Bests Lists are The Worst
The power and persistence of restaurant rankings.
My first post in months and months, but this rant has been in my head for a few years. If you like (or don’t), share it with someone! Thank you. -JRS
In a scene from the 1995 film Billy Madison, the titular character – a dimwitted, childish scion of a wealthy hotelier family – sits in an opulent bathtub, play-acting a debate between hair-care products. “Shampoo is better! I go on first and clean the hair! Conditioner is better! I leave the hair silky and smooth!”
That scene comes to mind whenever I encounter a “best restaurant” list; substitute food media, industry insiders and “well-traveled gourmets” for the foolish failson and you get the picture.
The problem is partly semantic. Imagine, if you will, the many ways in which a restaurant might be the “best”.
It could be the best place to work, for example, treat employees with dignity and respect, compensate them fairly. Maybe it practices a model of democratic or cooperative ownership, one that others could replicate.
The restaurant could be the best “third place”: a hub for community and civic engagement, local arts and entertainment – i.e. a physical counter to increasing cultural trends of isolation and disconnection.
Maybe the business is best at rethinking food production and consumption in light of the climate and biodiversity crises, or labour practices in the supply chain, or animal welfare.
Now I’d like you to forget all that, and think only of the wants and whims of wealthy diners.
To be clear, I get it. Best lists are meant figuratively and in good fun, friendly competition among chefs and restaurateurs, discretionary reading for those with discretionary income.
But it’s about more than just titles, or amicable rivalries, or soirees for the winners and media insiders.1 Being the best is good for business. Owners can invest in and expand their enterprise, for instance. Chefs can escape the kitchen (who could blame them) to do books, endorse products – maybe even stare wistfully into the middle distance in slow motion B-roll, the subject of a Chef’s Table episode.2
Winning also affords a restaurant influence, as other businesses pivot to adopt or adapt their practices. The most prominent example might be repeated “best restaurant on Earth” winner El Bulli, which spread the doctrine of spherification and espuma far and wide.
To rank restaurants, then, is not just to categorize and formalize the opinion of a select group of privileged individuals; it is to determine which businesses and trends survive and thrive – and which do not.
What’s more, lists can also serve to launder problems common to the hospitality industry (list-washing?). You’re familiar, perhaps, with the perennial restaurant exposé about awful working conditions in top restaurants, or the bad behaviour of a top chef.3 Pick any of those chefs or restaurants and take a look at past lists local, national and international – again, you’ll see my point.
Truth is, what these lists are really about are favourites, i.e. not the best, but what certain people like best. And don’t get me wrong, conversations about favourites have meaning and can make for a lot of fun. But they belong in the realm of dinner party banter, of playful debate between friends – not formalized and sanctified by major media platforms, with the weight to determine culture and direct capital.
In the end, any attempt to objectify or codify the subjective should feel as silly as sitting in a bathtub, arguing about shampoo versus conditioner. Because it is silly. And, like Billy Madison, food media needs to grow up.
You could argue that access to parties and events is a driving force in food media, as in politics.