Getting a table at one of these hallowed temples of gastronomy is a sport with a prize worth fighting for
With Noma set to shutter its doors in February 2017, one of the world’s toughest restaurants to bag a table is exiting the rat race (for now). But if you’re one of those for whom nabbing a seat at the world’s best restaurant gets you as high as slurping a plump Kumamoto oyster—never fear. There are mountains for you to conquer yet.
Thanks to international restaurant awards, the viral nature of social media and some gosh-darn excellent chefs, some of the world’s most exciting restaurants have achieved such fame that they are harder to get into than an Ivy League school. A few, like Fäviken Magasinet in Sweden, are located off the beaten track, while others are right smack in the world’s metropolises: think Barcelona’s Tickets and Chef’s Table in Brooklyn, New York. But no matter the location, there are always the throngs of dedicated foodies determined to get there.
The day after Noma was named the best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine in 2010, about 100,000 people attempted to nab a table through its website. Talula’s Table, a farm-to-table restaurant in Pennsylvania, serves just one party of eight to 12 people per night. Estimated waiting time? A year. And at the controversial Damon Baehrel in upstate New York, where the reclusive chef serves dishes made from ingredients supposedly foraged from his own property, one apparently has to wait more than 10 years!
For those who prefer more reasonable waiting times, here are 10 other choice destinations—and more importantly, how to get a foot in.
New York, USA
Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare is exceptional, for several reasons: it’s the only restaurant in Brooklyn, New York with a no-jeans policy and three Michelin stars. A dinner here runs more than 15 courses and costs above US$300. And its chef, Cesar Ramirez, serves up a rendition of neo-Japanese-French cuisine that can be found nowhere else in the Big Apple. Seated around a gleaming steel counter, diners are proffered exquisite combinations of ingredients and flavours: Hokkaido sea urchin set off against the earthy musk of white Alba truffle, or Miyazaki wagyu tempered by the tang of fresh horseradish and daikon.
With only 18 seats, it’s no surprise Chef’s Table is one of New York’s toughest tables to get at. Reservations are taken every Monday at 10.30am for dates six weeks in advance. If you’re too late, just call the restaurant during office hours to be added to the waiting list.
Secreted away in a working class suburb outside of Girona, an hour’s drive north from Barcelona, is the world’s second best restaurant: El Celler de Can Roca. Here, traditional Catalonian cuisine is transformed, under the machinations of the three prodigious, well-travelled Roca brothers, into modernist works of art. The 21-course tasting menu is by turns theatrical (caramelised olive amuse bouches are hung from a little tree), respectful of terroir (Iberian suckling pig is kissed with dabs of pomegranate and sweet potato puree), and comforting (a seasonal ‘vegetable stock’ distils the best produce of the moment). The restaurant’s three Michelin stars, it goes without saying, are well deserved.
Reservations are taken a whopping 11 months in advance—so our best advice? Plan way, way, early. The system opens at midnight on the first day of every month. If you don’t get in the first time round, there’s still hope—you can register on its waiting list. Cancellations are not entirely rare, given the long lead-time.
Despite its far-flung location in the Swedish hinterlands, some 600 kilometres from Stockholm, Fäviken Magasinet’s 16 seats are booked solid for the next five months. By the time you read this, it’ll probably be booked up till the end of June 2017. And with good reason. Chef Magnus Nilsson’s austere brand of hyper-locavorism has marked him with the aura of an eccentric chef-genius. Inside a rustic converted barn, those who make the pilgrimage are rewarded with Nilsson’s distilled interpretation of the land and waters surrounding his 24,000-acre estate. Expect to nibble on foraged reindeer lichen and cloudberries. Plump scallops from nearby Hitra Island are scented lightly with smoked juniper. Marbled pork chops come from the whey-fed pig of a local farmer.
Guests spend the night, warm themselves in the restaurant’s sauna, and wake up to a breakfast of cloudberry jam and porridge. Now that we’ve convinced you, the only thing to do is to reserve your table. Reservations for a six-month block open three months before the beginning of the block; for example, tables for July to December 2017 are released on April 1.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, so the saying goes. But in line with his habit of throwing convention to the wind, chef Grant Achatz stripped his restaurant down in early 2016, building it back up in the same year: interior, menu, philosophy et al. Alinea, in Chicago, shot to the top of the gastronomic world in 2005 with its modernist, flash-and-bang cuisine. Today, while theatricality and acquiescence to the emotionality of food remains, Achatz’ attention is focused most on the Platonic flavours of exquisite ingredients. Hence the icefish, a Japanese delicacy, served deep-fried and tarted up with fermented kumquat sauce. And the blueberry leaves that blanket a bed of seasonal mushrooms and foie gras sauce. But don’t worry: the edible balloons still make their appearance.
Alinea’s dedicated online ticketing system functions like a box office—diners must pay upfront. (Tickets are transferable.) New blocks of reservations, usually three to four months in advance, are announced via the restaurant’s Facebook page, so keep checking. And if you don’t get in, there’s always Achatz’ other wildly popular rotating-cuisine venture, Next.
To call three Michelin-starred Jiro a “restaurant” would be to diminish its reputation as Tokyo’s revered temple of sushi. Within the narrow 10-seat bar in the basement of a Ginza office building, 90-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono orchestrates a litany of sushi at its most traditional and sublime. Every day, the best catch from Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Market is presented in 20 courses as exquisite, briny slivers atop perfectly seasoned morsels of sushi rice.
Reservations at Jiro are taken only one month in advance, i.e. reservations for the month of January are only accepted after December 1. Many hotels in Tokyo have an arrangement with the restaurant, so ask your hotel concierge to make a reservation on the first day reservations open.
In Lima, Peru’s upscale Miraflores district is a restaurant that’s fulfilling a tall order: It’s distilling the ingredients and flavours of a country into a gourmet 18-course menu. Central’s chef Virgilio Martinez and his team foray tirelessly into the Andes, the Amazon and the Pacific Ocean, unearthing indigenous treasures such as edible clay from Puno, and a rare truffle-scented variety of potato called a chuño. Back at his restaurant— also ranked Best Restaurant in Latin America in San Pellegrino’s region-specific list—Martinez transmutes these ingredients into palate-widening dishes like “Coastal Interaction”, a symphony of octopus, purple corn, olives and limo chillies.
At Central, reservations are taken for three-month blocks, with reservations opening two months before the beginning of each block. For example, reservations for January to March 2017 open on November 1, 2016, at midnight. While dinner seats run out almost immediately, lunches are easier to nab.
Emilia-Romagna, a lush, agricultural province in Italy, is famous for two things: Parmigiano Reggiano and chef Massimo Bottura. From his little 12-seater restaurant in Modena, Bottura is doing the unthinkable—he’s stirring up the deeply traditional sediments of Italian cuisine to concoct a wildly original cocktail of past and future. While the trailblazer has seen his fair share of pushback from locals, his restaurant Osteria Francescana has risen above its critics —in 2016, it was crowned World’s Best Restaurant by San Pellegrino. Combining immense respect for the region’s history with a prodigious imagination, Bottura dreams up creations such as sole cooked in edible seawater paper, and the famous Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano, an exploration of the local cheese through temperature, texture and taste.
Reservations are accepted no more than three months in advance. Tables for the whole month of February, for example, are released on November 1 at 10am (Italian time)—and get there quick, because seats run out almost immediately. The restaurant also has a waiting list.
One of the best French restaurants outside of France can be found, somewhat confoundingly, in Japan. Amidst the frenetic chaos of Tokyo, chef Shuzo Kishida turns out exquisite 13-course menus that imbue classical French cuisine with playful modern twists. Kishida previously apprenticed under legendary French toque Pascal Barbot at L’Astrance in Paris, and his experience shines through—in his respect of produce, knowledge of cooking processes, and attention to seasoning. To wit: a goat milk bavarois is made with milk delivered fresh from Hokkaido, and is dressed ingeniously with lily bulbs, olive oil, and the solid pop of Brittany sea salt.
However, it takes work to get to Quintessence. Reservations are accepted two months in advance of the desired date, and only by phone between 9.30am to 11am and 3.30pm to 5pm. Asking a hotel concierge to help you with reservations is the best way to go. Alternatively, if you’re so lucky, asking a compliant Japanese friend with some time on his hands might work too.
At Michelin-starred Tickets in Barcelona, playing with your food is not behaviour to be frowned upon—it’s a philosophy. In chef Albert Adría’s hands, Catalan tapas is infused with his mad-scientist brand of whimsy and theatricality, resulting in creations such as basil air waffles, feathery ‘airbaguettes’ wrapped in cured gallega beef, and Manchego cheese ‘airbags’. But save room for sweets—Adría’s reputation as one of the world’s best pastry chefs shines in Tickets’ dedicated dessert room. Here, under giant berries festooning the ceiling, one can consort with lychee-rose spheres served on real roses and cotton candy ‘trees’.
While Adría, brother to elBulli’s Ferran and formidable restaurateur in his own right, has been building his empire of restaurants in Barcelona and beyond, Tickets remains one of the hottest, well, tickets in town. Reservations are accepted exactly 60 days in advance of the desired date. If you’re feeling lucky, try calling the restaurant a couple of days (or hours) before you’d like to go to check for last minute cancellations. (The number is operational only from Tuesdays to Saturdays.)
Washington, D.C, USA
Washington D.C is known more for democracy than dining establishments, but Minibar is changing all that. The tiny 12-seat restaurant, fresh off its recent harvest of two Michelin stars, has been serving up mind-blowing renditions of striking modernist cuisine for the past 13 years. The wizard at the helm? José Andrés, one of Ferran Adría’s greatest disciples. Throughout a 20- to 30-course dinner, Andrés’ proclivity for molecular gastronomy is manifested in edible illusions and sleights of hand. What looks like a peanut melts in the mouth—it’s a white chocolate shell filled with bourbon. A piece of tree bark on a plate turns out to be dehydrated black garlic. Bite into a chocolate bonbon, and olive oil explodes in your mouth.
Tables at this temple of modernist cuisine are, unsurprisingly, hard to come by. Reservations are accepted for two months at a time, starting at 10am (EST) on the first Monday of each month. For example, reservations for February and March are available on the first Monday of February. Tip from the restaurant? Jump on it at 10am sharp.
Cover: Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea
This article was first published in Wine & Dine’s December 2016 issue: ‘All I Want for Xmas is a reservation’