rumination 18: bibendum in america…

I’m going to say this upfront: I’m no expert on the Michelin guides.

But I have used them for years, referring to them for dining advice in dozens of countries across three continents.  And, in my limited experience, I’ve found them generally reliable in Europe (though it varies with each country), less so in the United States, and nearly useless in Hong Kong (I have not been to Japan to test the guide there, although I’ve heard that it comports with the vetted consensus).  It goes without saying that I make these claims based on my personal experience in Michelin-rated restaurants, and not out of some non-existent, subjective standard.

Who cares?  Yes, I know there are many who are indifferent (whether real or feigned) about the Michelin guide. If you’re one of them, feel free to stop reading here.

But the fact remains, those little guides rouges are still one of the most powerful and influential authorities in dining today. Every year, Bibendum’s announcements cause a flurry and fluster among the very best in the food and beverage industry across the world.  And, despite wide-spread cynicism, Michelin’s constellations are still weighty and important, if not the weightiest and most important.  Unlike the voting body for the San Pellegrino’s list of 50 Best Restaurants in the World (which I personally find to be a cloutless club, perpetuated and preserved by members within), Michelin’s inspectors are unassociated with the restaurant industry, and remain anonymous. And, if we are to believe their claims, they eat extensively and repeatedly at restaurants before arriving at their ratings.

But I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with the Michelin guides in the U.S. since they first arrived on our shores in 2006.  My primary problem with their ratings here stems from the fact that Michelin maintains that their standard of review is the same around the world. After having eaten well over two hundred Michelin stars in the past seven years, I don’t think this is true.* There is star inflation in the U.S., at all levels.  This is not to say that there aren’t restaurants in the U.S. that merit their ratings – many of them do. But I find a lot of restaurants in the U.S. guides are overrated, diluting Michelin’s reputation and authority.

Why stir the pot?

Because, I do think the Michelin guide could be made more useful, and more legitimate, in the U.S.  Whether or not it is feasible for the company to make it so is another matter entirely.  I’m no numbers man, and I won’t pretend to know how Michelin’s business works, so all I can offer is an idealistic solution from the user’s end.

In my opinion, Michelin would be more useful if it rated the entire United States. Currently, it only rates restaurants in three cities (New York City; Chicago; and San Francisco, Bay Area, and Wine Country*). Why is this?  I’ll dismiss, for now, the thought that they do so out of cultural ignorance and arrogance, disregarding the spaces in between the large cities as unworthy. In the beginning, Michelin may have wanted to first test its viability in America in a few select cities before expanding (who knows, maybe they’re still in this phase of testing and we just don’t know it). More likely, they simply don’t have the resources to canvass the entire country comprehensively. Regardless, in limiting their ratings to three cities, Michelin has made its guide less useful in a market with tremendous potential, and, I do think, less financially viable in the long run (it has already withdrawn both the Los Angeles and Las Vegas guides due to “the bad economy”).

Originally, the Michelin guides were a marketing tool and accessory to selling rubber. What better way to increase tire sales than to encourage people to explore their country by car, to eat and sleep well on the road? The guide has no such purpose now in the U.S. (which has rendered some of their ratings rather silly – what does it mean that a restaurant is “worth a detour” within New York City, or Chicago?). Ironically, instead of encouraging Americans to get on the road to explore their country, Michelin encourages us to buy plane tickets to one of three cities.

So, Michelin is now in the business of selling guides, apart from selling tires. Times have changed; they’ve developed a new product. That doesn’t make them useless.

But, in order to justify the publication of their guides in these three cities, to make them more exciting and more sellable year after year, I feel that Michelin is compelled to award more stars (star inflation was also noticeable in a few Europe countries this year). That’s the only explanation I can muster to reason their generous ratings in America thus far.

I know it sounds absurd to suggest that Michelin should rate our entire country, a more vast territory than all of their others combined. It is a daunting task. But what about starting with regions? Imagine if Michelin were able to send inspectors across America, even if only in limited batches. They’d find quite a few restaurants meriting stars outside of the big cities, relieving the pressure to stuff the ballot in three, already over-saturated and concentrated markets. And, who knows, they might sell more guides to a larger audience willing to make that road trip to Boulder, or La Jolla, or Chilhowie, or Charleston?  Michelin would then have a national presence and influence, instead of parochial one, as it does now.

Or maybe not. I have to believe that Michelin has done its homework and found this to be an infeasible business choice.

But, until they reform their system – either admit that their standard of ratings in the U.S. is not on par with their standard of ratings abroad, or adjust their ratings accordingly – Michelin continues to erode its credibility in my eyes. Stars are quickly losing their weight and worth in the U.S.  And this diner is growing ever more disinterested in what Michelin has to say here.  As a blogger, maybe I should be happy about this, as it leaves people like me to fill in the gaps and become a more legitimate source of dining advice.

* I arrived at this number counting each starred restaurant that I’ve visited only once (i.e. multiple visits did not count) and taking the highest number of stars that the restaurant had when I ate there. Therefore, I did not count restaurants that were starred after my visit, like Charlie Trotters.

~ by ulterior epicure on January 2, 2012.

6 Responses to “rumination 18: bibendum in america…”

  1. so, what do you think of OAD?

  2. i am curious to know what restaurants you feel michelin has overvalued, particularly in chicago and new york.

  3. Good post, and one that gets at the core contradiction of the Michelin guide – in the large urban areas it serves to affirm what we already know (it does get the tip-top correct in the ordinal, if not global, sense) and, where it deviates, it’s usually deviating in the face of a large critical consensus. Simply, it has little information to offer other than being a horse-race which, from what those more experienced than I say, has little global meaning due to American star inflation.

    Where the guide would be most useful is exposing restaurants outside of these areas worth a detour or special journey. However, it may be cost prohibitive for the organization. OAD is pretty good about this, although has its issues.

    As for the Asian guides (and maybe for the US one as well), we likely don’t give Michelin enough credit for opening up markets. The amount of online information about food in Japan, in english, increased tenfold after Michelin was published as dining there was made more accessible to non-Japanese speakers. Michelin may have done the same thing in the American market for Europeans, but its local relevance is limited.

  4. What the Michelin Guide needs is a food-loving billionaire to buy it – someone who wants to do it properly and not care how much money they lose in the process.

    I think it’s still the best guide around, but it really is hampered by having to be commercial. It seems a new issue can’t be released without having a headline-grabbing promotion or demotion thrown in, and the more they allow PR to dictate the changes rather than the quality of the restaurant, the more their credibility erodes.

    Not that they’re particularly good at being commercial. I hear they’ve really struggled in recent years and it’s no wonder. The guides themselves are poor and there’s little reason to buy them outside the star ratings, which are easily found online. You’d imagine a good website would help them out, but they seem determined to keep their online presence embarassingly old-fashioned.

    I don’t think the guide will ever be as good as we want it to be due to the financial constraints. But they could, as you’ve suggested, certainly do better.

  5. wow, what a breath of fresh air this post was…I too am curious of which restaurants you believe are over/under rated

  6. This is really well said. I like, and contribute to, OAD. Although I do think that guide too has some biases (inflating mediocre hyper-modernist cooking, and depressing good, not great, ‘rustic’ cooking. [see, e.g., The Publican]). And obviously, OAD could use some more rigorous editing. Nevertheless it does provide the reader a way to get around the entire US, and have some idea of where to eat the same way Michelin does in France, and as UE notes, in a way Michelin very much doesn’t in America.

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