The Best of Times
One conclusion drawn from reading the first 24 years’ worth of Robb Report’s Best of the Best is that it has become better over time, evolving from an autos-only feature to a wider-ranging readers’ survey to the current format, in which we dedicate the entire issue to selections by our editors, writers, and other experts covering everything from cars to cigars, restaurants to resorts, jets to jewelry.
After focusing on automobiles exclusively in the first Best of the Best in 1989 and in a follow-up in 1990, we altered the format for the 1991 through 1997 issues, for which we asked readers to fill out and mail in ballots that we had tucked into the February or March issues. The voting yielded valuable insight and, occasionally, curious outcomes. For instance, in 1997, when we still ranked the runners-up numerically, Manhattan’s Le Cirque received the Argo treatment from readers: They voted it first among the Best Restaurants Worldwide and fifth among the Best U.S. Restaurants.
The 11th edition of Best of the Best, in 1999, marked the first time the feature ran from cover to cover. But sometimes it was difficult to distinguish one year’s issue from another’s, because what was best 12 months earlier often remained the best. So beginning with the 2004 issue, we narrowed our focus to new or redesigned, refurbished, or renovated items. This shift has allowed us to recognize—and alert readers to—the achievements of many more companies and individuals and not leave the impression that we are snubbing or scorning old favorites.
Through the years, we have included a handful of one-off honors, such as Best Croquet Equipment (Jaques of London, 2003) and Best Dry Cleaner (Madame Paulette, 2002), and we have introduced some one-and-done wrinkles. In 1996 we invited a few famous readers to contribute their own Best of the Best lists. Donald Trump noted that real estate and casino development was his Best Investment and Brioni was the Best Clothing Designer, and he agreed with the racecar driver Al Unser Jr. that the Mercedes-Benz S600 was the Best Luxury Car. Unser declared that the Best Champagne was “Chandon in the victory circle.” The filmmaker Blake Edwards revealed that his Best Investment was his first typewriter. In 1995 we asked readers also to select the Worst of the Worst, and they gleefully sank to the occasion. They dubbed Mexico the Worst Place to Visit and Hyundai the Worst Car Made Today.
In recent years, however, the Mandarin Oriental Riviera Maya, the Imanta resort in Punta de Mita, the Greg Norman golf course at Mayakoba, and Capella Ixtapa all have been Best of the Best selections. And senior correspondent Paul Dean, one of our resident auto experts, lobbied hard for the Hyundai Equus to be included among this year’s Best Sedans. So things do indeed change, including perceptions and tastes. Maybe 25 years from now, when we are preparing our 50th annual edition, today’s worsts will have become Best of the Best mainstays like the ones featured on the following pages.
The 50-year-old Porsche 911 is iconic in the true sense: For devotees it is an object of worship. Why? An answer came in the form of a question from a reader who chose the 911 as the Best Fun Car in 1991. “Have you ever driven one?” he asked. Either a Turbo, Carrera, GT3, or Targa has appeared in the Best Sports Cars category in most Best of the Best editions, including this year’s (the 2013 Carrera 4S); a Turbo won in 2002. The GT3, the first production car to complete a lap at the Nürburgring in less than eight minutes, was the Best Performance Car in 2000, and a Turbo Cabriolet claimed top honors for convertibles in 2008.
The Lamborghini Diablo—named, like other models from the Italian marque, for a fighting bull—debuted in 1990 and first appeared in Best of the Best two years later, when we introduced the Best Exotic Cars category. The Diablo and its variants won the category that first year and each of the next five, because they were, as one reader noted in 1992, “totally awesome.”
After 1997, the Diablo continued to earn a spot among the Best Exotic Cars, but it never won again. On its third-place finish in 1999, we deemed the Diablo VT Roadster “sinister—even mean—and the most raucous V-12 in production.” But we chided its dated Marcello Gandini design: “In a world where automobiles improve at an alarming rate, the Diablo is showing its age.” Lamborghini evidently agreed, because it ceased production of the model two years later. The Diablo last bedeviled the Best of the Best in 2001, when the GT was a finalist in the Best Sports/Exotic Cars category. However, Lamborghinis have continued to make our list. This year we selected the 2013 Aventador LP700-4 Roadster as one of the Best Convertibles.
We have been enthralled by Italy’s snorting bulls and enchanted by France’s shimmering cats. Since the Cartier Panthère motif prowled onto the scene in 1914, the Parisian jewelry house has styled the panther into bejeweled watches, brooches, bracelets, rings, and necklaces. And it was Cartier, not Odeon, that released a feline-themed perfume, in 1986. Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, was a Cartier-cat person. She was particularly fond of a breathtaking onyx-and-diamond piece from 1952 that rendered the panther as an elegant flexible bracelet. In 2010 the bracelet sold for $7 million at a Sotheby’s auction.
Cartier has appeared in every Best of the Best issue that has covered jewelry. Twice we singled out its Panthère collections for the highest praise: In 2004 we reveled in an $850,000 diamond-and-sapphire brooch that dangled a 65-carat blue sapphire from the cat’s paws, and last year a sapphire bead necklace graced with a diamond-and-sapphire feline had us purring.
Before we rewrote the Best of the Best criteria to limit consideration to recently opened or fully renovated courses, Pebble Beach appeared in the golf section as reliably as Tiger used to win majors. “I smiled the whole time I played,” wrote a reader in 1991, the first year that we included the Links course or affiliated properties. Pebble Beach was last eligible in 2003, when Casa Palmero at Pebble Beach opened in time to make the Best U.S. Golf Resorts list. We took the opportunity to praise Casa Palmero’s sister property, the legendary Lodge at Pebble Beach. “It has become almost a cliché to include the Lodge at Pebble Beach on any list of the country’s top golf resorts,” we wrote. “When you combine the incomparable [Pebble Beach Golf Links] golf course with the Lodge’s reputation as a hostelry of distinction, placing the Lodge on the list is the equivalent of a two-inch tap-in: It’s automatic.”
The Moët & Chandon–produced Dom Pérignon Champagne has seldom missed the Best of the Best cut. It won the Best Champagnes category from 1991 through 1997, and readers praised in particular the 1969 and 1983 vintages. Later Best of the Best mentions were more precise. Cuvée Dom Pérignon Rosé, Vintage 1986, won the Best Aperitifs category in 1999, when we lauded it as “the ultimate launch for any evening. . . . The unique flavor and relative rarity of this Champagne never fail to elicit favorable comments whenever it is served.” More recently, the Dom Pérignon 1990 Oenothèque Rosé was a 2010 finalist for Best International White Wine. We gushed, “The texture is light as sea foam, and the astounding procession of flavors—orange, cherry lozenge, cardamom, butterscotch, and brioche—culminates in a breathtaking, briny finish.”
The 1999 Moët & Chandon Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon earned a spot on the 2008 Best International Sparkling and Dessert Wines list. “On the palate, it delivers full, elegant flavors of ripe fruit and spice,” we wrote. “The stars have rarely tasted so delicious.” Regarding those stars—the Champagne’s namesake, Dom Pierre Pérignon, never sipped the wine and exclaimed, “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” A 19th-century advertising writer put those words in his mouth. The Benedictine monk did not invent sparkling wine, either. But this much is true: He took seriously his role as cellarer of the abbey of Saint-Vannes, working tirelessly to improve its vintages—and Champagne is better for it.
Hotels and resorts are similarly better for the benchmarks set by Four Seasons. While several hotel and resort brands recur in the Best of the Best—The Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, Mandarin Oriental, Amanresorts—none has appeared as frequently as Four Seasons, which over the years has had its properties win or rank in five Best of the Best categories: hotels, resorts, golf resorts, spas, and even swimming pools. Last year, the pool at the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea prompted us to honor its unique excellence. This year, the Four Seasons Toronto, located in the city where the brand was founded—as a motor lodge in 1961—and is headquartered, is a runner-up in the Best Hotels category.
The diversity of the Four Seasons properties we have selected is as remarkable as their geographic spread. The Four Seasons George V in Paris, which won the Best Hotels category in 2000 and 2003, is a refined urban paradise. The beach villas and other lodgings at the Four Seasons Resort Langkawi in Malaysia (named Best Resort in 2006) are arranged on the 48-acre property to resemble a Malay village. About the only thing these properties have in common is their adherence to Four Seasons’ standards of excellence.
Chef Thomas Keller, the owner of the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se in Manhattan, has proven to be as skilled at grooming talent as he is at preparing meals. Keller and the French Laundry made their Best of the Best debuts in 1998, as runners-up in the Best Chefs and Best Restaurants categories. In 2005—the year Per Se won the Best Restaurants category—Eric Ziebold became the first of the French Laundry alumni to make it into the Best of the Best. His CityZen restaurant, located in the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Washington, D.C., was a runner-up to Per Se. Grant Achatz’s Chicago restaurant Alinea joined the 2006 finalists, and Corey Lee’s San Francisco restaurant, Benu, followed in 2011. Last year, Achatz became the first Keller protégé to win the Best Restaurants title, with his Chicago restaurant Next. A 2012 runner-up, Restaurant 1833, represented another milestone: The Monterey, Calif., establishment is helmed by Levi Mezick, who honed his skills in the kitchen at Per Se, not the French Laundry.
Casinos had their own category from 1992 through 2000, and Caesars Palace in Las Vegas won the laurels in five of those nine years. Readers heaped praise on everything that the Strip stalwart had to offer: its restaurants, its shows, its location, its perks, its fantasy suites, its fight-night supremacy, its high-limit bets, even its architecture. One reader explained his fondness for Caesars by proclaiming, “I won big there.”
By the time we removed casinos from the lineup in 2001, Las Vegas was beginning to lure gastronomes as well as gamblers, as world-class restaurants opened and offered alternatives to the all-you-can-eat buffets. Best of the Best began celebrating this transformation in 2004, when we selected chef Bradley Ogden’s namesake restaurant at Caesars Palace as the Best Dining winner. (The restaurant closed last year.)
MGM Grand raised the stakes by luring the legendary Parisian chef Joël Robuchon from the City of Light to the bright-light city. His Las Vegas restaurants Joël Robuchon at the Mansion and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon earned Best Dining cowinner honors in 2006, shortly after they opened. Restaurant Guy Savoy, another Caesars Palace restaurant, was 2007’s Best Dining victor, and a pair of Mario Batali establishments in the Venetian—Carnevino and B&B Ristorante—joined the 2008 Best Dining runners-up.
Pierre Gagnaire’s Twist is the most recent Best Dining honoree from Las Vegas. The 2010 runner-up is located in the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas, which is part of the CityCenter Las Vegas, a complex that may epitomize the city’s transformation from a gambling mecca into a more complete and completely contemporary luxury destination. In addition to fine dining, high-end hotels and residences, and gaming, CityCenter also features spas, luxury-goods shops (Cartier, Bulgari, Harry Winston), and art galleries. It sits in part on the former site of the Boardwalk Hotel and Casino, a Coney Island–themed property whose draws included a 75-seat race and sports book, a 24-hour buffet, and the Prince cover band Purple Reign.
Something Old, Something New
One does not have to be an automobile enthusiast to appreciate the beauty of a Mercedes-Benz Gullwing—the original SL300 from 1954 or the modern SLS AMG. In 1993, Robb Report readers selected the SL300 as the Best Car Ever Made. The Bugatti Royale and the AC Shelby Cobra 427 were among the runners-up.
When Mercedes-Benz finally produced another sports car with gullwing doors, in 2010, the SLS AMG roared to victory in the Best Sports Cars category. We called it “a gimmick-free $200,000 supercar that acquits itself nicely as a no-nonsense, real-world daily driver.” Two years later, Mercedes-Benz released the SLS AMG Roadster. Though its gullwings had been clipped, we still liked the car enough to name it a Best Convertibles finalist. This year, Mercedes-Benz has made the best even better by releasing a Black Series version of the SLS AMG. Compared to the base model, it has less weight and more horsepower—and it still has its gullwing doors.
The Black Series is one of three Mercedes-Benz vehicles featured in this year’s Best of the Best. That keeps the marque’s streak going: Mercedes-Benz is the only entity to have earned mention in all 25 editions of Best of the Best. Here’s to the next 25.