Why Does S.F. Always Get the Shaft on the World's Top 50 Restaurants List?


Despite a decade of our city's growing prominence in the international food scene, and despite two Michelin three-star restaurants in the Bay Area, only one local restaurant has made the cut this year on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. And that is, of course, The French Laundry.

The French Laundry ranks 47th out of 100 this year, with Manresa in Los Gatos dropping out of the prestigious Top 50 to land at 52. S.F.'s Coi also makes the lower half of the list for the second year at number 58. In the number one slot this year is El Celler de Can Roca in Spain, which knocks Copenhagen's Noma out of the top spot for the first time in three years. But who decides these things, and how arbitrary are the movements of these rankings?

The list is updated annually via the U.K.'s Restaurant Magazine, sponsored by San Pellegrino, and is allegedly compiled via the nominations of 900 food-industry professionals, called The Academy, all of whom can only nominate seven restaurants that they've visited within 18 months. Unlike the esteemed Michelin Guides, this list compares restaurants across regions and countries, and the rankings are created via nominations from other chefs as well as restaurateurs, critics, and "gourmands." Thus, given that there isn't a system by which the panelists are required to visit certain locales, it stands to reason this list from a UK magazine is going to be weighted heavily toward Europe, and that California, being the farthest locale represented on the list, might not be adequately represented.

The Western US region's panelists are chaired by Los Angeles Times critic S. Irene Virbila, but we don't know how many people based in California participate in the voting, and assume it isn't many. We believe, for instance, that The Restaurant at Meadowood would have at least cracked the Top 100 by now, three years after earning its third Michelin star, if an adequate number of California-based panelists or people who traveled here were represented in this 900-person academy.

The French Laundry has consistently placed here since the list's inception in 2002, and even knocked the famous El Bulli out of the number-one slot on the list in 2003 and 2004, before beginning its slip down in the rankings. This year, it's joined on the Top 50 by five other US restaurants: Eleven Madison Park (ranked 5th this year), Per Se, Daniel, and Le Bernardin in New York; and Alinea in Chicago. It's intriguing that Per Se, Thomas Keller's simulacrum of the French Laundry in Midtown Manhattan, ranks so much higher at number 11, with the Laundry at 47, given how similar the style and execution of the food, and the service, are at the two restaurants–and given that the Laundry is in a far more charming setting in Yountville, compared to the upstairs-in-a-mall location of Per Se at the Time Warner Center. Also, French Laundry chef de cuisine David Breeden just moved over from the Per Se kitchen in the last two months, meaning the two restaurants shared a head chef in the last year.

Side note when it comes to this list's trustworthiness: If you trust in Michelin and their standards, it's notable that three restaurants in Italy rank higher here than the country's only Michelin three-star restaurant, Piazza Duomo in Alba, which ranks 41st.

In any event, we're happy that San Francisco is represented in the Top 100 at all, since LA totally gets ignored–as they also have by Michelin in the last few years. And we're happy for  local chefs David Kinch, Thomas Keller, and Daniel Patterson for the potential international clientele who put stock in these things. And anyway, it's just another list, and kind of a popularity contest, and when you're comparing the absolute highest level of restaurant experiences across Europe and the Americas (Asia gets its own list), how can one really say that one place is ten or twenty notches higher than another? It's a contest among kings, in other words.

The World's 50 Best Restaurants [Official Site]


Jay Barmann is the editor of Grub Street San Francisco.

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