after Mr. Petrini held a meeting of the French jury over lunch at Le Chateaubriand, a restaurant he has championed, even though the 50 Best organization paid the tab.
Mr. Petrini scoffs at the notion that the lunch influenced voters. “These are sophisticated people who eat out frequently and are up to date on cuisine,” he said. “Do you really think they’re going to be swayed by a 100 euro lunch?”
Mr. Altinsoy said that he attended a free dinner held by Mr. Petrini at Combal Zero in northern Italy, the No. 35 restaurant. “Andrea doesn’t tell you who to vote for,” he said. “He just makes it possible for you to vote for them.” (Mr. Altinsoy said that he has eaten several times in each restaurant for which he voted and that in only one did he never pay for his meal.)
While Mr. Petrini seems to promote restaurants he believes in, others have more-base motives.
One Swedish chef said that twice he had been approached by men offering to act as brokers. “One was very clear that he was offering to get the right people in exchange for payment,” said the chef, who asked not to be named because he did not want to affect his possible standing on the list. “The other was a little less obvious, but still clear.” The chef said he turned both down.
One way to alleviate these sorts of problems would be to require voters to submit bills proving they had dined in a restaurant and had paid for their meal, a move 50 Best has resisted.
“We’re a small organization,” Mr. Drew said. “We don’t have the wherewithal to deal with that kind of work.”
Nor, said Mr. Garnett, have they wanted to. “The issue of receipts came up every year,” he said, “but we always decided against it because if we started adding more rules, fewer people would want to participate.”
Besides, Mr. Drew said: “We don’t claim to be scientific or even objective. It’s just the best reflection of the views of the industry.”
And yet, even those within the industry who have been beneficiaries of 50 Best see the need for change.
“They should require a bill from each judge for every restaurant he votes for, and try to control the lobbies by annually changing all the members of every jury,” said Ferran Adrià, owner of El Bulli, which has been at or near the top of the list for years. “That’s the way for the list to gain credibility.”
Correction: April 20, 2011
An article last Wednesday about the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list quoted incorrectly from comments by Lars Peder Hedberg, the chairman of one of the regional juries that select the restaurants. He said he had told Swedish tourism officials that, to promote Swedish restaurants for inclusion on the list, they should invite regional chairmen and journalists on free trips to try the restaurants; he did not say that the journalists invited should be limited to those who are jurors for the list.The article also misstated the number of jurors whom the Swedish tourism bureau brought on an all-expenses-paid trip to eat at several of the country’s leading restaurants in 2010. There were 8, not 11. (The 3 other guests were not jurors.)The article also omitted two countries included in the regional jury led by Mr. Hedberg. They are Denmark and Norway, in addition to Sweden.
Because of an editing error, the article also misstated the surname of a regional chairman who said he had accepted a free trip from Swedish tourism officials. He is Steve Dolinsky, not Dolinksy.