Best in the world - who's to say?

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I note with amusement that yet another list of the ``10 best'' places to eat has been issued by Patricia Wells, who writes in the International Herald Tribune.

She includes three restaurants in Paris (where the Trib is published) - the Joel Robuchon (No 1 on the list), Guy Savoy and Taillevent; one in Switzerland, Fredy Girardet (No 2); the Louis XV in Monaco; two in Italy, the Osteria da Fiore in Venice and Da Cesare in un-chic Cuneo; the Lai Ching Heen in Hong Kong; Jiro in Tokyo; and the Restaurant Daniel in New York. Just about right for the stockbroker on the move.

Lists are, of course, a feature of this latter part of the century. They serve newspapers and magazines as talking-points. But they are fundamentally silly. I believe the first list to gain worldwide fame was the 10 best-dressed. I had a cousin who made it to No 6 (due to an affair with Tallulah Bankhead, which made him temporarily visible), but in an early novel I demoted him to No 8 - for having the bad taste to appear in a list.

Of all the subjects that can be addressed by silly lists, however, food must rate as the silliest. My readers, sound, commonsensical people, will readily understand why: all judgements about food are subjective; they are dependent, first, on what you like to eat; then, on the day, on mood, inspiration, expectation and, at the high levels of the business, tattle and hype.

Logically, when the Trib sent Ms Wells around the world to find the 10 best restaurants, she is unlikely to have had the time to eat in them often, or to have had a wide field of comparison. I would guess that about 150 restaurant meals in a year should be considered heroic.

Ms Wells also made a list of ``casual'' restaurants: Al Forno in Providence, Rhode Island; La Tupina in Bordeaux; the Frontera Grill in Chicago; City Chiu Chow in Kowloon; Cal'Isidre in Barcelona; The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall; Checchino dal 1887 in Rome and Cibreo in Florence; Viridiana in Madrid and Le Cameleon in Paris.

Now, this tells you more about her taste than her ``10 best'' - she is obviously a lady of sense and an admirer of simplicity and authenticity - which rather underlines the weakness of the whole idea.

I long ago learnt from Wystan Auden, to whom I had introduced a Hungarian as probably the No 2 poet of his generation, that lists are just not on. ``We do not rank poets,'' Auden said tartly. ``Poets are just different from each other.'' Lesson learnt.

There is a lot of good food around, and a lot of indifferent, but it is as specious to organise such a random and volatile human activity as cooking into ratings as it is to put poets into ranks. Is originality to be valued over tradition? Experimentation over consistency? Novelty over satisfaction? French over Italian? What one thinks one ought to like over what one does like? Even were the experiment possible, would it be worthwhile? Why should I take Ms Wells's word for it over anyone else's?

To revert to literature, is this list not just another instance of the critic's arrogation of the functions of creation? Of taking over from the common reader? After all, the judges of food are those who eat it.

I may be no relativist - I passionately believe that some things are better than others - but I recognise the incapacity of critics to do much more than offer an opinion, a pointer, valuable advice.

I have no doubt whatever that both of the Wells lists contain estimable restaurants in which I would happily eat. But I feel strongly that the enterprise is typical of our highly competitive times. A much more serious criticism should be levelled at this piece of folly than that it is hopeless and wrong-minded. The unhappy truth is that the promotion of supposed ``top'' restaurants distorts our view of the rest of the vast world of food.

The top 10 oysters? (Sydney, Brittany, Bouzigues, Capetown?) What does this mean? Our yardstick in (English) poetry may be Shakespeare, but Donne or Auden should not be viewed through Shakespeare, much less so one oyster through another, since oysters are part of nature, which is grandly individualistic.

I have enormous respect for all sorts of restaurants in many parts of the world. Indeed, I can safely assert that I have travelled and eaten for longer and far more widely than Ms Wells. And I would be a profoundly unhappy man if my standards for food were set by her so-called top 10, because I would positively loathe to eat more than once or twice a year in those establishments.

By their very nature, cooks who set out to attract the plaudits of critics suffer the same fate as writers too fancy to be read.

My bouquets go to those cooks, at home and out of home, who day after day produce satisfying, reasonable, tasty and balanced meals. Common sense says that for every restaurant on the Wells list, another 10 or more are as deserving.

I thought Edoardo Raspelli got it right when he wrote ``that . . . journalists remind me of tourists . . . They go to Lugano and San Marino and think they've seen the world.''

Lists corrupt, and absolute lists corrupt absolutely.