When the World’s 50 Best Restaurants (W50BR) list first appeared in London back in 2002, its focus – like much of the culinary world’s at the time – was largely fixed on the fine dining institutions of London, Paris and New York. Fast-forward 15 years and the list has proven that the globe’s most interesting – and innovative – eating is often found in the most unlikely of places.
Produced by British magazine, Restaurant, the annual ‘Top 50’ list of global restaurants is based on a poll undertaken by an anonymous group of judges, made up of chefs, restaurateurs, food critics and gourmands from 26 regional areas. Via excursions into Spanish barrios, Tokyo back streets, snow-locked rural Sweden and tiny Uruguayan fishing villages, the panel of over 1,000 judges has shone the spotlight on some of the world’s most obscurely located culinary treasures.
The steady evolution of what many now deem to be the restaurant industry’s most influential poll is perhaps a reflection of the ever-shifting trends and often mutable nature of ‘fine dining’. According to 50 Best Academy Chair for Oceania, Australia and New Zealand, Pat Nourse, “simply put, the World’s 50 Best is the biggest global story in restaurants each year. Nothing else from the restaurant world cuts through into the mainstream news – at least not in a good way.”
Having only ever decamped from its ancestral London home once in its 15-year history (last year, to New York), it’s somewhat notable then that the event dubbed ‘the Oscars for restaurants’ will this year take place in Melbourne, Australia. “For Melbourne to host the awards following more established dining capitals like London and New York is an acknowledgement that Australian restaurant culture has really come of age,” says Nourse. He says that those chefs who’ve visited Melbourne before are already writing up to-do lists ahead of their April arrival. “Sure, they’ll be checking out what’s happening at the fine dining end at the likes of Brae, Igni and Attica,” Nourse says, but he adds that it’s the quality and breadth of the city’s offering that really gets visitors excited. Namely? “Scorching regional Chinese at Dainty Sichuan, vinyl and good wine at Gerald’s, late-night larrikinism at Heartbreaker, and some of the best coffee in the world.”
Speak to a serious chef on any continent and you’ll soon learn just how much clout the W50BR now wields. Once considered the casual and somewhat brash cousin of the much revered (and feared) Michelin Guide, the W50BR has matured to become the restaurant industry’s most accurate barometer of what – and more importantly, who – is hot right now. Whereas Michelin heaps its praise (or scorn) on the restaurant, W50BR mines the dining public’s insatiable curiosity for the cult of the chef. The resulting list is a distillation of the best of the best; the most respected, the most talked-about, the most innovative and the most exciting chefs on the planet.
In Melbourne, only one such local chef made the cut in 2016: Attica’s Ben Shewry. Known for his intimate mastery of Australian native produce and emotive, memory-driven narrative approach to cooking, Shewry paints a culinary picture of Australia that few others could hope to emulate.
For Shewry, the notion of seeing his most illustrious international peers descend on his hometown for a week isn’t cause for self-conscious concern, it’s cause for celebration. “This event is a rare opportunity for chefs and restaurateurs from all parts of the world to get together,” he explains. “It’s a chance to maintain friendships, start conversations, share ideas and enjoy a degree of camaraderie. It’s great for the industry and it’s especially great for Melbourne.”
Nourse agrees, “It’s driven a lot of really positive activity and engagement in the fine dining sphere, and reminded the world that this is a trade worth celebrating.” Throughout the industry, there’s plenty of buzz about W50BR heading into relatively unchartered territory in Melbourne this year. So what makes the city so special? “Melbourne has such quality and diversity of food through all levels,” says Shewry. “You can drive in any direction from the CBD into the suburbs and find unheralded gems that produce delicious, authentic and thoughtful dishes,” he explains. “Plus Melburnians are genuinely warm and hospitable people.”
What’s clear both to locals and to visitors is that the undeniable energy of Melbourne’s food scene is as much due to the creativity and innovation of chefs and venue operators as it is to the city’s receptive, discerning and adventurous diners. It’s a city where eating and drinking well is taken seriously. It’s read about, it’s talked about and the worthiness of its many contenders are often heatedly debated. From the early waves of European migration in the 1950s, to the post-war influx from Vietnam and Lebanon in the '70s, Melburnians have been embracing new ways to eat and drink for decades. Today, it’s a place where coffee isn’t just coffee, it’s a flat white, a piccolo or a magic. Grabbing a bite isn’t just seeing what’s open, it’s a strategic plan that is plotted days ahead of time (and always with pre- and post-dinner drink venues factored in).
When asked how he feels about his city being the food epicentre of the planet for one short week in April, food critic and Melbourne editor of Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine, Michael Harden replies with that very Melbourne blend of knowingness and self- effacement. “How do I feel about it? Conflicted,” he says. “It’s hard not to feel smug and then feel slightly embarrassed about being smug. It’s the annoyingly self-conscious Melbourne way,” he laughs. Sure, but Melbourne clearly is worthy of the accolades, right? “Melbourne is a really authentic food city. It feeds and waters people in a way that has become an intrinsic part of life here, rather than some kind of box-ticking, tacked on, look-at-me performance piece,” he explains.
“It may not have the soaring highs of some bigger international cities, but there’s so much good food happening here on so many levels,” Harden says. “This is a city that I think has really learned how to do hospitality well in an original way.”