The Michelin Guide: A Snobbish Tradition
By Andrew Court
Let us undertake a thought experiment.
It’s late afternoon in 1928, and you’ve just snaked Hemingway’s date from the Ritz Bar. She didn’t want to go eat sauerkraut with him again at Brasserie Lipp anyway. Now this femme fatale is sitting in the passenger seat of your Bugatti 35b blasting through the roundabouts of Paris. The trouble is that you just arrived from Cannes and don’t know the restaurant scene;what do you do?
Then, you remember the Michelin guide. You reach into your glovebox and thumb through it. Quickly, you find the perfect spot and point the sports car in its direction.
This now famous guide started with modest intentions. The Michelin tire company was founded in 1889 to service a then hot new startup sector, the automotive industry. Cars were cool, but people didn’t really know what to do with them. André and Édouard Michelin had an idea: publish a road guide as a way to promote automobile tourism and, thus, boost tire sales. Initially, it focused on practical information for motorists, such as maps, maintenance tips, and roadside assistance. These maps would be very helpful for troops during World War II.
It also included a listing of hotels and restaurants to cater to the needs of travelers. This slowly evolved into the focus of the guide.
Road guides already existed, but one thing helped Michelin stand apart. They didn’t accept paid advertisements, so you knew their reviews were genuine. In 1926, the guide introduced its famous star rating system to recognize exceptional dining establishments. It has since become synonymous with haute cuisine and expanded to over 30 countries.
Let’s face it:the French are douche bags, and they love to judge. In a world of grade inflation, where every Uber driver is 5-star, their system takes some getting used to. As it was originally conceived for motorists, one Michelin star meant the restaurant was worthy of a stop along the way, two stars meant it was worth a detour, and three stars meant that you ought to make a special journey to visit the restaurant. Today, one star is excellent, and three means you better have a personal assistant camped outside to get a reservation six months in advance.
In 2023, why would you listen to these French snobs over crowdsourced platforms like Yelp and TripAdvisor? Crucially, with the Michelin Guide you’re not counting on the wisdom of Becky from Indiana to give you advice. The Michelin Guide sends out legions of anonymous reviewers to carefully evaluate restaurants. Because they’re anonymous, owners can’t give them an experience unavailable to the regular consumer. It’s definitely elitist, but it’s also meritocratic.
Over the years, there’s been a lot of criticism. Many claim they are too rigid and force chefs to avoid risks. Gordon Ramsay weeped when his restaurant, The London, lost both its stars. In 2003, a French chef committed suicide when he was dropped. A rogue inspector who broke away from the organization basically claimed that up to a third of the three star restaurants didn’t deserve the award and were only there because of legacy.
The guide clearly favors French and Japanese, the two most anal-retentive cuisines, over others like Italian or Greek. Overall, it’s definitely biased towards the taste of a black turtleneck wearing Parisian with more bottles of burgundy in his cave than you’ve got ammo in your safe.
All that being said, you’re most likely not going to be wronged by trusting them.
I’m not rich or connected enough to go to any of the three star spots, but last week I did use the guide to find a place for my girlfriend’s birthday. We went to Tempura Matsui, the only authentic Tempura Omakase in the United States and one of the 147 one Michelin Star restaurants nationwide. The experience, with the OCD precision of a Geisha tea ceremony, lived up to the award. Everything was perfectly timed, and the food arrived in multiple tiny courses individually served and explained. At the end, I felt bathed in a serene affluent warmth. It’s not an everyday experience but perfect for a special occasion.
The reviewers do indeed have a thing for delicately presented French small plates. I suggest keeping a Big Mac in your glovebox for the ride home.