People have been debating the quality of different towns' food as long as there's been permanent settlement. Back in old Babylonia, there were probably great arguments over who had the best flatbreads, Ur or Sumer. But until recently, it was hard to agree on a global standard by which to compare cities across the world. Every city has its own restaurant critic -- but can you really judge four stars from the New York Times the same way you judge four bowls of soup from Singapore's Makansutra guide? Of course not.
But there is one guide that might hold a tentative key: Michelin. The tire company has gotten flack in recent years, from all sorts of parties -- it's been criticized for its lack of financial responsibility and for failing to understand many markets. But at the same time, the Red Guide has done a remarkable job expanding its restaurant coverage beyond Europe and into Asia and North America. By doing so, it has become a global standard for ranking restaurants. Say what you will about Franco-centrism and ludicrous expense, a restaurant with three Michelin stars is going to be very good, if not necessarily amazing.
That's why we at HuffPost Food have decided to rank world cities on the basis of Michelin stars per capita. We've excluded cities with fewer than 100,000 residents, because the data get noisy in small towns... Does Fontjoncouse really deserve the title of the best restaurant town in the world, merely because it's the smallest hamlet with a three-star restaurant? No. And changes in the stars at individual restaurants in small towns could dramatically change that city's ranking. If Cyrus, in Healdsburg, CA, were to get its third star next year, for example, that would increase the town's per capita stars from 17 to 78, without really changing Healdsburg's merit as a restaurant town per se.
That said, there were a few towns we wish could have made it onto our list, but were too small for inclusion: Courchevel, Los Gatos, Monte Carlo, Valence, Yountville. These all had multiple Michelin-starred restaurants, and are excellent dining destinations in their own right. (Though Yountville is not, as it claims, the most Michelin-starred place in the world. At 205 stars per 100,000 people, it's certainly impressive -- but French ski town Courchevel has 468, and Saint Bonnet-Le-Froid has 1351.)
What we were most interested in, though, were major cities. There were some fascinating results. The big losers were cities in Germanic language-speaking countries. New York, London, Vienna and Berlin all performed badly. (There are a few notable exceptions, though, as you'll see in the slideshow.) The big winners were, unsurprisingly, France, Italy and Japan. Some of their success was tied in with Michelin's priorities and strategy. There isn't a Michelin guide for Johannesburg or Chongqing, so those cities are not eligible for this list. But there's also something to be said for the style of haute cuisine only available in the cities where Michelin has a guide -- and few do that better than the French, Italians and Japanese.
One quick note: We considered New York as one city, with over eight million residents and five boroughs. This gave it a relatively low -- albeit not embarrassing -- ranking, comparable to Amsterdam and Frankfurt. But if we'd let Manhattan stand on its own, it would have had an impressive 4.2 Michelin stars per 100,000 residents, which would place it number seven on the list.
Here is our slideshow of the 20 best restaurant cities in the world, determined by Michelin stars per 100,000 residents. Note: since this post was first published, the data have shifted somewhat. This process has pushed out some cities initially on the list in favor of others. The top nine, at least, are unaffected: