How Are Michelin Stars Rewarded to Restaurants?

Michelin guides on a table
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The term "Michelin Star" is a hallmark of fine dining quality and restaurants around the world proudly promote 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 hands out restaurant ratings.

Michelin's Anonymous Reviewers

Michelin has a long history of reviewing restaurants. 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. (If you're interested in looking at a reviewing company that looks at ambiance and decor, try the Forbes reviews which look at over 800 criteria, such as whether the restaurant offers solid or hollow ice cubes, freshly squeezed or canned orange juice, and valet parking or self-parking.)

Michelin, on the other hand, focuses entirely on the food. The reviewers award the stars 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.

    Restaurants covet these stars 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
      • In 2016, 76 New York restaurants received a Michelin star rating.
      • In 2015, 73 New York restaurants received a Michelin star rating.
      • In 2014, 67 New York restaurants received a Michelin star rating.
    • Chicago
      • In 2016, 22 Chicago restaurants received a Michelin star rating. 
      • In 2015, 24 Chicago restaurants received a Michelin star rating.
      • In 2014, 25 Chicago restaurants received a Michelin star rating.
    • San Francisco
      • In 2016, 50 San Francisco restaurants received a Michelin star rating.  
      • In 2015, 40 San Francisco restaurants received a Michelin star rating.
      • In 2014, 38 San Francisco restaurants received a Michelin star rating.
    • Washington DC
      • In 2016, the Michelin Guide announced that it will release its first ever guide to Washington DC. In 2012, the company said that they were considering expanding into other locations, including Washington DC and Atlanta but this foray into Washington DC will put DC on the map as a culinary destination. Michael Ellis, director of the Michelin Guides explained, "Washington is one of the great cosmopolitan cities in the world, with a unique and storied past that includes, among so many other things, a rich culinary tradition that continues to evolve in exciting new directions.”

    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. That being said, in 2016, the Michelin guide awarded a one-star rating to two Singaporean hawker food stalls where visitors can stand in line to get a cheap and delicious meal for around $2.00 USD. Ellis explained that these hawker stalls receiving the star, "signifies that these hawkers have managed to hit the ball out of the park....In terms of the quality of the ingredients, in terms of the flavors, in terms of the cooking techniques, in terms of just the general emotions, that they are able to put in their dishes. And that is something that I think is really unique to Singapore.”

    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.​