Why does Sydney have no restaurant in the world's top 50?

Terry Durack
Dropped off the list ... Momofuku Seiobo.
Dropped off the list ... Momofuku Seiobo. Photo: Steven Siewert

As the sun rose over Sydney Harbour, the news spread fast that Sydney, as of today, has no restaurants listed in the World's 50 Best. That our highest-rated restaurant Quay, owned by the entrepreneurial Fink family with food masterminded by the supremely talented Peter Gilmore, had dropped from No. 48 to No. 60. That there was no miraculous re-entry of Rockpool, or sparkling debut of Sepia, or surprise listing of Mr Wong.

Families paused, children wept into their breakfast cereal, and dogs howled. Except they didn’t, because not everybody cares or is curious about the great restaurants of the world and our standing in them. For those who do, however, it’s big news.

So what's happening here?

Which other Sydney restaurants should be on the list? Terry Durack suggests Sepia, among others.
Which other Sydney restaurants should be on the list? Terry Durack suggests Sepia, among others. Photo: jennifer soo

In 2002, when the list was first established, Sydney had two restaurants in the World's 50 Best: Rockpool at No. 8 and Tetsuya's at No. 36. Since then, there has always been at least one Sydney restaurant in the list. Every year, until now.

Are we not good enough? Is everyone else better than us? Rubbish. Those who have travelled recently will know that no matter how much fun they had in restaurants, bars and cafes overseas, they're lucky, lucky, lucky to live here and eat well every day, and not just on spending-spree holidays.

Let's blame the judges then. The judging system of the World's 50 Best means that few international judges will spend time and money to fly long-haul to Sydney every year in order to ascertain whether one of our great restaurants is worthy of one of their votes.

Peter Gilmore's Quay dropped out of the top 50 into 60th position.
Peter Gilmore's Quay dropped out of the top 50 into 60th position. Photo: Louise Kennerley

It's as if we ran the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide on votes from chefs and industry people in Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Darwin and Hobart, as well as Sydney. The final voting counts would be very dependent on their frequent flyer miles, not on experts on the ground.

For the World's 50 Best, by far the majority of judges are based in Europe and America, and naturally gravitate around their own restaurants, with little time spent exploring Australia, south-east Asia, South Africa or other "distant" parts of the globe. It's still very much a European view of the world.

Even Canada missed out, with not a single restaurant listed in the top 100. You're kidding me? An outpost of the chain La Petite Maison in Dubai (at No. 81) is better than anything in Montreal, Vancouver or Toronto???


But things are changing

For the first several years, restaurants in Asia fared very poorly for the same reason: the tyranny of distance. So in 2013 the same organisers created Asia's 50 Best Restaurants, which gave them a real focus and a heap of publicity. Latin America's 50 Best was also launched in 2013.

And let's not forget that while no Sydney restaurant is represented on this year's list, Sydney chefs most certainly are, with Brett Graham of The Ledbury at No. 10, David Thompson of Bangkok's Nahm at No. 13, and Tetsuya Wakuda of Singapore's Waku Ghin at No. 50. So that's all right, then.

Should Sydney restaurants feel hard done by?

Hell, yeah. For example, having eaten at Momofuku Saam Bar (No. 64) recently, it's clear to me that Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney is a better restaurant. It's not even in the top 100, as it was last year. I would rather eat Martin Benn's food at Sepia or Phil Wood and Neil Perry's food at Rockpool, than some of the places I have eaten at on this year's list.

And I would debate whether this listing makes Melbourne's solo entry of Attica at number 32 a better restaurant than any in Sydney. It's a brilliant, quirky, transformative dining experience, but even Attica's Ben Shewry would be mortified at the thought.

The mistake here would be to take it too seriously. To gain more restaurants on this list, we would have to have more restaurants doing the sort of food that appeals to these judges. This isn't necessarily a good thing. I'd rather be outside eating prawns and drinking chilled white wine, than inside eating tortured squiggles of extruded shrimp.

It's the game that counts

As a Richmond AFL supporter, I know only too well the pain of missing out on the top prize, but I also know we'll always be in there playing the good game. And it's concentrating on playing the good game that delivers results and keeps the home crowd happy. There's no point slamming the umpires or complaining about the rule book; you just get up the next day and do it again to the best of your ability.

So to all those restaurants in the World's 50 Best, hearty congratulations.

To all those not in the World's 50 Best, equally hearty congratulations if you are still in business, still feeding people, still making your diners happy.

And to all of us who love the brilliant, dynamic, multi-ethnic, democratic eating out scene in Sydney and throughout Australia, remember the wise words of American investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett when advising how best to invest your money.

"Games are won by players who focus on the playing field – not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard."

 Terry Durack is the chief restaurant reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald.