“This is my son!” Zaiyu Hasegawa exclaims as he brings out Puchi, his cute chihuahua, to greet the customers. Both are visibly enjoying this and clearly know the drill – after all, making people feel welcome is what Puchi and his owner know best. Dining at Den feels very much like a family affair, or at the very least, like having a meal at friend’s.

The restaurant is cosy and well hidden away. Forget about finding it without the handy instructions sent by the staff: we rescued some fellow diners by pointing out that Den is in fact behind the door that says Le Gaulois. Can’t help but think that it’s all part of the experience – you are so relieved by finding it that it makes you feel instantly relaxed and at home once you sit down.

Zaiyu’s cheeky personality is in every dish. From the starter that is meant to look like a traditional Japanese dessert, to the signature DFC chicken served in a takeaway box with chef’s face on it, to the salad with smiley faces.

The staff don’t need to ask what people think of their dishes – Zaiyu can easily see the smiles on our faces from the open kitchen. So when they offer a second portion of rice with mushrooms to anyone who wants a top up, I’d kick myself if I did not have more of this delicious goodness.

The food they serve here is modern kaiseki, the style of Japanese cuisine involving a series of small dishes. There are many loyal regulars. In fact, getting a booking at Den is an adventure in itself – they like to know their guests before they arrive. If you do manage to book a table, whether or not you are a well-travelled foodie, you will enjoy it. Den’s hospitality has been noted numerous times and it has the awards to show for it. What strikes me is the character and the perceived simplicity of dishes. Nothing feels out of place. It’s authentic and homely and fun.

Den is again on the World’s 50 Best list, this year featuring as number 11. They are also number 3 on Asia’s 50 Best restaurants. My friend Google tells me that they have two Michelin stars. Surprised? Not at all. I only wish it was my local.

The next World’s 50 Best restaurants list is coming out soon and I am fully expecting a re-shuffle.

There is one contender for the top spot that is not easy to ignore – the all new Noma. It’s back with the force and is stronger than ever. The seasonal restaurant concept is brave and deserves to be recognised as such. Fish season dishes last year were amazing (see review), and while I was too busy (=lazy) to write about the fish season this year, it was even better still. The rumour has it that the Vegetable season is not to be missed (and we will soon find out). And that’s where I would place my bet.

The crystal ball suggests that the other top spots could be: El Celler de Can Roca, Osteria Francescana and – maybe -Geranium. Eleven Madison will fall and Blue Hill will climb. And that’s all I can see for now.

Beware the dark horses, and for goodness sake give Enigma the spot in the Top 50 that it deserves!

This year’s award ceremony took place on the 19th of June in Bilbao, Spain. While the two top spots, in my opinion, were predictable, there were some real surprises down the list of 50, and even more in 51-100.

So, who gets to decide what restaurant goes into which spot? And what exactly does it mean “the best”? Not to dwell too much on the voting process, especially since my insights are gained from the pages of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy, I will summarise the key points. You can find out more directly on their website.

There are 26 regions in total, each with 40 voters. Each voter picks 10 restaurants, in their order of preference, with at least 4 of those located outside of their region. They must have eaten in the restaurants they rank in the last 18 months. And obviously, there cannot be any conflict of interest, financially or otherwise.

Since there are no set criteria that the restaurant must meet (unlike with Michelin), it is really all down to the quality of cooking and the tastes and motivations of those who are lucky enough to participate in the voting process.

Here’s where I think the process is a bit skewed. Say, I am the academy member based in Austria, Switzerland, Hungary & Slovenia. I would probably want to make sure that the restaurants from the region are reasonably represented and as high up in the list as possible. Probably a much simpler task here than if you happen to be in the Spain & Portugal region. Here you have 13 entrants in Top 100 versus 3 from the other four countries. And just like that, the likes of Enigma, which in my view is far superior in quality, creativity and ambience to Steirereck (no offence), ends up in the bottom of the list. Sad.

Now that I got that out of my system, there were some positives this year too. White Rabbit jumped from 23rd to the 15th place. Good news for the Brits too: there are 7 UK restaurants on the Top 100 list this year. Here they are:

  • The Clove Club (#33)
  • Lyle’s (#38)
  • The Ledbury (#42)
  • Dinner (#45)
  • The Fat Duck (#74)
  • Hedone (#82)
  • St John (#84).

There is also the highest new entry, Disfrutar at number 18. It looks like our trips to Barcelona will need to be extended yet again.