Gets Tetsuya's thumbs up for breakfast ... Sydney's Cafe Morso. Photo: Lucinda Marland
The cover of Joe Warwick's Where Chefs Eat is a smorgasbord of hyperbole: "the ultimate insiders guide"; "thousands of really good recommendations"; "a guide from the real experts".
But there too, in the tiniest type, is the word Warwick least wants to be associated with his tome: "best". It's stamped across the page ends, too, in enormous letters. But the man who made his mark as editor of a guide to the world's best restaurants is insistent.
Attica restaurant in Melbourne, which many chefs say is well worth visiting. Photo: Supplied
"I didn't want it to be the 50 best. I wanted it to be anything but the 50 best," says Warwick, an English food journalist who helped establish Restaurant magazine's enormously influential guide to the "world's 50 best" restaurants in 2001 and later went on to edit the magazine.
"The idea of this book was to get away from just saying 'best'," he adds. "Best for what?"
His 662-page guide book eschews hierarchy in favour of a more democratic approach in which eateries high and low, from all over the world, are in simply because someone who knows food reckons they're great.
Andrew McConnell's top spot for a late night burger and shake ... the Embassy Taxi Cafe in North Melbourne. Photo: Meredith O'Shea
So it is that Tetsuya Wakuda is in the guide both as le patron (his eponymous Sydney temple gets a "worth the travel" nod from seven magnificent chefs) and also as patron (he gives Sydney's Cafe Morso a thumbs-up for breakfast, says Kyoto's Ogata is worth going out of your way for, and wishes he'd opened Melbourne's venerable Flower Drum).
Although many of the recommendations fall into the chefs-admiring-chefs category, Andrew McConnell (who has three restaurants in the book) strikes a blow for grunge by suggesting you drop in to the Embassy Taxi Cafe in West Melbourne next time you crave a late-night burger and milkshake.
Warwick thinks there are about 2500 places listed, but confesses he has no idea how many he's actually eaten at. He started with a list of about 100 chefs and hoped for a list of about 500 eateries and then, he says, "it just snowballed".
Journalist and author Joe Warwick.
Which, as it happens, is also how he describes the emergence of the Restaurant 50 best list as a maker and breaker of fame and fortunes.
What started as a side project on a little-known trade magazine took off, he says, "not because we were Machiavellian marketers but because it was the right time, nobody had done it before, online was taking off, and it just spiralled".
He now thinks some of the systems around the list could have been thought through a little better had they known how powerful it was to become. "We did our best to make it fair," he says, pointing to the foundation of an academy with regional chairs and a panel of 900 voters. "But it got more and more complicated ... there's a fair bit of lobbying goes on in terms of getting voters there - there are press trips and that sort of thing. Do they pay for their meals? It's a very informal arrangement. It's not corrupt, it just was [informal] because there was no budget there when it was set up."
Warwick says some of the biggest flaws include the lack of Asian restaurants, especially Japanese (a situation he thinks is improving), and a distinct bias towards restaurants in major urban centres (a few notable Spanish places aside). "The Royal Mail in the Grampians doesn't get a look in even though it should, just because it's three hours out of Melbourne."
But, he adds of the list, "it is what it is" - and besides, it gets a lot of things right, too. Warwick says he had "without doubt one of the best meals I've ever eaten" at Melbourne's Attica (number 63 on the Restaurant list, the book's most-recommended Melbourne restaurant, with 12 "worth the visit" nods), and the restaurant most nominated in his book as the one other chefs wished they'd opened is Noma, his old magazine's pick as best in the world for the past three years.
What his book and the list undoubtedly have in common is that they are both pitched, in their quite different ways, at that emerging sub-species known as the foodie traveller.
"Rather than just make a beautiful book I wanted it to be useful," Warwick says. "If you're travelling and you're into restaurants, in most places, unless it's really obscure, there will be some sort of recommendation."
Even if it's just for a late-night burger and shake.