The year they won: 15 years of food, culture and The World’s 50 Best Restaurants

Giulia Sgarbi - 20/06/2017

In 2017, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list celebrates a very important birthday – its quinceañera, turning 15 years old. Naturally, the organisation is throwing a party to celebrate with chefs and restaurateurs from the list’s history, and reminiscing about some momentous milestones.

Over the last decade and a half, there have been 16 editions of the list and 15 awards ceremonies – the first ceremony was held in London in 2003. Over that time, what started as a feature in the UK’s Restaurant magazine has turned into a worldwide phenomenon that has brought together some of the best chefs and restaurateurs on the planet.

Here’s a look at what was happening when each of the winners became No.1.


2002 – El Bulli, Roses, Spain


From an office in Carnaby Street, London, the very first World’s 50 Best Restaurants list sent shockwaves around the world. There was no awards ceremony to celebrate it and no social media to amplify it, but somehow the news spread far and wide – the list featured restaurants from Australia to Estonia, with plenty in between.

El Bulli in Roses headed the list, followed by Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London and The French Laundry in Yountville. Meanwhile, a new style of cooking was on the rise: molecular cuisine. Although the term grew in popularity over the coming years, it was later rejected by Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal and Thomas Keller, who dabbled in its principles – see 2006.

On other screens, Kelly Clarkson was winning hearts – coming top in the first ever American Idol contest.


2003 – The French Laundry, Yountville, USA


This was the year that marked the first World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony in London, an initiative by the team behind Restaurant magazine. Although in recent years the face and voice of Mark Durden-Smith have become synonymous with the ceremony, in fact the first presenter in 2003 was 007 himself, the late Roger Moore – and the gala was held at his son Geoffrey’s restaurant, Hush, in Mayfair.

The same year, another gastronomic institution was born: the Madrid Fusión festival took place for the first time in the Spanish capital, with chef Ferran Adrià presenting, among others. Neighbouring France witnessed the opening of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris, after a 10-year absence by the chef from the world of gastronomy.

2003 also saw the launch of iTunes by Apple, allowing chefs to buy and download their favourite songs to cook to.


2004 – The French Laundry, Yountville, USA

In 2004, Thomas Keller retained the prestigious title of owning and managing The World’s Best Restaurant, while also finding the time to open Per Se in New York, which would quickly enter the list. The Fat Duck in Bray, England, was the highest new entry in the ranking, jumping straight to No. 2, with Heston Blumenthal at the helm.

In other food-related news, Ferran Adrià took the cover of the New York Times Magazine; for a similar feat by David Chang, René Redzepi and Alex Atala, see 2013.

2004 was also the year when Desperate Housewives made its entry into popular culture – as well as Facebook, a tool that the world’s top chefs would later use to connect with each other.


2005 – The Fat Duck, Bray, UK


Unstoppable in its rise, Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck brought the award for The World’s Best Restaurant back to Europe in 2005.

Meanwhile in Italy, a new idea had been brewing in the brain of food journalist Paolo Marchi: the first Italian haute cuisine congress, Identità Golose, took place in Milan in 2005. Over in Spain, San Sebastián was finding its place on the radar, hosting the sixth Gastronomika congress with speakers including Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adrià.

On TV in the UK, MasterChef was reintroduced in its current format, with John Torode and Gregg Wallace as judges. It was also the year when Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah’s couch while expressing his love for Katie Holmes.


2006 – El Bulli, Roses, Spain

We have mentioned Ferran Adrià every year so far, but 2006 marked the chef’s great comeback, with El Bulli at the top of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants after a four-year hiatus. The list was voted for the first time by an Academy of over 500 critics, gourmets and chefs, which now has more than 1,000 members around the world.

2006 was a significant year for fine dining: two future No.1s entered the list, El Celler de Can Roca at No.21 and Noma at No.33. Grant Achatz opened Alinea in Chicago, while Daniel Humm and Will Guidara first started working together at Eleven Madison Park, another future No.1.

Meanwhile, molecular cuisine met with tough criticism, with Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adrià and Thomas Keller distancing themselves from the term and proclaiming the crucial principles of cooking as ‘excellence, openness and integrity’.

To finish a landmark year, Twitter made its first appearance in the virtual sphere – years later, some restaurants would use it to advertise last-minute openings on their waiting lists, while others would promote their crowdfunding efforts.


2007 – El Bulli, Roses, Spain

While El Bulli firmly retained its top position, El Celler de Can Roca – at this point No. 11 – moved to its current location, a purpose-built dining room called La Torre de Can Roca, including 200 square metres of kitchens.

The popular cartoon Ratatouille was released by Pixar and Walt Disney, with Ferran Adrià voicing a touchy restaurant customer. But some will remember 2007 as the year when the iPhone was launched…


2008 – El Bulli, Roses, Spain

While constantly innovating and developing, El Bulli was still The World’s Best Restaurant when the awards were announced at Freemasons’ Hall in London.

On the other side of the globe, Mistura gastronomy festival was taking place for the first time in Lima, Peru, with Latin American food beginning to find its place on the global scene. Themes of sustainability and food consciousness were also taking hold: Heston Blumenthal and Tom Aikens were lobbying for sustainable fish menus in restaurants around the world.

In world news, Barack Obama was elected President of the USA, with WILL.I.AM's anthem ‘Yes We Can’ going viral. Madonna turned 50.


2009 – El Bulli, Roses, Spain

El Bulli stayed stubbornly at the top of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants again, becoming the only restaurant ever to win the award five times. Other parts of the list changed constantly: Gordon Ramsay slipped out of the 50, while Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy – led by chef Massimo Bottura – charged through the list to make its debut at No.13. The World’s 50 Best Bars list was also created this year.

At the same time, the world of food was changing in very different ways: McDonald’s opened a restaurant in front of the Louvre in Paris, to much criticism.

On the big screen, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds received global acclaim.


2010 – Noma, Copenhagen, Denmark


Having entered the list in 2006 at No.33, René Redzepi’s Noma climbed steadily and finally reached the top in 2010, hailing a new era for Nordic cuisine. At the opposite end of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, future No.1 Eleven Madison Park made its debut appearance at No.50. The ceremony was held for the first time at London’s historic Guildhall, where it would remain until 2015, the year before the event started its world tour.

French cuisine was given unprecedented recognition when it was declared by the UNESCO as ‘intangible cultural heritage,’ while Gordon Ramsay started a new phase of his career and made his first appearance as judge on Masterchef US.

Still fresh in everyone’s mind is also 2010’s greatest viral game, Angry Birds, which became the most downloaded app of all time.


2011 – Noma, Copenhagen, Denmark

This was a great year for René Redzepi: Noma still headed The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, while the chef also organised the first edition of MAD in Copenhagen, a two-day food symposium. This was also an exciting year because a new award was introduced: The World’s Best Female Chef, a prize to help promote the work of women in great restaurants. Anne-Sophie Pic of Maison Pic took home the inaugural trophy.

On the other hand, this was also the year when the legendary El Bulli closed its doors. Ferran Adrià appeared in the documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, showcasing his innovative cooking techniques. As he described them: ‘the more bewilderment, the better!’ On the other side of the Atlantic, Grant Achatz was opening his second restaurant (aptly named Next) and Dominique Crenn her first (Atelier Crenn). 

The documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi about chef Jiro Ono was released, marking the start of a new era of food in film.


2012 – Noma, Copenhagen, Denmark

With his reinvention of Nordic cuisine, René Redzepi’s Noma retained The World’s Best Restaurant title for the third year in a row. Heston Blumenthal’s new restaurant Dinner, which had opened the year before, jumped straight to No.9 in the list.

Pop-up restaurants were becoming increasingly popular in this period: René Redzepi himself moved to London for 10 days and Claude Bosi, Tom Kitchin and Sat Bains also cooked at a stylised Cube, which moved cities – Stockholm, Brussels, Milan and London, among others. A few time zones away, Hong Kong hosted a successful Food Expo and Shanghai held the international food festival Sirha.

The most watched YouTube video of all time – Gangnam Style by Psy – may even have had some chefs dancing in 2012.


2013 – El Celler de Can Roca, Girona, Spain


Brothers Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca’s restaurant had been No.2 in 2011 and 2012, but 2013 was the year when no one could top this formidable trio and their combination of Catalan dishes and cutting-edge technique. Lucky for some, 2013 also saw the introduction of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants lists, headed respectively by Astrid y Gastón in Lima and Narisawa in Tokyo.

Food festivals were expanding quickly, with the likes of Festival Gourmet International in Mexico and the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival attracting more attention than ever. Chefs were also increasingly in the public eye, with David Chang, René Redzepi and Alex Atala appearing on the cover of Time magazine as ‘Gods of Food’.

No annoying app or catchy song obsessed us in 2013 – but Jennifer Lawrence tripping while on her way to pick up her second Oscar remains memorable for many.


2014 – Noma, Copenhagen, Denmark

Regaining the top spot after being No.2 for a year, Noma became the only other restaurant after El Bulli to have won the prestigious award as many as four times. 2014 also saw the inaugural #50BestTalks spin-off event, with Mario Batali, Daniel Humm and Massimo Bottura among those discussing the future of American dining at a round table in New York.

Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli was undergoing a transformation at this time, reopening in 2014 as a cultural foundation and museum centred on the restaurant and the history of gastronomy. It was a good year for gastro-cinephiles: both Jon Favreau’s film Chef and The Hundred-Foot Journey with Manish Dayal were released.

2014 was definitely the year that consolidated the selfie in the global imagination, with Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscar selfie setting a new record for number of retweets. Chefs around the world have been taking 'chelfies' ever since...


2015 – El Celler de Can Roca, Girona, Spain

The Roca brothers came top once again in 2014, while Vladimir Mukhin’s White Rabbit in Moscow made an impressive highest new entry at No.23.

Massimo Bottura, whose restaurant Osteria Francescana had climbed all the way up to No.2 since 2009, launched Food For Soul, a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting social awareness about food waste and hunger.

A documentary about René Redzepi and his popular food reinventions, Noma: My Perfect Storm, was released, and many 50 Best chefs were also covered in the new Netflix series Chef’s Table, with the first episode exploring Massimo Bottura’s culinary inventions.


2016 – Osteria Francescana, Modena, Italy


A new winner and a new location: The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2016 was full of surprises, with Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana taking first place at the ceremony in New York City, kicking off a global tour for the list. The Big Apple was also significant for The World’s 50 Best Bars 2016, which saw The Dead Rabbit taking the top spot. The World’s 50 Best Restaurants and The World’s 50 Best Bars were reunited this year under the same company, after a period of different management.

Noma was, meanwhile, about to close temporarily and move to Sydney, Australia, where it was met with incredible success. The Roca brothers, on the other hand, were busy being Goodwill Ambassadors for the United Nations development program, pushing for more sustainability in the restaurant world.


2017 – Eleven Madison Park, New York, USA


Thirteen years on from The French Laundry’s last triumph, the title of The World’s Best Restaurant crossed the ocean again and went to Eleven Madison Park, where Daniel Humm and Will Guidara had been working together since 2006. Another crossing of oceans brought the awards ceremony to Melbourne, Australia, with a sell-out #50BestTalks event at Sydney Opera House and another at Melbourne’s Margaret Court Arena.

Far from resting on their laurels, Guidara and Humm found time to open fast-casual restaurant Made Nice in New York just days after returning from Melbourne, and in June they closed Eleven Madison Park for refurbishment, opening a Summer House pop-up in the Hamptons. René Redzepi and his team decamped to Tulum, Mexico, for their own extended pop-up.

Meanwhile, food in film continued its meteoric rise, with a third series of Netflix’s Chef's Table featuring yet more 50 Best stars, while Massimo Bottura made a cameo appearance in US sitcom Master of None.


And that brings us to now, when we’re about to celebrate the last 15 years in the company of cheffing greats Ferran Adrià, Daniel Humm, René Redzepi, Joan Roca and Massimo Bottura. Tune in to a special #50BestTalks with five of the former No.1s next Tuesday 27th June via Facebook, as part of our 15th Anniversary celebrations, presented by Miele.