Worlds Best Bars 2020: Dispatches from France

Well, in one of the weirdest damn years I’ve ever lived, one thing remains constant in this “new normal” and that’s the announcement of the World’s 50 Best Bars. Since you are very likely staying safe at home rather than enjoying drinks in one of these notable establishments, I’ll take the occasion to share some ruminations and observations on this year’s list and its current direction.

And the winner is….

Let’s not bury the lead here! Everyone always wants to know who came out on top and this year it’s the Connaught. With no disrespect to any of the other fine past winners, I’m kind of surprised it took this long to take No. 1. This swanky hotel bar has made the list a previous 10 times (only 1 other bar – Employees Only – has made the list all 12 times). 

Thanks to the beautiful bespoke martini trolley, the Connaught is on my regular rotation for martinis when in London, and as you should expect from a hotel of this calibre, its bar never falls short of impeccable service and steller drinks.

I often wonder if high end hotel bars, with their five star guest pampering, have a little leg up when it comes to rating in lists like this. Although I imagine running a bar in a hotel must also have challenges with decisions often being made from elsewhere in the organization that may not have the same cocktail knowledge as the bar manager. Over the past 12 years, the top spot has been held by a hotel bar 7 times. 

Wondering what else made the cut? You can find the full list of the fifty bars here

New York hit the top 50 list with five bars for 2020

Thanks to Covid, things were a little different this year…

With lockdowns going on left and right, things were definitely different this year. Normally when voting happens in late springtime, academy members can select any bars they have visited in the 18 months prior. This year, voters were prohibited from voting for any bar visited after March of 2020, to keep the playing field level and compare all bars before Covid-19 started wreaking havoc. 

Also, this year’s awards ceremony went virtual. The ceremony, usually held in London, is a great time and usually accompanied by other cocktail related activities. Of course virtual events mean less face-to-face fun, festivities and networking. But, I guess the upside is less chance of a hangover the morning after. Though I look forward to a return to the ceremonies in real life, World’s 50 Best Bars did a  pretty good job of building a little excitement and entertainment into the virtual version.  

London is the home of the No. 1 bar for 2020: The Connaught

Things have been changing on an organizational level…

It’s natural for a list like this and the mechanisms behind it to shift with the times. The World’s Best 50 Bars launched in 2009 and has grown in popularity and recognition over the past 12 years. 

The group responsible for the World’s 50 Best restaurants, William Reed Media, took over the World’s 50 Best Bars from Drinks International in 2018. At that time the list of voters, which had always been publicly posted, became confidential.  Also around this time, some pretty consistent regulars dropped off including Candelaria, Black Pearl, Oriole, Tales & Spirits, Tommy’s and Black Tail (the last of which had only been on two years, but made the list just after opening). Given the list still held plenty of reputable bars that earned their place, I take this as an indication of a positive freshening up of the voting panel and reduction of any echo chamber effect.

Additionally, this year regional Academy Chairs were appointed to build and manage voting panels in their areas. This was also the first year voting panels were required to have a 50/50 gender split.  Personally, as the Academy Chair for France, I put a lot of thought into selecting the panel, striving for variety in backgrounds and positions and members with sound and solid enough knowledge and experience to make fair and worthy choices. While I didn’t ask to see the previous list of voters in France so as not to influence my decisions, I assumed that some past voters would end up being shuffled off the list to make room for a more gender balanced panel. While nothing is perfect, I believe that decentralizing the responsibility of selecting panels by region strengthens the integrity of the Academy.

To hear a bit more about the state of the list and the workings behind it, check out my recent interview with Mark Sansom, Content Editor for the World’s 50 Best Bars and the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, on Paris Cocktail Talk.

Singapore has been getting plenty of praise for its growing cocktail scene

Some overall impressions about this year’s list…

There has been a lot of chatter about Asia becoming a bigger player in terms of cocktails and this list certainly reflects that, with the region placing 15 bars. Given how much Asia-related cocktail talk I’ve been hearing and my own experiences in Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan and Thailand, it doesn’t surprise me that the area is coming up in the list. 

More surprising was the US showing, which was its lowest yet with only 5 bars hitting the list. And, those five accounted for almost all of the North American bars with only one other winner from Mexico, Licorería Limantour. While Hamish Smith, Bars Editor of Drinks International and also an Academy Chair, posits this is akin to France losing its culinary cred in the recent past before bouncing back again. As an American living in Paris for two nearly two decades, I find that an interesting comparison, but ultimately a little off the mark. While France’s culinary woes may have historically resulted from resting on their laurels and chauvinistic bent, discouraging influxes of new ideas and inspirations, I don’t think the US rankings result from a lack of effort, ability, experiences or enthusiasm. [I think a more appropriate comparison is when Tokyo beat Paris for the number of michelin stars awarded in 2009]. Perhaps, it reflects voters looking beyond their borders, traveling more and changing expectations. And, also a little bit the luck of the draw – ‘best’ is subjective, after all.

What was a little more disappointing to me is that all the US bars are located in New York. Speaking to a cocktail contact in Seattle, she commented that the west coast often feels shut out from the list. That’s a shame, because there are some great bars from Seattle down to LA. However, like London, New York is a hub and likely pulls in a larger percentage of voters on their travels. Other US cities do figure in the list from 51 – 100 with Cafe La Trova (Miami), Pacific Cocktail Haven and Trick Dog (San Francisco) and Kumiko (Chicago). The fact that most of the selections in this batch are new entries, also hints as changes to the voting panel and, thus bringing in new bar ideas and expanding horizons.

France only had one bar in both 2019 and 2020 on the Best Bars list

France seems to be falling a bit behind on the list…

Like last year, Little Red Door was the only bar in France to hit the top 50. So, why do they keep hitting the list? In my opinion, they are a successful combination of cool decor, ambience and stand out cocktails. They’ve had some solid talent behind the bar for many years and it shows through in their drinks and conceptual menus. Ask Daniel Schmidt, CEO of the Bonomy Group to which the bar belongs, and he points to their key message: “At Little Red Door our approach to menu design is a team effort, never giving in to complacency and the sincere ability to accept self and team criticism”. Whatever it is, it’s working for them. If you look past the top 50, we do have two other bars that hit the top 100 with Danico at 55 and Le Syndicat at 79. 

Much like the US, though, I’d love to see some bars outside of the capital figure among the World’s 50 Best Bars, because many French cities are amping up their cocktail game nicely. And though I have no idea what will happen in terms of travel or voting for the 2021 list, I wonder if potential travel restrictions will dampen long haul trips and encourage more domestic travel within France. So, maybe the French panel will have a more indepth knowledge of what’s available in their own country.

As already mentioned above, we see a dropping off of a few Paris bars as of 2018, and you can find more detailed coverage on France in the first ten years of the World’s Best 50 Bars with my post A Recent History of Paris in the World’s 50 Best Bars List.

So, what does the future hold? 

It will be interesting to see what next year holds as Covid continues to limit industry activities. For 2020, I had plenty of domestic and international trips planned and then cancelled due to confinement including Africa, Asia and various European cities, including within France. That would have given me more opportunity to explore both at home and in lesser represented countries. But, instead – like most of the other judges – I’ve mainly just been at home. So, there’s no question that there will be some big effects

I asked François Monti, Vermouth, Spirit, and Cocktail Writer & Educator, as well as a fellow Academy Chair, his thoughts on the current and future state of the list:

Oddly enough I thought last year’s top 50 provided more shocks. There have been changes, but not as many as last year, and the top two have remained stable. I always liked to look at 51-100, as that’s where the top 50 of tomorrow starts taking shape and the signs are clear: the Asian wave will not ebb. I’ve been expecting an Asian number 1 in 2019 and in 2020, so what do I know… but it looks like a good bet for 2021. Interestingly, behind Asia, the biggest provider of new bars in the 51-100 list is North America, which has been the big loser in regional terms this year. It looks like the new wave is on its way for next year, and we could see a rebalancing. However, the pandemic has been merciless with the US bar scene and I’m afraid it will have a huge impact on the 2021 list.

I can’t say I disagree with that. 

I have other questions for the future: Will Employees Only stick it out as the only bar to land on the list every year? Will France get more bars in the top 50? Will the Clumsies stick it out in the top and maybe creep up to No. 1? How will the voting be handled with all of the confinements and Covid closures? 

If you want more Best Bars talk, there has been a lot of other coverage of this year’s list like:

Drinks international Global Bar issue

Lecciones de World’s 50 Best Bars 2020 by Francois Monti (in Spanish)

The World’s 50 best bars 2020, the show must go on at Alambic magazine (in French)

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