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The Geography of Great Restaurants

Why tolerant, happy places provide the best places to eat


Earlier this year (and for the second year in a row) Copenhagen’s Noma took top honors as the world’s best restaurant. I’ve actually eaten there and can attest that it is very good indeed. Six U.S. restaurants made this list, including Alinea in Chicago and Manhattan’s Per Se, Daniel, Le Bernardin, Eleven Madison Park, and Momofuku Ssam Bar. 

More than 800 international leaders from the restaurant industry vote on the rankings. Billed as the world’s 50 best restaurants, the list actually includes rankings for 100 restaurants worldwide.

The map above charts the location of the world’s 100 best restaurants. America takes the top spot with 15 of the top 100, followed by France with 13, the U.K. (10), Spain (8), Italy (7), and Germany (5). Australia and Sweden each have four restaurants on the list. Last year, Japan had as many Michelin three star restaurants as France. But Japan only has three restaurants on the 2011 list, the same as Brazil, Hong Kong, Singapore, Russia, and South Africa. Five other nations—Belgium, Mexico, the Netherlands, Peru and Switzerland—each have two on the list.

But that first map – and the list itself – compares large nations to small ones, providing only a crude estimation of a country’s real culinary firepower. Let’s take a second look, this time controlling for population. Now Singapore takes top honors (with six world-class restaurants per 10 million people), followed by Sweden (4.3) and Hong Kong (4.28), then Switzerland (2.5) and France (2.1).  Belgium (1.85), Australia (1.83), Denmark (1.81) and Spain (1.74) round out the top ten. The U.K. (1.6), Netherlands (1.21), Austria (1.2) and Italy (1.16) also have significant concentrations. The U.S. now ranks 19th (with a score of .49).

With the help of my colleague Charlotta Mellander, I decided to have some fun and look at the economic, social and demographic characteristics that might be associated with nations that have leading restaurants. Our efforts are not comprehensive—the data covers only 25 nations, a small number of cases from a statistical standpoint. Because of their large population size, China and India are major outliers in this data set, so we exclude them in some of the analysis. And it’s important to emphasize that these findings only point to association, not causation. But food is a fun and interesting issue, and the patterns are intriguing enough to report. Take them with a couple of grains of salt—perhaps some appropriately rare and pricy fleur de sel.

Not surprisingly, great restaurants and money go together. Leading restaurants are closely associated with the wealth of nations. There is a considerable correlation between world-class restaurants and economic output (GDP) per capita. Nations with more leading restaurants also have higher levels of competitiveness (a correlation of .51 as measured by the World Economic Forum) and higher levels of entrepreneurship (also a correlation of .51, based on statistics from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor).

Leading restaurants are also more likely to be found where the creative class is larger. There is a significant correlation between leading restaurants per capita and the percentage of the workforce in creative, knowledge-based and professional jobs (.78). Leading restaurants are also associated with higher levels of human capital (.60, based on World Bank data on education levels), and higher levels of human development (.74 per the United Nations’ Human Development Index).

Nations with more leading restaurants are also more open-minded and tolerant. There is a considerable correlation between leading restaurants and tolerant attitudes toward racial and ethnic minorities (.62 with China and India excluded from the analysis). There is also a significant association between great restaurants and open-minded attitudes toward gays and lesbians (.52, both measures per Gallup surveys). 

Countries with concentrations of leading restaurants report higher levels of happiness (also based on Gallup data). It’s unclear, however, whether happier nations produce better chefs or better chefs make nations happier. It's a chicken-and-egg problem if there ever was one and one that I look forward to studying further, preferably in the field.  

It’s not just the level of income and economic development but the open and tolerant values that go with a creative, knowledge-based economy that spur so many good things, from higher levels of innovation to greater happiness and well-being. Now, perhaps, it’s time to add really good food to the picture too.

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