Everything you ever needed to know about the critical genre known as the “best restaurant list” can be boiled down to the following two rules:
1) Best restaurant lists are silly.
2) Best restaurant lists are necessary.
They’re silly because, on the one hand, to say that the forage-forward postmolecular Scandinavian joint is “better” than the high temple of soba in Tokyo is like saying a wolf is “better” than a giraffe. They’re different.
The people who eat at restaurants, furthermore, are also different. We are genetically endowed with different arrangements of taste buds and olfactory sensors. What I taste is different than what you taste. “Better,” is, to some degree, subjective. But “best restaurant” lists are necessary because the same genes that give us our different tongues and noses compel us to seek out delicious food. If Arctic wolves could talk, they would have a “best caribou” list. But they would also disagree over it.
Which brings us to Maclean’s magazine and its first ever guide to the 50 best restaurants in Canada. The list, which was overseen by the magazine’s critic-at-large, Jacob Richler, has brought on howls of outrage. The magazine famous for its university rankings didn’t so much kick a hornet’s nest as bury its honey-smeared face in it.
For critics, the issue isn’t who made the list but who didn’t. Montreal’s Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon, specifically. These two institutions, arguably the most influential Canadian restaurants outside of Canada, are nowhere to be found. Neither is Vancouver’s hugely celebrated Vij’s. Sooke Harbour House? Not on the list. The same goes for Langdon Hall, the Black Hoof and L’Initiale. (The non-list goes on.)
When the issue dropped, Lesley Chesterman, the fine-dining critic for the Montreal Gazette, tweeted, “Jacob Richler, you know nothing about Montreal restaurants.” Will Beckett, the proprietor of the British steak house Hawksmoor, tweeted, “Canadian mag does top 50 restos list, leaves off legendary @joebeef.”
No less a culinary eminence than celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain proclaimed the omission of Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon “is like writing a history of British rock and roll and willfully neglecting to mention either Beatles or Stones” in a widely circulated e-mail.
Richler, for his part, is unphased. “I think we made really good choices and I stand by all of them,” he said in an interview. “It’s nice that we got attention. No one would want to publish a list and not get any.”
So which restaurants are included? A casual Regina spot called La Bodega, despite, as Maclean’s notes, that “mostly, this tapas bar is about the drinks.” So is an Ottawa fusion taco spot called Sidedoor where “service is not a strong point.” Halifax’s the Bicycle Thief nestles cozily on the list even though “long menus like this are almost a harbinger of imminent inconsistencies – and this one is no exception.”
With due respect to the above mentioned restaurants, are they really better than Au Pied de Cochon, Joe Beef et al.?
The answer has to do with the meaning of “best.”
Every “best” restaurant list operates by its own definition. The famous San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants List is really a list of the most influential restaurants (from a Western European/coastal North American elite foodie perspective). The even more famous Michelin guide rewards restaurants that conform to a conception of classical French dining that a lot of people think is 50 years out of date. This is why the restaurant Noma, which has topped the San Pellegrino list for three years, only scores two Michelin stars.
So what does “best” mean in the case of the Maclean’s list?
In a preamble, the magazine’s editors make their case. They state “when a traveller is stranded and hungry in Saskatoon…the best restaurant in the world is not in Paris any more.” (Really? So does airport food get better the longer your flight is delayed?) They also say “we aimed for a balance of old and new, cheap and pricey, casual and posh.” And then there’s this dead giveaway: “We tried to accommodate that need for geographic inclusiveness.”
“Best” suddenly starts to feel awfully “Canadian.” In its grand effort at economic and geographic completeness, the Maclean’s list manages to sow seething regional anger and punish quality all at the same time. The list is, at heart, a compromise. And whatever the merits of compromise, it is the enemy of “best.”
The good news is there’s an easy fix. Instead of calling it “Canada’s Best Restaurants” the guide could simply be renamed “50 Nice Canadian Restaurants.” If that sounds silly, I refer you to rule number 1.