The Problem With Ranking The 'Best' Restaurants

The problem with rankings like the World's 50 Best Restaurants list

"Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!" —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Tonight, under the 60-foot golden dome of the 55 Wall Street ballroom, an assembly of culinary panjandrums, pundits and poo-bahs will gather to unveil the 50 best restaurants in the world—at least, as so deemed by one particular voting pool. For anyone even tangentially involved in the world of fine dining, the event has the feel of the NFL Draft: a high-stakes countdown within which the lives and fates of men—nearly all men, as we shall soon discuss—are made known.

For those unfamiliar, the World's 50 Best is an annual list, started in 2002 by an otherwise obscure trade publication called Restaurant, which within the world of fine dining is as important as the Old Testament's Book of Life. It stands with the stars (Michelin, NYT, mostly) as a chief arbiter of worldwide taste. We live—and eat—in a world of filtered reality. Life seen through a cell phone screen, food digested through third-party lists.

All rankings have their own sets of challenges, for the world is too complex a thing to be made linear. But let's focus on the list that will be unveiled tonight.

The cocktail hour canapés will undoubtedly be phenomenal, but the evening is predestined to fail. Compare the promise and the impossibility of its delivery. As Brett Martin wrote in GQ, this can be gleaned simply by parsing the words in the event's name: World's 50 Best. And yet in the ballroom of Cipriani Wall Street, none of these three things will actually be revealed. As one quickly discovers both from the geographical distribution of the restaurants and the internal voting methodology from previous lists, the organization doesn't concern itself with the world: The focus rests firmly on Europe and the United States. Secondly, it includes more than 50 restaurants. In addition to the one to 50, there are the 51 to 100 on the list, not to mention the 50 Best Restaurants in Asia, the 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America and diverse incremental additions like the problematic World's Best Female Chef. And at the core, there's the problem with that pesky word best. It's a word even the organization feels so abashed by that William Drew, the group editor of The World's 50 Best Restaurants, told Martin, "We acknowledge that it's not definitive." Apparently, Drew has not recently looked up the definition of best. It is definitively definitive. It is the definitivest of all defined terms.

As for the substance of the list itself, much has already been made and written about its whiteness and maleness—arguments that needn't be regurgitated. The organization makes the case that the list isn't to blame, because it's merely a reflection of the state of the industry. The rationale, however, is crap: The list, silly as it is, has a substantive and tangible effect on the restaurants mentioned therein. Therefore, it is not simply a reflection—it is a projection. If indeed having a diverse and tolerant world is a value held by 50 Best, the organization must take steps to alter a flawed voting process. Currently, the judging body is divided into three tranches that are notable and problematically white and male: journalists, chefs and "well-travelled gourmets." So if the argument is the homogeneity of the list is simply a reflection of these 972 voters, the question must be posed: Who is franchised, and who disenfranchised?

Sensitive to the inequality, 50 Best has attempted a few halfhearted reforms, but even the remedies are problematic. To address the near-complete absence of female chefs on the list, for instance, in 2011, the organization added a Best Female Chef award. At its best, this smacks of tokenism. At its worse, it raises red flags to those familiar with Brown v. Board of Education. And to take it a step further, what's the relationship between the separate-but-equal Best Female Chef honor—which this year, will go to San Francisco's Dominique Crenn—with the few female chefs on the main list? To these questions there will never be satisfying answers. These are but daubs of lipstick on a pig. Sure, you can darken the shade, but the change is strictly cosmetic.

Geographically, there are problems, too: To perhaps make up for the fact that China and Korea are given 36 votes total, while the United States is given 108—China and Korea, FWIW, have a total combined population more than four times the population of the United States—there is now the 50 Best Restaurants in Asia.

This jerry-rigging makes for some hairy and awkward situations. For instance, Gaggan, a restaurant in Bangkok, recently won Best Restaurant in Asia, triumphing over Tokyo's Narisawa. Yet on the overall 50 Best list, Narisawa, at number eight, outranks Gaggan at number 10. Surely this has nothing to do with the fact that Visit Thailand sponsored this year's 50 Best Asia, but it does befuddle even the most fuddled of minds.

But the blame for all of this does not rest entirely or even primarily on 50 Best, for if no one paid attention to the list, its power would evaporate. There's something irresistible about its neat ordering of the world, its distillation into one compound statistic of a life's work, that draws chefs to it like a siren's call. And that's on them. Certainly days are ruined by a slump in the ranking and made by a jump. Days, months and probably years, too. Chefs, as much as they complain about the ranking, are nevertheless helplessly enamored of it. For at least a few chefs I know in the upper quintile, a move in even a position or two up represents their ultimate goal. Until chefs themselves and the scrum of media around them (even Tasting Table plans to publish the winners tomorrow) and the ripples of the public beyond that see the list as nothing but a largely arbitrary origami of reality, it will continue to exert its distortional power.

So because tonight I'm sure it'll go unremarked upon amid the clink of Champagne glasses and the jangle of nerves, let us not forget that 55 Wall Street was once the home of the United States Custom House, where an inspector named Herman Melville scrawled lines of his masterwork about a sea captain madly chasing his white whale. And let us also not forget that even Moby-Dick never reached number one.

Joshua David Stein joins Tasting Table as editor-at-large, bringing his thoughtful perspective on food, dining and culture to our proverbial table. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, Eater, New York Magazine, Esquire and many others. Follow Joshua on Twitter and Instagram.