Salt, Time, Smoke

The World’s Top 50: Is San Francisco Slipping?

Every year the San Pelligrino World 50 Best Restaurants comes out about this time and fires up age old rivalries, particularly in the US. For decades Ney York and San Francisco have been engaged in a transcontinental pissing contest with the restaurant scene central to the grand debate. In their fury though they may have neglected to notice that the rest of the world is really kicking both of their asses.

Oh look, I made it again. Let's see, book prices up $1, tasting menu up $20.

The San Pelligrino list is actually one of the more credible lists out there on the topic. And you should listen to San Pelligrino. After all they are smart enough to dupe the entire world into importing water. In reality though San Pelligrino is just the primary sponsor of the list and it is actually operated by Restaurant Magazine with over 800 restaurant industry experts, chefs, restauranteurs, etc. Unlike Michelin they do not view the world through tricolored lenses and measure every restaurant to a specific cultural standard.

Keller's "Oyster and Pearls" one of the best things you will taste in your life.

Luc, je suis ton père..

Of the 50 restaurants I’ve only dined at three, Pierre Gagnaire, Atelier de Joël Robuchon, both in Paris and of course the French Laundry in Yountville, CA. I would count these as three of the best dining experiences of my life. Also I have worked for two of the chef’s with listed restaurants, Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud, from whom my cooking has forever changed for the better.

Looking at this list, Spain is established itself as the restaurant capital of the world, hands down. San Francisco is sliding, badly. Not a single SF restaurant in the top 50 (Coi was number 58). Looking at the Bay Area though there were two, the French Laundry at 43 and Manresa in Los Gatos at 48. Thomas Keller is still a pimp for having Per Se at number 6 and the French Laundry at 43.

So what’s up with San Francisco? I thought it was this amazing west coast oasis of great food? Well, it is, still. As good as New York? Well that depends. On the highest echelon of fine dining restaurants New York will always outperform San Francisco. It takes a certain intensity to execute fine dining that San Francisco just doesn’t have. If you’re a server or cook in SF and your shift begins at 4:00, that means you’re in Dolores Park eating ganja cookies until 2:30.

What SF does excel at is the second echelon. Farm to table, casual-upscale restaurants. Hipster joints. Usually pretentious ad nauseum, these restaurants benefit from some of the best food available in the world. There are no better growing regions in the world than that which surrounds San Francisco. The product is already so good that all you really need to do is drop it on a plate and it’s really fantastic. Sonoma plums, delta asparagus or Hog Island oysters don’t require a great deal of fuss and SF chefs are wise not to fuss.

So enough about the menu... let's talk about my tattoos.

Seeing this list is really making me want to travel. As though I needed another reason to spend thousands of dollars to on a vacation in Spain. It’s cool to see the rise of Asia as well and I’m glad that they are given fair consideration unlike Michelin did. Singapore and Tokyo are cleaning up.

Let me hear your thoughts. Anything missed on the list? Is it fair? Add your comments below.


  1. charles says:

    San Francisco is a great food city…not a great restaurant city. The general public in the Bay Area may have more food knowledge than just about any other geographical region in the world, but not many of those same people would recognize the names of 95% of the Top 50 restaurants in the world – this statement also includes a vast number of restaurant industry people as well. Bay Area folks are often too caught up in thinking they live in a cosmopolitan foodie-mecca, than realizing the scene is much more homogeneous and not anywhere near as diverse as some of the other food metropolis’ out there (i.e. New York, London, Paris, Tokyo).

    2010 saw the rise of a few new restaurants in San Francisco pushing the envelope (i.e. Benu, Saison) and identifying themselves as true ‘destination’ restaurants; but by 2011 the push was over. As far as some of the San Francisco institutions (Quince, Michael Mina, Gary Danko, Boulevard), these are places where you can get a very similar style of food elsewhere in the world – simply put, these ARE NOT world-class restaurants. I personally would only put Benu, Saison & Coi in the ‘world-class’ level, in that they are doing something other than seasonal, California cuisine. Sadly, as a Bay Area resident, things have just become too homogeneous around here – every popular place is serving more or less the same thing, just slightly tweaked or presently slightly different. Does that mean the food isn’t good? That is not what I am saying at all – it is no doubt tasty, but simply more of what’s become a regional cuisine (i.e. Southern, Tex-Mex, New England). You can basically throw Californian in with the other regional cuisines of the United States.

    Having dined at three of the Top 50 restaurants in the past 12 months (Momofuku Ssam Bar, Nihonryori Ryugin, Manresa x 2), in 3 different cities, I can say that these are restaurants offering an extremely unique product, not easily found or not at all found anywhere else. Although it shocks me Ssam Bar can be ranked so high, I will go as far as to say the offerings there are unique to the Ssam Bar – only to find similar items at places that Ssam Bar inspired. My meals at Ryugin & Manresa rank in the top 5 meals I’ve ever had and you can’t get anything remotely close to that level in San Francisco. Although Manresa is grouped into California cuisine, Chef Kinch is practically the godfather of modern California cuisine, often serving as the inspiration for many chefs & restaurants around the country.

    In general, I’d say the general standard of food quality in San Francisco is higher than that of the vast majority of the world, however from a world-class dining standpoint, San Francisco has a LONG way to go – and will probably never get there.

    • Jeremy says:

      I agree 100%. San Francisco is clearly a foodie destination but less of a restaurant destination. I would also argue that San Francisco does not wan to be a restaurant destination because the trend is toward more casual restaurants with a relaxed vibe. Unlike New Yorkers, San Franciscans typically don’t want to get dressed up to go out.

      Thanks for you comments!

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