Travellers love a list. For evidence, see: the internet.
This worldwide web of ours is filled with travel-related lists, with top 10 places to visit, with places to avoid, with things to see, experiences to have, cocktails to drink, beaches to lie on (naked, if you really want people to read it).
These lists are popular, which is a natural thing. People want tips, and they want them fast. They want advice boiled down to its simplest form, to allow time to take in as many opinions as possible, to read through all of these inspiring collections of ideas and decide which authors they agree with and to eventually formulate a list – a wish list, a bucket list – of their own. That's how travel plans are formed.
And that's mostly fine. There's nothing wrong with taking inspiration from other people. However, there are limits.
I was thinking about this a few weeks ago while reading through the latest "50 Best" list, the annual collation of the world's finest restaurants. This list began in 2002 as a quirky little thing, an idea from the staff of Restaurant magazine to produce a one-off countdown, and has now morphed into a global phenomenon, a movable feast in every sense of the phrase, as it hosts gala events for the countdown across the globe (last year's was in Melbourne), and winning restaurants secure bookings for pretty much an entire year.
I used to be into the 50 Best list. I used to use it as a travel guide, as inspiration to decide where I wanted to go and what I wanted to eat. The 50 Best list – for me, and so many other food-obsessed travellers – became a proxy bucket list, a summary of the restaurants to dream about and to plan to tick off.
But there's a problem with doing that. In fact, there are all sorts of problems.
To begin with, the 50 Best list doesn't go anywhere close to capturing all of the styles and facets of food that exist across the globe. As with any list, this one is entirely subjective and dependent upon the tastes and biases of its authors, and these authors seem to like European-style fine-dining, which is why pretty much every restaurant on the list – from Cape Town to Sao Paulo, Bangkok to Paris – serves the same type of food.
Have a look at the photos on the 50 Best's Instagram account. Flick through the list of the winners and you'll notice that almost every dish featured is a play on every other dish. The plates all look the same. There might be nods in there to local ingredients, and a bit of personal flair from the chef, but they're all riffing on the same idea.
Travellers using this list as inspiration, beware: there's plenty of great food in the 50 Best, but so many of the world's truly great culinary travel experiences are missing.
There's not a single Japanese sushi bar in the world's 50 Best restaurants. There are no Basque pintxos bars. There are no Argentinean parrilladas (though Don Julio, a great steakhouse in Buenos Aires, was named No.55). There are no Singaporean hawker stands, no Neapolitan pizza joints, no Vietnamese pho places, no one serving traditional Chinese cuisine, no one serving North African cuisine, and no one doing the food of the Levant.
This is not necessarily the fault of the 50 Best. The judges of the list clearly value high-end, Euro-style degustation, with all the gels and spheres and foams that that entails. They're looking for perfection, not for fun or cultural authenticity.
For this reason, as much as any other, travellers who use the 50 Best list as their own bucket list are missing out. Sure, if you happen to be in a city that plays host to a 50 Best restaurant and you want a particular kind of gastronomic experience, it's worth booking yourself a table. However, no one should travel just to hit these places up.
There are so many more enjoyable foodie experiences out there, and they often exist in the very same cities that host these uber-fine-diners. They're also far more affordable.
Give me a pintxos crawl through San Sebastian, for example, over a meal at Arzak (No.31) any day. Give me legit carbonara at a tiny Roman trattoria instead of "Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart" at Osteria Francescana (No.1); give me dirty Mexico City street tacos over a meal at Pujol (No.13); I'll take som tam in Bangkok's Chinatown market over a night at Gaggan (No.5).
I'm not trying to say these 50 Best places are bad. This isn't reverse snobbery. I've eaten at a few and they're amazing. But they're not great travel experiences. They don't give you stories. They don't provide any insight. Everything at a 50 Best restaurant is perfect, and clean, and professional, and predictable. That's nice, but it's not exciting.
It's also not inclusive, which might just be the most important reason of all to ignore this list. If you travel purely for the 50 Best you'll miss visiting huge chunks of the world. You'll miss every country in Africa bar one, for starters; you'll also miss all of the Middle East, you'll miss most of Australia, most of China, and you'll miss pretty much every country in South-East Asia.
And that, right there, is an important list.
Do you take much notice of the 50 Best list? Do you think fancy restaurants provide a good travel experience? Or would you prefer cheaper and more authentically local?
See also: The world's 10 most divisive foods
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