Basic Definition: What is the Michelin Star System? The very finest restaurants in the world have been identified according to a prestigious rating and critiquing process called the Michelin Star system. One, two or a maximum of three Michelin stars (fondly referred to "macarons" by many in the industry) may be awarded, or revoked, depending on the assessment of a given restaurant’s level of excellence by anonymous inspectors who are sometimes jokingly called "secret agents". This information is made available in the annually published and updated Michelin reference guide book, the world famous "Red Guide" and the Michelin System is generally recognized throughout the world as the most prestigious ranking in the restaurant industry.
The Meaning of the Stars: Don't be misled: assuming that only one Michelin star equates to an average or unremarkable rating would be incorrect. To the contrary, the overwhelming majority of restaurants will never be able to boast even a single Michelin star. In fact, the display of just one such star means that a restaurant belongs to the cream of the cream of a minuscule elite of fine dining establishments. Out of the millions of restaurants found throughout the world, only a small fraction will ever possess a Michelin star --less than 2000. The number of establishments that pride themselves on having two stars is even more exclusive at less than 500. As for three-Michelin starred eateries (the grandest distinction of which a restaurateur could ever dream) fewer than 300 such establishments exist worldwide (in 2018 there were 28 in France, 14 in the USA and over 30 in Japan).
The Michelin guide provides an understated explanation for what its stars represent:
- a one-star rating rewards “a very good restaurant in its category”;
- a two-star rating guarantees “excellent cuisine, worth a detour”;
- a three-star rating promises “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”.
Do not be fooled by the simplicity of the Michelin guide’s language! Let's break it down: the phrase “in its category” alludes to the select group of overachieving dining establishments headed by chefs who aspire to presenting food as an art that appeals to all the senses (not as mere nourishment). At the next level, the expression “worth a detour” actually means that fine diners and connoisseurs will make a special long distance trip of several hours if they happen to be in the area specifically to eat in these restaurants. While in the highest category, “worth a special journey” has diners booking reservations months or a year in advance and taking a flight especially to experience the brilliant artistic preparation of food in a chef’s unique personal style which usually features an exceptional ability to elevate the local ingredients to new heights using the world's most refined skills.
Most of Michelin starred restaurants have an adjoining boutique hotel where many guests spend the night for the sake of convenience but also as a way to further prolong the divine experience.
In terms of magnetism, the stars now exceed their original intention. In 1900 the guide began being published as a general road-tripper guidebook. In 1920 they published the first edition dedicated exclusively to restaurants. Then in 1926 they added the one star rating. These days a one-star restaurant will draw customers from all over the given region (and beyond) where it is located. It wasn't until 1933 that the full range of three stars was introduced. Now, a two-star restaurant will draw customers from the entire country (and beyond) where it is located. A three-star restaurant (there are so few of them!) will draw international customers from the entire world.
Incidentally, let’s be clear that it is not because a restaurant does not have any Michelin star that it is not a good one. There are wonderful gastronomic restaurants that don't aspire to earn a star and some of my favorite eateries are holes in the wall that could never even dream of qualifying for a star.
Is This the Right Kind of Restaurant for Me? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” especially if you love tasty, genuine cuisine. All will be very welcome, and anyone can enjoy the experience --except perhaps those who only like chains or fastfood joints. Do not let yourself intimidated. They are fancy restaurants for sure, but all you need to do is make a reservation, dress nicely, and let yourself be transported by the quality. Is it going to be expensive? Well, yes and no. It is more expensive than more simple restaurants, but I have seen many fancy establishments with no star in the same price range as a one-star Michelin restaurant and often I will eat in a "nice" restaurant in Austin, Texas and think to myself "Wow, I could have just eaten in a Michelin Star restaurant in France for that price." In fact, here is a hot tip to experience this type of luxury relatively cheaply. Many one-star Michelin restaurants offer a special lunch menu priced around 30 euros. It may be more money than what you are used to paying for lunch, but it is a very good deal worth every penny as you can expect a special treat and a unique experience. Some restaurants even offer this kind of price range for dinner if you order a simple menu, like the entrée of the day paired with a dessert. And if you do it in France, remember that service and taxes are included in the sticker price. No 20% tip to add to the bill at the end! Full dinner menus at a one-star restaurant will typically cost you between 50 and 100 euros per person, depending on the set menu you select. We are talking about a full meal composed of four or five successive courses. Two and three-star restaurants are very expensive and will cost between 100 and 300 euros per person or more.
What Kind of Experience Can I Expect? First, the dining space and décor will be sophisticated, refined and beautiful. The service should be flawless, thorough and very attentive (rumor has it that Michelin's "secret agent" critics will intentionally drop an item of silverware to see how quickly and efficiently it is retrieved --and though Michelin says this isn't really true, the mere existence of this legend is a reflection of the exceedingly high level of service). Each table is waited on by several highly trained staff members, each with a specific task, who will make you feel like royalty. The quality of the food served will be unsurpassed. For starters, what you eat will have been sourced from the best providers on the market. It could be your chance to eat top quality luxury foods like truffles, lobster, or foie gras. The food will be arranged on the plates to look like beautiful works of art that you will reluctantly break apart only because they will be so mouthwatering. The skills and creativity of the chef will be on full display to ensure that your food is delicious and unlike anything you have had before. It may very well be the tastiest meal you have ever had. You can also expect to be served complimentary items that are not on your menu, like amuses-bouches, a small hors-d’oeuvre that may come before your first course, or miniature pastries with your cup of coffee at the end of the meal.
Our objective at Sojourner Tours is for our guests to sample the full range of culinary experiences that make France a culinary destination. Therefore, we take great pleasure in selecting a wide range of fun and fabulous restaurants for our guests: we take our guests to some places because they are perfect to sample the regional gastronomy of a given area, others are the local people’s favorites, or they are situated in a breathtaking place. Whether visiting Provence, Catalonia, Périgord, or Franche-Comté, our guests eat at least one meal at a Michelin star restaurant during their stay so they get a chance to savor this one of a kind culinary artistry.
Star Criteria: The Michelin guide remains quite secretive about its evaluation process. It employs professional critics (a.k.a. "inspectors" or, more popularly, "secret agents") who pay periodic unscheduled visits to aspiring or standing starred establishments. They never identify themselves because remaining anonymous is the only way to ensure that restaurants they inspect don't "put on a show" for them that would be different from what an average customer would experience. What we do know is that restaurants are assessed on the quality and freshness of the ingredients, level of sophistication and innovation in the food preparation, the chef’s mastery of cooking techniques, the chef’s creative application of skill, presentation, the quality of the service, the overall experience including the setting, and the consistency of those key criteria between visits.
Benefits for Chefs / Owners: Michelin stars are widely considered a double edged sword. On the one side, having one or more stars brings recognition, heightened reputation, media attention and fame. The acquisition or loss of a star can have dramatic effects on the success of a restaurant. Once a chef earns a star, he or she can expect a lot of new business. However, on the other side, a lot of pressure also comes with this blessing as maintaining constant quality on many fronts and continuing to innovate can be a challenge which may be doable but exhausting. This kind of challenge has led some chefs to "give back" their stars such as Sebastien Bras who was exhausted after maintaining three stars with his father for two decades.
A Bit of History: The Michelin name rings a bell, but evokes a car tire company to you? Well then, you are right. You might be surprised to learn that this top restaurant rating system was not only created by but is still run by the French Michelin tire company. What is the connection between such eateries and car tires, you might legitimately wonder? At the turn of the 20th century, there were less than five thousand cars on French roads. Brothers Edouard and André Michelin, who had recently created a successful tire company, were creatively thinking about ways to boost demand for the novelty that cars, incidentally equipped with Michelin tires, were. They had the brilliant idea to compile and publish a guide for French motorists that would incite them to use their vehicles to go on road trips with the ultimate outcome of putting rubber on the roads to use those tires. The first guide, which was free, advertised the location of hotels, restaurants, gas stations but also included road maps and information on car mechanics. French culture being what it is, the guide gradually evolved to focus on fine dining establishments and the star rating system the Michelin guide developed eventually became the international beacon of restaurant excellence.