In Singapore on Tuesday evening, one of the world’s most famous restaurant indexes announced, for the first time, that a French restaurant was the “best in the world.”
Mirazur, a three-Michelin-starred tasting menu Arcadia in Menton on the Cote d’Azur, took the place previously held by some of the most instantly recognisable restaurants in the world: El Bulli, Noma, The Fat Duck, Osteria Francescana, and Eleven Madison Park. But, with London now only counting two restaurants among this hallowed top-tier — The Clove Club, at 26, and Lyle’s, at 33, two essential London restaurants in Shoreditch — what does the 50 Best Restaurant list’s judgement say about the London restaurant industry more generally? Because it would be facile and not totally accurate to say “very little,” here are six things to take away from the announcement.
How does this reflect on the London restaurant scene?
While the now 18-year-old list is immensely influential and globally recognised, it is just one index. But it has captured a corner of the industry’s imagination, ridden the wave of a new, generally Western fascination with restaurants since just after the millennium, and has been extremely generously financed. It continues to generate unrivalled commercial and media appeal in its field, even if it is more closely interrogated each year.
Those legitimate criticisms of the list’s legacy are worth remembering: it has been and remains largely Eurocentric and largely male; it has always privileged expensive tasting menu restaurants. In other words, at its very core — despite its origins as a PR stunt for the U.K.-based Restaurant Magazine in 2002 — it can never have credibly claimed to have been about celebrating real diversity, nor has it emphasised authentic accessibility.
And yet, it probably quite fairly reflects where London ranks in this narrow field of innovative, modern fine dining in 2019, even if Core by Clare Smyth — the two-Michelin-starred solo debut from the long-time leader of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay — might feel aggrieved to have only made the 50 Best long list, and Ikoyi — a restaurant which takes West African ingredients as its starting point — is yet to make it on the list at all. Both restaurants have demonstrated not only imagination, immense creativity, and restless evolution, but they’ve also adroitly courted the band of influential diners who vote on this list.
Shoreditch is no longer London’s radical hipster neighbourhood; it is the mainstream
That the two restaurants now among the 50 Best are in Shoreditch is significant. This reflects, on the one hand, a shift in the style of cooking now recognised by the list as “world class” vis-a-vis fine dining in London — these restaurants are decidedly modern, and have moved British fine-dining away from its traditional French roots, taking inspiration from the Nordics, Spain, and Japan; they are less myopic and more responsive to changing tastes and reference points. But also, it illustrates how trends and money has shifted east in the capital, especially when noting that previous mainstays of the 50 Best — The Ledbury and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, both in west London, fell from the top 50 for the first time in seven years.
But the Clove Club and Lyle’s are still distinct
It is someway understandable that the two restaurants will be likened to one another, not only because they are a 10 minute walk apart, but because chefs James Lowe (Lyle’s) and Isaac McHale (the Clove Club) were partners in the Young Turks supper club in 2011. The reality is that they now operate very different restaurants. It’s telling — and evident at both restaurants — that Lowe worked for many years at St. John (another, almost anomalous 50 Best mainstay) while McHale was a development chef for half a decade at The Ledbury. Lyle’s is much more informal than the Clove Club; they both have Michelin stars but the latter seeks two, with real purpose. They’re both modern, yes, but the service style and tasting menu procession at the Clove Club reflects much more the format of the old-school than at Lyle’s, even if the former does still eschew grey suits, white table cloths, and all those extraneous add-ons that few serious diners — the type which gravitates to the 50 Best, at least — are interested in assigning value to in 2019.
It says more about the composition of the list itself
Looking at where the list is announced each year, restaurants from that location have tended to rank highly the year after. The best example is Eleven Madison Park winning (2017) the year after the announcement ceremony took place in New York City (2016), having hovered in the top five for four years. Because this 1000-person-strong judging network of gastrotourists, chefs, and food writers — like everyone — is susceptible to groupthink, global trends, and the commercial investment, which also travels. For the last three years — Singapore, Bilbao, and Australia — tourism boards have been a principal sponsor of the awards, so that will naturally have an impact in the medium- and long-term, if not always the short-term.
Core by Clare Smyth and Ikoyi’s exclusion from the top 50, for example, almost certainly says more about the voting mechanics of the list and its cyclical nature than it does about those two restaurants, or indeed about London as a restaurant city as a whole. Noma 2.0 entering straight in at number two notwithstanding, getting in and or rising up this list typically takes time. Both Core and Ikoyi have been open for two years or less; both earned their Michelin stars last autumn: neither have yet infiltrated what is ultimately a much less nimble and reactive institution.
The list has changed
The 50 Best list, as an institution and a brand, has changed enormously. Not only has it got bigger and more commercial, it has also become considerably less daring. It recognised St. John before that restaurant won Michelin-acclaim; it consistently featured Le Chateaubriand in Paris — a unique restaurant in the mid 2000s — in the top 10, when Michelin refused to put it in the guide at all. That perhaps is an inevitability of such a commercial success story, but at the outset it almost existed as a counter to the predictable, with the Francophile Red Guide the very thing it existed to oppose. Although this year’s winner is the first ever from France, the 50 Best can certainly no longer claim to be unpredictable. As Eater.com noted in its own analysis of the list this year, “institutions serve to serve themselves.”
How the 50 Best London inclusions compare to London’s newest Michelin-starred restaurants
In the most recent Michelin Guide, for 2019, London restaurants previously considered outside of the conventional sphere of fine-dining received acclaim. Perhaps more so that ever before. The French institution last year issued first stars not only to the aforementioned Ikoyi, but also to a Basque-inspired grill restaurant, Brat, whose head chef is from Wales; as well as Leroy, a latter-day wine bar in Shoreditch, and Sabor, a tapas restaurant on the edge of Mayfair. As a cross-section of high-level London dining and its myriad variations, Michelin — having adopted more adaptability and having made concessions to trends — presents a more accurate reflection of where the city is at right now.
And finally, an irony: As the 50 Best catches up with what has been most cutting-edge in London, it is difficult to present a case which argues that these two restaurants alone represent the best of the city in its entirety. Chefs and diners move on, tastes change and develop. That’s how innovation works, often at a faster pace than an ever more cumbersome institution. Indeed, for the 50 Best to exist as a truly relevant barometer of what’s “best” in any given city, much less a city the size and mutability of London, might be a fundamental impossibility.