Last night was not a good night to eat out in New York, Sydney, Paris, Brussels or London. Not only was it Monday night, the traditional "chef's night off", it was also the biggest chef's night off of the year, as they flocked to find out which establishments would be named The World's 50 Best Restaurants 2006 by cheeky little British trade mag Restaurant.
Charlie Trotter from Chicago, Neil Perry from Sydney, Heston Blumenthal from Bray and Ferran Adria from Spain were among those gathered at London's Science Museum for these much talked-about "upstart" awards.
What began in 2002 as a relatively amateur "give us your favourite restaurant" survey sent to leading food writers and chefs, is now turning pro - and not before time. Last year's preponderance of British restaurants in the supposedly global award list (14 out of the 50) was due more to the imbalance of the mainly British judging panel, who knew little other than their own patch, rather than any fantasy we might have of world culinary domination.
So while it is sad to say farewell to the likes of Tom Aikens, Sketch, The Waterside Inn, The Connaught, Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, The Woleseley and The Ivy on the list, six British entries in the 50 seems fair. This puts us on a par with Spain, and just behind behind the USA with eight and France with 10. Last year's winner, Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck, came in second in 2006.
Restaurant editor Joe Warwick pushed the changes through when he took over the reins at the magazine late last year, having realised the awards had become something far more grown-up than initially envisaged. "We needed to formalise things to make them as fair as they could be," he said. The world is now divided into 20 voting regions, each with its own small jury. In total, 560 people cast 2,800 votes for the best restaurant in their region and in the world.
There are still anomalies, though. It seems strange that there should be two finalists from South Africa, and two from Sweden, yet not a single entry from the Far East. To have nothing at all from Tokyo, Hong Kong or China is simply not consistent with this well-travelled foodie's experience.
These awards are more about reputations, glamour, high-fliers; an exclusive, rarefied level of dining and connoisseurship for the rich and powerful; not about the reality of every day dining choices.
A visit to any one of these restaurants is a fantasy for most of us, with prices ranging from £75 for food only at Tetsuya's in Sydney to £110 at El Bulli in Spain. Add the best part of a thousand quid to get you and your dining partner to the French Laundry in the Napa Valley, California, and you are talking about a meal for the price of a small car.
Sometimes, especially at those times when there is a "nought" on our birthday age or we have something exciting to celebrate, we want a particularly memorable night. And at most of these 50 restaurants, we will get it. Last Friday at Le Louis XVI in Monte Carlo (number seven on the list), I had a flute of champagne while watching Princess Caroline of Monaco mingle with her sequinned and stilettoed guests in the lobby of the Hotel de Paris. I then floated into the gilt-edged splendour of the restaurant and dined on exquisitely tiny spring vegetables enrobed in truffled jus, as waiters scooped freshly churned butter from huge pyramids to go with the enormous variety of just-baked breads on the bread trolley. It was an out-of-body experience that took me to the clouds and back, but it is, and should be, a rare and special one.
And if you had any ambitions of going to the winner, El Bulli, this year, then forget it. The restaurant only opens from May to October, and is now completely booked out after 500,000 hopefuls vied for the 8,000 places. You will have to wait until 2007 for a chance to eat 30 courses of Ferran Adria's mind-bending food, from the deconstructed pinacolada and black olive cup-cakes, to the seaweed croquante, freeze-dried foie gras, parmesan "marshmallows" and "sniff and crack" ceps.
You can, however, go to Leeds instead, and eat the inventive food of chef Anthony Flinn, who cooked at the elbow of Ferran Adria for two years. The tasting menu at Anthony's costs £55 per person and might include white onion risotto with espresso and parmesan air, or a "fruit bowl" of ten different fruity concepts and tastes.
And if £90 per head at The Fat Duck in Bray is a little rich for your blood, then try popping in to Blumenthal's Hind's Head pub next door for a real British pub experience with knobs on - and that means fabulous Lancashire hot pot, perfect oxtail and kidney pudding and sublime treacle tart.
The best thing to happen in Britain in the past 10 years is not that we have more great dining establishments at the top of the tree, but that the branches are now being filled with better options throughout. I would argue that it is more important to be able to eat out well once or twice a week, than once or twice a year, and now we can.
Even the humble pie can take on greatness when it is hand-shaped and cooked daily at London's Canteen; fish and chips get classy at Whitby's Magpie Café; and the burger really gives you something to chew over when it's as well made as it is at London's Haché.
So the good news is that while most of us will never make it to the top 50 restaurants in the world, we can still go out, eat well, keep up with what is happening, and have a great time at the rest of them.
The Top 50
1 El Bulli, Spain
2 The Fat Duck, UK
3 Pierre Gagnaire, France
4 French Laundry, USA - Best Restaurant in the Americas
5 Tetsuya, Australia - Best in Australasia
6 Bras, France
7 Restaurant Le Louis XV, Monaco
8 Per Se, USA
9 Restaurante Arzak, Spain
10 Mugaritz, Spain - Highest New Entrant
11 Can Fabes, Spain
12 Nobu, UK
13 Gambero Rosso, Italy - Highest Climber
14 Gordon Ramsay (Royal Hospital Rd), UK
15 Restaurant Alain Ducasse, France
16 Jean Georges, USA
17 Le Cinq, France
18 Daniel, USA
19 Oud Sluis, The Netherlands
20 Chez Panisse, USA
21 El Celler de Can Roca, Spain
22 L'Astrance, France
23 Hof van Cleve, Belgium
24 La Maison Troisgros, France
25 L'Atelier, France
26 Charlie Trotter's, USA
27 Le Gavroche, UK - Outstanding Value
28 La Colombe, South Africa - Best Restaurant in Middle East & Africa
29 Enoteca Pinchiorri, Italy
30 Rockpool, Australia
31 Le Calandre, Italy
32 Le Bernardin, USA
33 Noma, Denmark
34 Restaurant Dieter Muller, Germany
35 St John, UK
36 Hakkasan, UK
37 Martin Berasategui, Spain
38 Le Quartier Francais, South Africa
39 Chez Dominique, Finland
40 L'Ambroisie, France
41 Die Schwarzwaldstube, Germany
42 Dal Pescatore, Italy
43 Bocuse, France
44 L'Arpege, France
45 Gramercy Tavern, USA
46 Bukhara, India
47 De Karmeliet, Belgium
48 Oaxen, Sweden
49 Comme Chez Soi, Belgium
50 DOM, Brazil
Terry Durack's Top 10 to Try
Memorable British food stops that aren't in the world's 50 Best:
Anthony's 19 Boar Lane, Leeds (0113-245 5922)
Adventurous modern food from Anthony Flinn, who cooked with Ferran Adria at El Bulli.
14 Pier Road, Whitby, North Yorkshire
(01947 602 058)
According to Rick Stein, Britain's best fish 'n chips.
J Baker's Bistro Moderne
7 Fossgate, York (01904 622 688)
Michelin-starred chef Jeff Baker combines contemporary cooking and local produce with class.
Bill's Produce Store
The Depot, 100 North Road, Brighton
(01272 692 894)
A great produce store that's also a great café.
Hind's Head Hotel
High Street, Bray
(01628 626 151)
Heston Blumenthal's pub serves up the best of British in no-fuss surroundings.
83 Fieldgate Street, London E1 (020-7247 9543)
Sublime Pakistani food that's cheap as chapatis.
The Real Food Café
Main Street, Tyndrum, Scotland (01838 400 235)
What was a Little Chef is now a roadside caff worth a detour.
2 Crispin Place, London E1 (08456 861 122)
Pies, bacon sarnies, roasts and crumbles get a 21st-century makeover in modern diner surrounds.
Petersham Nurseries Café
Church Lane, Petersham, Surrey (020-8940 5230)
Fresh, natural food from Skye Gyngell served in a secret garden of a nursery.
24 Inverness Street, London NW1 (020-7485 9100)
What the hamburger used to taste like before it became sweet, pre-masticated baby food.Reuse content