El Celler de Can Roca, run by three brothers in Girona, Spain, has been named the world’s best restaurant in the annual 50 Best list sponsored by San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna.
The immediate question is whether this accolade has any meaning. The list has been around since 2002, and is also partly sponsored by Diners Club International. The methodology is both intricate and fuzzy at the same time. Panel judges divide the world into 27 regions, and each region appoints a team of 30 members to evaluate restaurants; this year, nearly 6,000 votes were cast. There are no formal requirements or rules for the panelists’ selections, and they are merely required to have “eaten in the restaurants they nominate in the last 18 months.”
In practical terms, the 50 Best list functions as a species of Second Chance Michelin. Copenhagen’s Noma, the revolutionary restaurant operated by chef Rene Redzepi, has never been able to garner three Michelin stars, yet Noma was voted the world’s best restaurant for three years running (2010-2012). It certainly has an economic impact. After winning the award for the first time, Redzepi supposedly remarked that he had 1200 customers on his waiting list for a reservation each evening, compared with 14 in 2010.
Being at the top of any list obviously carries a great deal of importance in the minds of consumers. In the absence of specific criteria, though, it’s hard to distinguish between the other 49 places. What, exactly, is the difference between #42 and #43? Is it food, service, ambiance, wine list, or any other factor that would make someone choose one establishment over another? You could say the same thing about Michelin, of course, although at least in their case the distinctions are poetic—most diners could likely find an emotional difference between “worth a detour” (two stars) and “worth a special journey” (three).
The best news of all is that none of this will probably affect the three Roca brothers (head chef Joan, sommelier Josep and pastry chef Jordi). While they are probably flattered, my guess is that they will continue to push to boundaries of Catalan cuisine while cheerfully ignoring the temptation to take themselves seriously.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxiacating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to amazon.