The celebrated Copenhagen restaurant Noma has retained its status as the world’s best place to eat, according to the annual list compiled on behalf of Restaurant magazine, a distinction which arguably draws in more diners than Michelin stars.
René Redzepi‘s influential cooking, with a heavy reliance on seasonal and foraged Scandinavian ingredients, ousted Spain’s El Bulli in 2010 from four consecutive years of dominance, a feat which Redzepi said prompted 100,000 overnight booking requests.
El Bulli itself, which has never been out of the top three since the list was created in 2002, is entirely absent this year; this is not because Catalan chef Ferran Adrià‘s cooking has waned, merely that he has decided to close the restaurant later this year.
Spanish gastronomy remains prominent in the views of the 837 judges worldwide – a mixture of chefs, writers and restaurateurs – with second spot taken by El Cellar de Can Roca, the three Michelin-starred Girona restaurant run by three brothers. Behind this was Mugaritz, in the Basque country.
It’s a more mixed picture for UK dining. The Spanish pair’s ascent helped push Heston Blumenthal‘s Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, from third to fifth on a list it topped in 2005. Last year’s lowest-ever tally of just three British restaurants in the top 50 is now four, with London’s Ledbury – the highest new entry at no. 34 – joining the Fat Duck, Hibiscus and St John.
The 2011 list is also notable for the geographical spread, with the first sighting in the top 50 of restaurants in Russia – Moscow’s Vavravy, famed for its £160-a-head tasting menu – and Peru, where Lima’s Astrid Y Gastón serves up haute cuisine incarnations of traditional South American dishes such as “chupe” stews. Perhaps more notable still is a Brazilian eatery, DOM in Sao Paulo, at seven, while Mexico has two restaurants on the list.
“We do have a global reach,” said William Drew, editor of Restaurant magazine. “It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. In places like Sao Paolo, Mexico City and Lima, the best restaurants are as good as anywhere in the world.”
Nonetheless, some traditional cookery powerhouses predominate, with almost half the list comprising restaurants in France, Italy, Spain and the US. Following last year’s Gallic anguish, when only six French outlets made the list, there are now eight, with Parisian super-bistro Le Chateaubriand rising to reach the top 10.
However entertaining the list, many food critics doubt the validity of such arbitrary rankings. “My worry is that I don’t see how you can compare such different types of restaurant, doing such different things,” said Charles Campion, who writes about food for London’s Evening Standard. “If something stimulates debate and interest about food and gastronomy then it’s a good thing, but it shouldn’t be taken seriously at all. You can’t take a great experience and just put a number on it.”
The gradual slippage down the list of the Fat Duck did not mean it was becoming a worse restaurant, said the food writer William Sitwell, editor of Waitrose Food Monthly.
“I believe Heston’s at the top of his game,” he said. “A lot this is simply about novelty. This list isn’t about the dining most people do. It’s food couture. These are places you save up to go to. These are not the sort of places you go to when you’re hungry, it’s food as an event, as theatre.”
What isn’t in doubt is the economic impact getting a high place, as shown by Noma, which went from having regular free tables at lunch to an queue of would-be diners that would fill the restaurant for 15 years. This has brought concern at open lobbying, for example tourist boards flying judges to sample free meals at their city’s top dining spots.
“We’re not in a position to say to tourist boards that they can’t lobby, or tell critics they can’t take press trips, but we devolve a level of trust,” said Drew. “Judging restaurants is a fundamentally subjective activity but they realise when they are being lobbied and should take this into account.”