Why don’t China’s top-ranked restaurants serve Chinese food?

Why don’t China’s top-ranked restaurants serve Chinese food?

Restaurant magazine’s 2013 list of the world’s top 50 restaurants hasn’t just made news this week for dropping Danish superstar Noma down a peg after its three-year reign at the top. It also features a restaurant from mainland China for the first time.

The Shanghai-based restaurant Mr & Mrs Bund placed 43rd in the ranking — a jump from last year when it became the first mainland Chinese restaurant to crack the magazine’s less-prestigious top 100, at number 95. This year’s top 50 also includes two restaurants from Hong Kong for a grand total of three Chinese restaurants — the most since 2003, which is as far back as past lists on the magazine’s website go (the 51-100 list includes three more restaurants from Hong Kong and another from Shanghai). Is this China’s culinary scene finally catching up with the country’s newfound great power status?

Well, maybe. But there’s something to note about the three Chinese restaurants in the top 50: none of them actually serves Chinese food.

Mr & Mrs Bund‘s cuisine is described as "High-end contemporary French bistro cooking." As for the Hong Kong-based 8 1/2 Otto E Mezzo Bombana, which ranked 39th on the list? "Classic and contemporary Italian." The restaurant that comes closest to serving Chinese cuisine is Hong Kong’s Amber (number 36), which serves "classical French with subtle Hong Kong influences." (Only subtle, though!)

With some exceptions, almost every other country with a restaurant in the top 50 has at least one restaurant specializing in local cuisine, though sometimes with a handful of adjectives tossed in (my favorite description: Mugaritz, in Spain, serves "techno-emotional Spanish."). Exceptions include Switzerland and Belgium, which have large French-speaking populations and restaurants serving French cuisine, along with tiny Singapore (where Restaurant Andre serves French food) and the Netherlands (where Oud Sluis serves "modern seafood with international influences").

What gives? China is a big country with a variety of well-developed regional cuisines that are generally considered delicious. And while we know there are many things China doesn’t do well, soft power-wise, the one area where it could be said to have some soft power at its disposal is food. Chinese restaurants can more or less be found anywhere Chinese people can be found, which is many, many places.

My hypothesis: While there have long been many great restaurants in China serving excellent local food, it’s only recently that these kinds of establishments have started paying attention to ambiance, service, and the other more subtle niceties that have to be in place before a restaurant can be a candidate for Restaurant magazine’s top 50 list. As Chinese restaurateur Zhang Lan, who has sought to take her upscale Sichuan restaurant chain South Beauty international, told China Daily in 2008, "Chinese cuisine offers everything from nutrition to taste. But what it lacks is the packaging. Most people in China didn’t know how to present their food."

There are some up-and-comers that could break into the top 50 in the years to come: On Restaurant‘s list of the 50 best restaurants in Asia, the first Chinese establishment to serve Chinese food is Hong Kong’s Lung King Heen, which offers diners Cantonese food. The first mainland restaurant to serve Chinese food is 28 HuBin Road in Hangzhou, which focuses on Hangzhou regional cuisine.

Thoughts on why no Chinese Chinese restaurants made this year’s top 50? Leave them in the comments.