How do you actually determine which individuals or institutions are tops in their respective fields? Well, lucky for us, we live in an age where there is no shortage of “Best” lists. And when it comes to ranking restaurants, none has more prominence than the annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and its regional offshoots.

According to The New Yorker, the first World’s 50 Best Restaurants list appeared in 2002 in the British trade magazine Restaurant. At the time, the mag’s editorial staff were “very much not members of the traditional culinary establishment,” according to Chris Maillard, one of the editors. He says that the idea stemmed out of the group’s common perception that restaurant guides were, for the most part, “awful.”

The 50 Best rankings, initially intended to be a one-time thing, were meant to serve as a counter to the rather stuffy Michelin guide, which the magazine’s staffers thought had too much of a propensity for favoring “daunting cheffy masterpieces in near-silent rooms.” So, instead, they set about reaching out to friends and other contacts across the globe for their own input on which restaurants they though were really the best ones out there—criteria that Maillard admits in retrospect “all sounds a bit loose and random,” but that the list “wasn’t intended to be at all definitive.”

Though definitive it has indeed become, and any chef would likely tell you that inclusion on the 50 Best list is a huge boon for business. “I have friends who are smart, interesting guys who lose their shit over getting No. 1,” says David Chang, the mind behind Momofoku.

Yet as the 50 Best list’s prominence has grown, so has the skepticism that surrounds its legitimacy. Frank Bruni, the former New York Times restaurant critic, has encapsulated the list’s inherent contradiction rather well: “It’s a silly, silly list,” he says, “but you need someone to collapse the universe for you.” Essentially, the list is ridiculous, but it’s useful, in the same way that “the nineteen-fifties housewife turned to Consumer Reports to figure out whether to get a Maytag or an Electrolux.”

Differentiating itself from Michelin has remained in the bones of the 50 Best. Whereas Michelin actually employs a full-time staff devoted to investigating and critiquing restaurants, the 50 Best only has a group of volunteers, divided into 27 different regions—each one with a chairperson and 36 voters, consisting of roughly equal parts chefs, food journalists, and “well-travelled gastronomes.” The regulation of voters is pretty lax, other than no voter can select a restaurant that he or she has a vested interest in.

The results of the various lists often elicits confusion, as happened when Bangkok’s Gaggan restaurant was listed first on the Asia’s Best 50 list, yet was somehow not the highest rated Asian restaurant on the World’s Best list. And many simply find the list’s underlying premise to be faulty. Eater’s Helen Rosner tells the New Yorker,

“Even if you set out to do this with absolutely impeccable integrity, it is astonishingly unrealistic, given the scale of humanity and our life span and our gastronomic limitations, for anyone to make any kind of informed objective linear ranking in a certain time frame of the best restaurants in the world.” 

French food critic François Simon has criticized the list’s ingratiating manner with its primary sponsor, Pellegrino, though there doesn’t seem to be any legitimate evidence that the list favors restaurants that serve Pellegrino over other sparkling water.

Unlike the original list, voting is no longer based on hearsay—at least in theory. And the list prohibits any judge from casting a vote based on “a dining experience that does not take place at the restaurant itself.” But some believe it’s hard to not get caught up in voting for restaurants run by chefs you are intrigued by, or ones which are favorites of colleagues you are enamored with. Though that’s just human nature.

And then, of course, there’s the problem of perceived sexism. This year’s list only included three restaurants with female chefs, and at a ceremony last year honoring British chef Fergus Henderson for lifetime-achievement, Henderson’s wife, Margot, who is also a chef, told the Financial Times that the 50 Best favored styles of cooking that are “very male.”

In fairness, 50 Best itself still does not claim to be an ultimate authority. “Given that this list is based on personal experiences,” its website states, “it can never be definitive.”

Irregardless, the 50 Best’s popularity endures. And like any exclusive club, it’s hard to get into, but once you’re in, you’re usually in for life (or at least a few years). “It’s very difficult to get on the list, and it’s very difficult to get off,” as one event planner recently put it, at an event honoring the 50 Best Latin American restaurants.

And everyone wants to be the best—it’s basic human nature.

[via The New Yorker]