What It Means for a Restaurant to Get a Michelin Star

What does it take to make Michelin's coveted guide?

Michelin Restaurant St Hubertus Dining San Cassiano Rosa Alpina Hotel Dolomites Italy
Photo: © Alex Filz

In the 2007 Pixar film "Ratatouille," renowned chef Auguste Gusteau dies of heartbreak after his namesake flagship restaurant loses a star.

The animated movie reportedly drew striking comparisons to the real-life story of Bernard Loiseau, a chef whose suicide in 2003 was linked to rumors that his acclaimed Burgundy restaurant, La Côte d'Or, was in danger of losing a Michelin star. This tragedy — and indeed, even the fictional film about a rodent chef — have cemented the Michelin star's mystique and gravitas.

Michelin stars bring unmeasured joy when they're rewarded — French chef Maxime Meilleur once compared earning his three stars to "winning the gold medal in the Olympics" — and cause utter agony when they're lost (even the famously ruthless Gordon Ramsay has admitted to crying over it). But despite how seriously they're taken today, the restaurant rating system has humble beginnings.

Michelin guides were originally a promotional freebie from the eponymous French tire company. The original guide, published around 1900 to inspire more road trips, included little more than travel logistics such as how to change a tire and where to fuel up. Michelin added restaurants to the guides in 1920 and began adding rankings for them over the next few years, with the three-star system we know today coming into use in 1931.

Now, more than a century after the guides began, Michelin is a watchword for excellence, exclusivity, and expense. The three-star ranking is considered the highest accolade in the industry. Here's what it takes to earn a star and what each ranking means.

What Michelin Stars Actually Mean

Unlike other systems ranking luxury or quality in the hospitality industry (which typically use a scale of five stars), the Michelin Guide has only three. In addition to its one- to three-star rankings, the Michelin Guide also highlights restaurants in its "Bib Gourmand" category, as well as those whose only commendation is their inclusion in the guide. Here's how Michelin's five categories break down:

The Michelin Plate

The least prestigious of Michelin's categories of recognition, L'Assiette Michelin, or the Michelin Plate, includes any restaurant with neither stars nor a "Bib Gourmand" designation. This is not entirely insignificant, however. Many restaurants never see the inside of a Michelin Guide, much less a star. The Michelin Plate indicates "restaurants where the inspectors have discovered quality food." This addition was introduced in the guide's 2018 edition.

Bib Gourmand

The second youngest of Michelin's categories of recognition, dating back to 1955, is the Bib Gourmand ranking, which measures "quality food at a value price."

"There’s no set formula for a 'Bib' restaurant," Michelin says, although it does say Bib eateries typically have a "simpler style of cooking." The category covers everything from Bangkok street food stalls to French brasseries to Tokyo izakaya.

The "Bib" in "Bib Gourmand" pays homage to the Michelin Man, whose name — yes, he has a name — is Bibendum. The name comes from a famous line from the Roman poet Horace: "Nunc est bibendum," or "Now we must drink." Appropriately, the symbol indicating a Bib Gourmand restaurant is the Michelin Man himself.

One Michelin Star

Restaurants deemed to be "une très bonne table dans sa catégorie," or a very good restaurant in its category, are awarded with a single Michelin star. Michelin commends these restaurants for offering food at a consistently high standard, and deems them worth visiting if you're in the area.

Two Michelin Stars

Two stars mean a restaurant has "table excellente, mérite un detour," or excellent cooking worth a detour. Michelin commends these restaurants for offering exceptional cuisine, with skillfully and carefully crafted dishes of outstanding quality. According to Michelin, you'll want to go out of your way to have a meal there.

Three Michelin Stars

Restaurants recognized for "une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage," which translates to exceptional cuisine worth a special journey, earn three stars. Michelin commends these restaurants as places that feed guests extremely well, often superbly, and serve distinctive dishes executed from superlative ingredients. Basically, the guide says these restaurants are worth traveling for.

Who Makes the Michelin Guide?

More mysterious than the Michelin Guide's criteria for selection are the people who make those decisions. A team of more than 100 anonymous inspectors work in almost 40 different countries around the world, traveling three out of every four weeks (every night at a new hotel) and eating both lunch and dinner out while on the road.

Michelin covers the costs of their inspectors' travel but not that of any guests or companions. On average, a Michelin inspector drives more than 18,000 miles a year and eats at 240 different restaurants.

Restaurants listed in the Michelin Guide are visited once every 18 months, unless they are being considered for a change in status. As of 2018, one-star restaurants were typically visited four times in a year if they were to receive a second star, and two-star restaurants were visited up to 10 times yearly if they were in contention for three. Restaurants at risk of losing a star are also visited more frequently than every 18 months, though it's unclear how many times a year.

What Michelin Gets Right — and Wrong

The Michelin Guide is no stranger to criticisms, including that the institution is Francocentric, that it's limited by the guides' geographic locations, and that it is biased towards expensive or "fancy" restaurants.

A casual analysis of Michelin rankings does give these observations some merit. France has almost always had the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world (currently well over 600), but more recently Japan has begun catching up to Michelin's home country. Italy is in third place, much to the dismay of Italians.

To add to the unfairness of the system, restaurants in areas without Michelin Guides will never receive Michelin stars no matter how good they are. And a Venn diagram of four-dollar sign restaurants and three-Michelin star restaurants would show a Michelin island surrounded by a very costly sea. (Not all expensive restaurants have three Michelin stars, but all restaurants with three Michelin stars are expensive.)

"It is all about the food," Rebecca Burr, the editor of the Michelin Guide, insisted in a 2014 interview with The Telegraph. But when she cited the qualities that elevate restaurants through the rankings, she described — in addition to "technical strength" and "signature dishes" — a quality of "refinement, something that sets them apart," and a restaurant's ability to provide the "ultimate culinary experience." These qualities tend to cost a lot.

The 2016 Michelin Guide famously awarded single stars to two (delicious) hawker stalls in Singapore, one of which has been called the "cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world." Though that one has since lost its star, you can still get a Michelin-approved dish at the other, Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle, for under $10.

One might argue that a traveler would, in fact, rather make the "special journey" to this Singapore stall than to visit any of the city's three-star restaurants, not least because two of them are French.

In case you're wondering, out of the thousands of restaurants with Michelin stars, only four of them have one dollar sign. The least expensive three-star restaurants have three dollar signs, and there are only five of them. The lowest prices of any three-star spot are believed to be at King's Joy, a vegetarian haunt in Beijing.

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