Should Vancouver Be on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List?

Sure, no local spot is as good as Lima's Central (#6 on this year's San Pellegrino-sponsored ranking). But quite a few are as good as London's Lyle's (#33).

Sure, no local spot is as good as Lima’s Central (#6 on this year’s San Pellegrino-sponsored ranking). But quite a few are as good as London’s Lyle’s (#33).

It’s World’s 50 Best time (which is actually World’s 100 Best time—and, given this year’s 20 new entries, perhaps even World’s 120 Best time). This is when some of us, like Charlie Brown kicking the football, hope that this is the year that one of Vancouver’s restaurants will crack this exclusive, updated annually, sponsored-by-San-Pellegrino list. But when the results were announced earlier this week, World’s 50 Best played the role of Peanuts’ Lucy, yanking the ball away at the last second and making us look foolish about ever trying in the first place.

Spoiler alert: no Vancouver restaurants made 2019’s list. In fact, only one Canadian room—Alo in Toronto at #90—snuck onto the ranking notwithstanding the addition of 20 new spots. As a general rule, lists like this—which purport to cover such a huge swath of the world (like, the entire world)—are rife with problems, mostly relating to judges and geography. In this case, Vancouver falls under the purview of an “Academy Chair” who is tasked with overseeing all of western U.S.A. and western Canada, an area larger than continental Europe.

That Chair is based in San Francisco, a city that has three restaurants in the list’s top 100 (four if you count SingleThread in Healdsburg). Los Angeles has zero. Portland, zero. Seattle, zero. Well, let’s not draw this out: how many restaurants does every city other than San Fran have on the list? Zero. I’m not suggesting there’s any active bias—there are somewhere around 40 judges under the Chair who all chime in on the region. I don’t actually know if any of them are from here because it’s a secret. But, as I set out in this piece about Canada’s own purported 100 Best Restaurants list, the geography of judges is everything when it comes to getting recognition.

That being said, I’ve been to five of the top 50 and 11 of the top 100 on San Pellegrino’s ranking, so I have at least some basis for providing comment. For example, I’ve never been to a restaurant in Vancouver (or Canada for that matter) that’s in the same league of Lima’s Central, which checks in at #6 this year. It’s simply on another level. On the other hand, my family ate at Lyle’s in London’s Shoreditch neighbourhood, which was elevated from #38 last year to #33 this year, and the entire time I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was eating at some Black Mirror doppleganger of Burdock and Co.—if Burdock and Co. were twice as expensive and had a longer but purposely incomprehensible wine list. And no smiling Andrea Carlson.

But Lyle’s is a bit of an outlier. For one, it’s actually considered one of the cheaper restaurants on the list and it’s definitely one of the most casual. The more surefire way to land on World’s 50 Best is via the tasting menu route, the culinary high-wire act favoured by many of the chefs who make the list. And tasting menus have always been a hard sell in this town. Uwe Boll is committed to the style at Bauhaus and Makoto Ono is standing by it at Mak N Ming. But, for the most part, it’s not not how Vancouverites dine and it’s a real slog for those who choose to operate a restaurant this way.

An anecdote: last year, one of our Restaurant Awards judges was invited to have chef Alex Chen, formerly of Boulevard and now overseeing all of Sutton Place Hotel‘s food operations, cook a special dinner for him, and I tagged along under-the-radar as his plus one. It was a multi-hour event in which the Boulevard team—quarterbacked by Chen—went all out on every dish. I wrote about it here, because it was indeed the best meal I had in 2018—and the previous year, frankly. It kicked the shit out of Lyle’s. At the close of dinner, my dining companion and I literally just sat there for a while, each of us in quiet reverie at the cooking display that we had just witnessed. He leaned over and said, “You know, if someone bankrolled Alex to cook like this we’d have that world-class restaurant everyone always talks about.” In other words, we’d have our spot on World’s 50/100/120 Best.

Until then, I’m not losing any sleep. (I haven’t even got to the list’s sexism, which makes the U.S. Senate look downright progressive.) The fact is, I enjoy tasting menus when they’re spread out many weeks apart, but what we have in Vancouver’s dining scene—the perfect mix of casual and focused—is far more appealing than the showstopping feats honoured by San Pellegrino. Maybe we should stop running at the football and sit down and enjoy the grass instead.