VanMag Restaurant Awards: What Is the Judging Process?

A peek behind-the-scenes at the (very long, very delicious) judging process that goes into our Restaurant Awards.

The judging process behind VanMag’s Restaurant Awards isn’t meant to be a secret (unlike a certain tire company we all know and love, wink wink). That said, it’s been a little while—5 years, to be specific—since we’ve written about what happens behind-the-scenes. Read on to learn about judges, nominations, voting and more.

And make sure you get tickets to the 2023 Restaurant Awards, taking place May 15 at the Italian Cultural Centre. Get tickets here.

1. Last year’s awards are debriefed

The entire Restaurant Awards process actually begins at the end of the previous year’s awards—this is a year-round project for our editorial team and judges. Post-awards, our team talks about the process, asks for feedback from judges, and chats about how to make the upcoming year even better.

2. Categories are decided

The VanMag editorial team determines the categories based on feedback from judges, the number of restaurants that are eligible for each category and some important logistical factors (in theory, we could have hundreds of categories—but there’s a finite number of pages in a magazine, and each additional category requires additional judging power, editorial work, fact-checking, copyediting, photography… you get it). We’ll often rotate out categories year to year so that we can include as many as possible: for example, in 2023, Best Vegetarian was rotated out and we launched a Best Middle Eastern category for the first time. That doesn’t meant that Best Vegetarian is gone forever—don’t panic, veg-heads.

3. Judges come on board

Our judges are industry experts that constantly have their eyes, ears and tongues out (not literally, of course) for the best restaurants in Vancouver. They’re food writers, editors, critics, bloggers, and above all, eaters: they make it their mission to be in-the-know about the city’s top places to dine. Our judging panel usually consists of 15 to 17 individuals, each bringing their own unique experience and opinions to the table. The panel varies from year to year, and is always made public post-awards—to get an idea of the sorts of folks who judge the awards, check out the 2022 panel.

We divide our judging panel into “pods” so that they can focus on specific categories. For example, one Restaurant Awards judge might judge Best Japanese, Best Thai and Best Indian. Another might judge Best Thai and Best Contemporary. The judges request their pods and we honour their requests as best we can, also taking care to make sure that the pods change each year (for example, our 2023 Best French pod is completely different from our 2023 Best French pod).

4. Judges submit longlists and shortlists

Within their pods, the judges put forward a longlist of nominations for each category. Occasionally our editorial team will put forward a restaurant or two for consideration, but ultimately, the judges are the experts: they determine which restaurants are award-worthy. Then they eat, discuss, eat and discuss some more. To borrow a description from Neal McLennan, who bravely captained these awards for many years:

“Some judges actually eat out together, some go with friends, but there’s constant dialogue throughout the year as to what’s going on. If a certain chef is no longer cooking at a certain spot, our judges make everyone aware of that and, I will say, they are unbelievably plugged in and knowledgeable about what’s going on in the city. And if someone has either a God-awful experience somewhere or an amazing one, you can be sure that it gets shared as well.”

Each pod comes up with a shortlist that is shared with all of the judges, so even judges who are not in a certain category’s pod can provide feedback. The finalized shortlists become our Finalist List.

5. Judges vote

After some more time eating and discussing, our judges vote on the winning restaurants through a partnering accountant—for many years, it’s been the folks at Crowe Mackay that tabulate all of the results. Categories like Chef of the Year and Best New are voted on by all judges. Only the judges vote. No one at the magazine votes, or has any say in the judges’ final decisions. (And while we’re on the subject: advertising has nothing to do with voting. Our sales team has absolutely zero contact with our judges). The accountant’s results are delivered to our editorial team, and we guard that information with our lives.

6. We put together the issue

Oh yeah—there’s still an entire magazine to make. Our editorial and art team work together to make the Restaurant Awards the beautiful feature you know and love. We won’t bore you with those details, but we will say it’s a long process: typically, we’re always working 2-3 months in advance. For the Restaurant Awards, often longer. That’s why there will occasionally be a restaurant on the finalist list that has now closed—that means that the restaurant sadly shuttered its doors between the judging period and our press date (as was the case with the beloved Ubuntu in 2023). We still feel it’s best to honour that restaurant as a finalist, and memorialize it as an amazing local spot.

7. The awards happen

And the awards event magically happens! (Just kidding – there’s a ton of event planning that goes into this, obviously). Our judges attend the awards and celebrate along with the winners. And the editorial team breathes a small sigh of relief before starting it all up again.

Looking for tickets to the 2023 Restaurant Awards? Get them here before they sell out.