"Chefs are much more than the sum of their recipes," declared Osteria Francescana chef Massimo Bottura earlier today in Bilbao, Spain. He made this comment while accepting top honors at the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards.
Though hard to believe today, Bottura (pictured below, right) nearly closed his Modena-based restaurant in the 1990s when the locals largely shunned his progressive Italian cuisine. The chef fought to keep his vision alive, and Osteria Francescana now reigns as the world's No. 1 restaurant for the second time in three years. Signature dishes include Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano, which showcases the region's signature cheese in different ages, temperatures and textures.
Bottura, who founded the nonprofit Food For Soul to promote solutions for food waste and hunger, added, "All together we can really be the change in the world."
Osteria Francescana competed for the top spot against national favorite El Celler de Can Roca, which took the No. 2 spot for a second straight year. The Girona, Spain-based restaurant previously topped the World's 50 Best list in 2013 and 2015. NYC fave Eleven Madison Park crowned the list last year, but it fell to No. 4 for 2018.
Since the list launched in 2002, Spain and the United States are the only countries to score No. 1s with different restaurants. In addition to the aforementioned El Celler and Eleven Madison, Ferran Adrià's elBulli topped the inaugural list and set a record with five No. 1 finishes between 2002 and 2009. As the reigning No. 2 restaurant, the Spanish powerhouse closed its doors in 2011, though Ferran and Albert Adrià currently oversee the six-restaurant elBarri in Barcelona, which includes Tickets (image on left) at No. 32 and newcomer Enigma on the extended list at No. 95. Meanwhile, Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Napa Valley held the pole position in 2003 and 2004, but it now sits well outside the 50 Best at No. 86, five spots behind the chef's NYC restaurant Per Se.
The World's 50 Best, produced by the British trade publication Restaurant, has been called both the "Olympics" and the "Oscars" of the food world, arguably surpassing the Michelin Guide in terms of prestige. Many said a rivalry with the Paris-based Michelin led to fewer French restaurants on the list. Nevertheless, Menton-based Mirazur (image below, right) finished at No. 3 and Paris-based Arpège at No. 8. Mirazur represents France's highest ranking to date, though chef Mauro Colagreco is… wait for it… an Argentinian who cooks multi-cultural Mediterranean cuisine.
PRØHBTD fave Gaggan Anand climbed two spots to No. 5 with his namesake restaurant Gaggan, which has been ranked Asia's No. 1 restaurant for the past four years straight. Central and Maido finished at Nos. 6 and 7, respectively, making Lima, Peru the only city with two entries in the Top 10. Maido is currently ranked No. 1 in South America, following Central's three-year run at the top.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the Sleepy Hollow-adjacent restaurant just north of NYC, dropped a spot to No. 12, but the Dan Barber-led restaurant won the prestigious Chef's Choice Award. Den, one of the coolest fine-dining spots in the world, surged 28 spots to No. 17 to earn the Highest Climber Award. The Tokyo-based restaurant (of Dentucky Fried Chicken fame) is currently Asia's No. 2 restaurant, behind only Gaggan. A trio of elBulli alums opened Disfrutar (image below, left) in late 2014, and the Barcelona-based restaurant made its World's 50 Best debut this year at No. 18, earning the Highest New Entry Award. Disfrutar took One to Watch honors last year, which SingleThread won for 2018.
Overall, the host country Spain claimed the highest number of restaurants with seven—including three in the Top 10—followed by the United States with six, France with five and the U.K. and Italy with four apiece. Twenty-three different countries are represented on the 2018 list, including Slovenia's first-ever entry with Hiša Franko at No. 48. Norway returned to the list for the first time in 15 years with Maaemo at No. 35 and Turkey for the first time in 16 years with Mikla (image below, right) at No. 44. The two countries previously made the list in 2003 with Oslo's Bagatelle at No. 36 and in 2002 with Istanbul's Changa at No. 39.
So who votes for the restaurants? An international panel of more than 1,000 chefs, journalists and industry pros from 26 separate regions pick their seven favorite restaurants where they dined in the past 18 months. Panel members cast half their votes for restaurants outside their region, and an independent firm randomly ensures the panelists did indeed dine at the places they chose. Panelist are not allowed to ask for comps or advertise voter status, though many chefs comp potential and known voting members.
PRØHBTD's take on the 2018 awards? Nearly 3,000 Michelin stars were awarded for 2018, so imagine the effort involved in just visiting those restaurants. Understandably, the rankings sometimes lag a bit behind the current reality in any given year, which is why Enigma (No. 95) and DiverXO (No. 96) are two restaurants that arguably deserve to make the 50 Best but didn't. Both should surge upward in 2019 and 2020 as the voting members play catch-up.
What does this mean for food-motivated travelers? You're often best served by looking at how many positions a restaurant moved up the full Top 100 list between years rather than focusing on a particular restaurant's current ranking.
Several cities also seem underrepresented. For example, Kyoto is absent from the Top 100 despite 70-year-old stunners like Kyoto Kitcho Arashiyama, and Los Angeles is an ascendant culinary city that should at least make the extended 51 to 100 list with Jordan Kahn's Vespertine. As far as Los Angeles goes, expect to see Vespertine, Ricardo Zarate's Rosaliné, José Andrés' Somni or one of the city's other hot spots make the extended list in the next year or two.
What's next? Copenhagen's Noma completed its reinvention in its new location earlier this year, and it will be eligible for the 2019 awards. Chef René Redzepi's iconic restaurant already topped the list four times between 2010 and 2014, so a fifth No. 1 finish would tie Noma with elBulli for the most years as the world's best. In the meantime, watch for Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants 2018 to take place this fall.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Photo credits: World's 50 Best Restaurants, Francesc Guillamet, Mecit Gülaydin, Eduardo Torres, Paolo Terzi and Moisés Torné.