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What Are the Michelin Stars?

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Michelin Guides

Getty Images Entertainment/Junko Kimura

The term "Michelin Star" is a hallmark of fine dining quality and restaurants around the world tout their Michelin Star status.  Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay cried when the Michelin Guide stripped the stars from his New York restaurant, calling the food "erratic."  Ramsay explained that losing the stars was like "losing a girlfriend."  

Of course, the hilarious part of all this is that this prestigious restaurant rating is from a . . . tire company.  Yes, the same Michelin that sells tires also doles out restaurant ratings.  

Michelin's Anonymous Reviewers

Michelin has a long history of reviewing restaurants, actually.  In 1900, the Michelin tire company launched its first guidebook to encourage road tripping in France.  In 1926, it started sending out anonymous restaurant reviewers to try restaurants.  

To this day, Michelin relies entirely on its full-time staff of anonymous restaurant reviewers.  The anonymous reviewers generally are very passionate about food, have a good eye for detail, and have a great taste memory to recall and compare types of foods.  A reviewer has said that they must be a "chameleon" who can blend in with all of their surroundings, to appear as if they are an ordinary consumer.

Each time a reviewer goes to a restaurant, they write a thorough memorandum about their experience and then all of the reviewers come together to discuss and decide on which restaurants will be awarded the stars.

In this way, the Michelin stars are very different than Zagat and Yelp, which rely on consumer feedback via the Internet.  Zagat tallies restaurants anonymously based on surveyed reviews of diners and consumers while Yelp tallies stars based on user reviews provided online subjecting the company to a number of lawsuits associated with its filtering system.  Michelin does not use any consumer reviews in making its restaurant determinations.

Michelin Stars Defined

Michelin awards 0 to 3 stars on the basis of the anonymous reviews.  The reviewers concentrate on the quality, mastery of technique, personality and consistency of the food, in making the reviews.  They do not look at interior decor, table setting, or service quality in awarding stars, though the guide shows forks and spoons which describes how fancy or casual a restaurant may be.

The stars are awarded as follows:

  • One star:  A good place to stop on your journey, indicating a very good restaurant in its category, offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard.
  • Two stars: A restaurant worth a detour, indicating excellent cuisine and skillfully and carefully crafted dishes of outstanding quality
  • Three stars: A restaurant worth a special journey, indicating exceptional cuisine where diners eat extremely well, often superbly. Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients.

Michelin also awards a "bib gourmand" for quality food at a value price.  In New York, that would be two courses plus wine or dessert for $40 or less, excluding tax and tip.

These stars are coveted because the vast majority of restaurants receive no stars at all.  For example, the Michelin Guide to Chicago 2014 includes almost 500 restaurants.  Only one restaurant received three stars; four restaurants received two stars; and 20 restaurants received one star.  

Where You Can Find Michelin Guides

In the United States, you can only find Michelin Guides in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco.  The company has said that they are considering expanding into other locations, including Washington DC and Atlanta.

Michelin Guide Criticisms

Many have criticized the guides as being biased towards French cuisine, style, and technique, or towards a snobby, formal dining style, rather than a casual atmosphere.  A tell-all book from a Michelin inspector in 2004 complained that the guides are understaffed, out of date, and pander to big name chefs.

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