Battle for Australia's dining capital crown

Terry Durack

There is precious little difference between a best restaurant list and a political poll – you can spin them any way you want, depending on your agenda.

So the fact that Sydney restaurant Quay has moved down the list and Tetsuya's and Marque are off it entirely – coupled with the fact that Melbourne's Attica is Australia's highest entry in the top 50, ranked at number 21 - has led to much choking on the Farmer Jo muesli among Sydney foodies.

Could it be that Melbourne is the true dining capital of this country and that Sydney is no longer the global destination they believe it to be? Well, yes and no.

Let's just calm down, have another cup of coffee and take a closer look at this year's list. Of the three Australian restaurants to make the top 100, two of them – Quay at 48 and Momofuku Seiobo at 89, are from Sydney. And if we care to stop gazing at our navels and embrace the wider world, then it would be clear that there are three more Sydney chefs all enjoying success with their restaurants overseas - Brett Graham's The Ledbury in London is now at 13, David Thompson's Nahm in Bangkok is 32, and Tetsuya Wakuda's Waku Ghin in Singapore is 68.

By a Sydneysider's reckoning, that makes the score Sydney 5, Melbourne 1. But let's not be petty and parochial. One could simply argue that Sydney and Melbourne have one entry each in the much-publicised top 50.

When you consider how remote Australia is from the majority of the chefs, foodies and critics who vote in these awards (to vote for a restaurant, judges must have visited it within the past 18 months), it is a huge credit to all those restaurants, past and present, who have appeared on the list, from Sydney's Rockpool to Melbourne's Flower Drum.

When you get right down to it, the "World's 50 Best" is an opinion poll – so whose opinions are being curated? Generally, the judges are a mix of chefs, restaurateurs, critics and commentators from all countries involved in the program. I've been involved in the judging of these awards on and off since 2002, when they started life as a deliberately provocative cover story in British hospitality trade magazine Restaurant. Back then, the magazine staff rang a number of mainly local chefs, food lovers and critics to ask them their favourite restaurants. “It was never intended to become a list of haute cuisine restaurants in Europe and North America,'' former Restaurant editor Joe Warwick told me at the time. "It was just meant to be favourite places, big and small, around the world."

But the "World's 50 Best" took on a life of its own and has grown to become a brand in its own right, with headline sponsorship owned by Italy's S.Pellegrino company.

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Looking back, the first three or four years were a bit dodgy, with several of the judges not actually visiting the restaurants for which they had voted. But since then the system has been revised and expanded, with certain disciplines established. It is not a perfect system, and various tourist authorities have been known to invite and sponsor judges on gastronomic trips to their cities and countries to garner more votes.

But it is still a worthwhile initiative that keeps the high-flying restaurants in the news, that introduces many worthwhile new chefs and restaurants to a wider audience, and helps stimulate debate and comment.

Everyone loves a list, and competitive restaurant tragics love poring over the World's 50 Best to tally up just how many notches they have on their belts. To treat it as a definitive barometer of the state of dining in any country or region is not the point; better to have fun with its changing trends, and add an idea or two to your bucket list.

As for Sydney and Melbourne, we're talking about two of the great food cities of the world, with brilliantly diverse and multi-ethnic layerings of great dining at every level. Instead of wasting time trying to work out which city has the edge, I'd prefer to pass on hearty congratulations to Attica for jumping 42 places on the list, and winning the award for the highest new entry. It's a thoughtful, personal, refreshingly Australian restaurant from a uniquely gifted chef, and we should all be very proud of it.