Michelin: Tops in Tires … and Truffles, Too

Michelin restaurant guide year 1900

We’re all familiar with Michelin tires. And you may have heard of Michelin-starred restaurants. But how did these two completely different things – tires and fine dining – both come to have the Michelin name attached? We’re here to help explain.

Photo by Rota das Estrelas

It all started with the road trip

Let’s go back to the very beginning. In 1889, brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin founded the Michelin Tire Company in Clermont-Ferrand, France. Eleven years later, they published the first version of a free guide for French drivers. The Michelin Guide included maps, listings of hotels, gas stations and mechanics, and helpful information for repairing tires. At the time there were only 3,000 automobiles in all of France. The forward-thinking Michelin brothers had a hunch that by providing information for car travelers, they could increase interest in French automobile tourism (aka road trips) – which would in turn increase demand for cars and tires.

In the years following, Michelin Guides were produced for many other countries in Europe. In 1920, the guide (no longer free) started sending anonymous reviewers out on the road to rate restaurants. A few years later, Michelin began ranking restaurants using a rating system of one to three stars.

A place in history

During World Wars I and II, publication of the guide was suspended. But in 1944, the Allied Forces requested a reprint of the 1939 French guide. Why? Because it contained the finest and most up-to-date maps – a necessity for the Allies, since road and traffic signs had been destroyed during the occupation. French cities were liberated faster thanks to the Michelin Guide’s maps.

A scallop dish at Feitoria Restaurant in Lisbon, Portugal
A scallop dish at Feitoria Restaurant in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Rota das Estrela

Let’s talk about food. What does a Michelin star mean?

Michelin stars are used to judge the quality of the food at a restaurant only, independent of any other aspects of the dining experience.
• One star = A very good restaurant in its category
• Two stars = Excellent cooking, worth a detour
• Three stars = Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey

An additional designation of a small knife and fork, known as “couvert,” describes other aspects of the restaurant’s experience like comfort, venue décor, tabletop décor, and level of formality. A black fork and knife icon denotes a more basic experience while a red icon indicates superior couvert.

Bib Gourmand

In case you’re not confused enough already, there’s also the “Bib Gourmand” symbol, which is given to up-and-coming, unstarred restaurants that Michelin deems worthy of recognition for offering “good cuisine at a reasonable price” (two courses and a glass of wine for $40 or less). Bib is the Michelin Man’s nickname, and the icon for Bib Gourmand restaurants is his tiny face. He’s licking his chops, most likely remembering his latest delicious and affordable meal.

Michelin recommended restaurant sticker
Photo by Peter Lindberg

The Michelin Guide takes on the U.S.

The restaurant guide remained overseas until 2005, when Michelin published its first American guide, focusing on New York City. Today, Michelin Guides are also available for San Francisco and Chicago. In Europe, guides are available for France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, the UK and Ireland, Benelux (Belgium/Netherlands/Luxembourg), and the “Main Cities of Europe.” In Asia, Michelin Guides cover Japan, Hong Kong, and Macau. Brazil is on the menu for 2015.

To give you a better understanding of the exclusivity of a Michelin star, here are a few quick stats about Michelin-starred restaurants here in the United States. In 2014, just 67 New York City restaurants were awarded Michelin stars. Of those 67, only seven received the coveted three-star rating! In Chicago, 25 restaurants received stars, but only one was judged to be of three-star quality. This may help explain why Michelin stars are so coveted by chefs. Gordon Ramsay, he of the famously fiery temper, reportedly wept when his New York restaurant was stripped of its two-star rating. (Don’t feel too bad, though. He has 14 Michelin stars from his other restaurants around the world.)

Ricotta gnudi at French Laundry in Yountville, California
Ricotta gnudi at French Laundry in Yountville, California. Photo by Peter Bond

I could tell you, but I’d have to …

So back to those anonymous reviewers … come on now, who are they? Seriously, no one knows. It’s truly a top secret job. According to a 2009 New York Times article about Michelin inspectors, they’re required to hide their jobs from friends and even family members. They recruit dates to accompany them to romantic restaurants, so they don’t stand out as solo diners. They go to the bathroom to jot down notes or type them on their phones. Unlike other big names in the restaurant-reviewing world – Zagat, Yelp, etc. – Michelin doesn’t rely on customer reviews at all, just these hard-working inspectors, who will visit a restaurant multiple times to most accurately judge the quality and consistency of the experience.

Sounds like a pretty good gig, right? Well, if you’re wondering what it takes to become a Michelin inspector, of course you need to be incredibly passionate about food. Inspectors have extensive training and experience in the field and they’re also “chameleons” who can fit in anywhere without standing out. They must be extremely detail-oriented – the type of person who notices every tiny nuance of the dining experience – and have an exceptional “taste memory” so they can compare a dish they had months ago to the same dish they’re having today.

Despite all this clandestine stuff, some of the U.S. Michelin inspectors are on Twitter and Instagram – anonymously, of course! You can follow their dining adventures at @MichelinGuideNY and @MichelinGuideSF.

Drive and dine: Take a restaurant road trip

If your next road trip takes you to San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, or Europe, we recommend picking up a copy of the Michelin Guide. Whether you’re chasing Michelin stars or sampling Bib’s more reasonably priced suggestions, we can pretty much guarantee that you’ll enjoy some great eats.




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