How do restaurants make the Top 50 list?

Best restaurant' lists are subjective - and often worlds apart from diners' choices

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 April, 2013, 10:47am

The World's Best 50 Restaurants list will be revealed on Monday, following the announcement of Asia's Best 50 Restaurants in February. And no doubt, much foodie controversy will ensue from Restaurant magazine's choices.

How, then, are the rankings - which actually list 100 restaurants - decided, and how much clout do they have with diners and in the industry?

Interestingly, local foodies whom the South China Morning Post spoke to seemed either unfamiliar with the awards or questioned their validity. If it comes to an actual restaurant recommendation, they prefer to take tips from friends and acquaintances or use websites such as OpenRice.

"People have not heard of these awards," says CeCe Hoang, a foodie and founder of PR and marketing consultancy Bloomchain.

The Asia list has not convinced Hoang that the restaurants are on the judges' radar. "I don't think it has touched Asia enough," she says. "I don't know the criteria, but there are a lot better restaurants in Asia."

In the 2012 world rankings, there were three from Spain, three from the US, and one each from Denmark (Noma, which ranked first), Brazil, Italy and England in the top 10. There were none from Asia.

"I'm a little surprised," says Kenneth Tang, owner of Bondi Café in Lai Chi Kok. "However, the nature of judging food can be subjective. Fine dining is still a fairly new concept in Asia compared with Europe and developed Western nations."

The Michelin guide gives Japan more stars than all of France but only two restaurants in Japan appeared on Restaurant magazine's list (at 27 and 28).

"I love both French and Japanese cuisine and wouldn't let these awards change my opinion," says Tang.

In Hong Kong, the Michelin guide gives French restaurant Caprice its top three-star rating, yet it came in at 54 on the Best Restaurants list. Lung King Heen, its Cantonese counterpart at the Four Seasons, which also rates three Michelin stars - appeared at 93 in the list.

Local restaurants that outranked them are Amber at 43 and Bo Innovation at 52, which both rate two Michelin stars.

While some consider Macau's three-Michelin-star Robuchon a Galera the top restaurant in the Pearl River Delta, it merited 82nd place on last year's list.

"Some of the restaurants on that list - there are bound to be certain diners that have been there and would object to them being on that list," says Hoang.

Tang, however, is not bothered by the apparent discrepancies. "They are written and judged by two different bodies, much like wine judges and awards. Michelin and the World's Best restaurants don't use the same criteria or judging panel.

"But I would like to see an award for 'best everyday dining' rather than the super-fine-dining establishments which inevitably dominate the awards," says Tang.

Gillian Rhys, who has been an on and off judge in Europe and Asia for the past 10 years, says she was chosen for the role because she is "a freelance food and lifestyle writer, and I eat out and travel frequently - two requisites for being chosen, I'm told".

The judging system does not work by selecting a list of restaurants, visiting and judging them and then ranking them specifically for the awards. Rather, some 900 judges organised into 26 regional panels each make a list of their seven favourite restaurants visited over the past year. Three must be from outside the region they work in.

"All food guides are subjective and biased. Even my own online reviews are based on how the restaurant was performing on the day, the dishes I chose and the service, which can be inconsistent pretty much anywhere," says Peter Bailey, a Sydney-based tour guide and foodie.

Part of his tour guide service is recommending restaurants.

Bailey also writes about them under a pen name on the website.

If he wants a new restaurant recommendation, he may occasionally consult The Sydney Morning Herald food guide, but he will usually go by word of mouth.

Although his tour company started offering services in Sydney, requests from customers have seen him lead groups to Melbourne, the Hunter Valley and even the Great Barrier Reef.

Bailey, 49, has travelled extensively outside Australia. Looking at the 2012 awards, he finds them limited in their appreciation of the country.

"The inclusion only of Quay and the absence of any Melbourne eateries [in the first 50] tells me the judges probably don't get down here often enough.

"The food at Quay is very good, and the location superb - unless there's a liner at the overseas passenger terminal - but there are other equally good places in Sydney and Melbourne," says Bailey.

Do judges only vote for already famous restaurants? The elevation of Copenhagen restaurant Noma from obscurity to the No1 spot would seem to belie that claim, but Rhys, the food and lifestyle writer, says it is a possibility that a judge might not vote for an obscure place if they felt that no other judge would vote for it.

"It has crossed my mind, but I have gone ahead and voted for obscure restaurants anyway. It just doesn't feel right not to, even though the restaurant doesn't appear on the list," she says.

"I don't know how other panelists vote because it's against the rules to discuss the voting with each other."

And what of the idea that comparing, for example, Thai cuisine with Indian cuisine, in a list that last year ranked Nahm in Bangkok at 50 and Bukhara in New Delhi at 84 is not comparing like with like and cannot be valid?

"I think it's possible to compare restaurants of different cuisines," says Bailey. "It's an overused expression, but it all comes down to 'wow factor'. That can potentially be found anywhere."