I mention Michelin star restaurants in all of my travel guides to major cities where Michelin stars are awarded, like Los Angeles, New York, London, Edinburgh, and Tokyo. These restaurants have been awarded a very high honor for the quality of their dining experience, although the exact judging criteria still remains a mystery. Originally, Michelin stars were awarded by French Tire Company Michelin Tires starting in the early 1900s as part of their driving guides and atlases that showed French drivers where they should take drives to in order to check out the best France had to offer, and the concept eventually spread to include major cities all over the world. Read on to learn everything you need to know about Michelin stars, and to learn about some of my favorite Michelin star restaurants.
How the Michelin Star Ranking System Works
Earning a Michelin star means that the restaurant receiving it is a major standout in the world of culinary arts. A rank of one Michelin star means that the restaurant is a very good establishment in that area, so if you’re nearby already, be sure to stop in and check it out. Two Michelin stars indicates that the excellent restaurant is worth adding onto an itinerary if you’re nearby, and going out of your way to give it a try, because it’s a true delight. Three Michelin stars, the highest honor achievable, means that the food is so good, it’s worth justifying an entire trip to that restaurant, even if it means crossing through countries or an ocean to get to.
Only the very best of the best restaurants in major cities are examined and considered for these awards, and only the very top restaurants in the world actually earn a star. In the United States, only restaurants in Los Angeles, New York city, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and San Francisco (now all of California) are even considered, despite there being dozens of other equally excellent restaurants around the country.
Benefits of Earning a Michelin Star
Earning a Michelin star is one of the highest honors in the culinary world, and it’s something most chefs work towards their entire lives. It means the receiving restaurants may see between a 20% increase in business for earning 1 star, up to a 100% or more increase in business for earning 3 stars. They are also able to employ better chefs and staff, and generally improve their service, décor, atmosphere, food, and other aspects of their business, thereby increasing their profitability. The international acclaim and free advertising doesn’t hurt business either.
Downsides to Earning a Michelin Star
Some restaurants don’t even want to be considered for Michelin stars, let alone keep the ones they were awarded. Recently, French chef Sébastien Bras gave back his 3 star award for his restaurant Le Suquet à Laguiole in Southern France. He said the pressures of maintaining a restaurant that appeals to Michelin’s anonymous judges was too much, and that it was curbing his creativity. Other Michelin recipients have said that the cost associated with upgrading and maintaining a restaurant to such a high standard as to retain their Michelin stars has caused them to lose money, rather than turn a profit. Other chefs simply don’t like the idea of competitive cooking and would rather enjoy being free to cook what they feel like cooking, or to represent their region in a way that is authentic to their heritage, rather than working to impress anonymous Michelin judges.
How Do Chefs Earn Michelin Stars
The quick answer is that chefs cannot earn Michelin Stars personally. Although some restaurant websites may claim they employ or are owned by a Michelin Starred Chef, this is a bit misleading, because only the restaurant is awarded stars, not the chef. If you see this designation, it likely means that the chef was directing the restaurant, or a different restaurant, at the time it was awarded its Michelin Star(s), which is to say they are an excellent chef. This designation is most commonly used in cities that are not considered for Michelin Stars.
How to Earn a Michelin Star & Michelin Judges
To earn a Michelin star (or 2 or 3), anonymous judges visit the establishment several times (it’s rumored to be four times in a year) in a judging period to consider adding a star to a restaurant. Worldwide, there are only 120 or so Michelin judges that operate in 23 countries. With 2,652 restaurants currently listed as having at least 1 Michelin star on the Michelin website, that would mean that on average each judge would have to on average 22.1 restaurants for Michelin star maintenance, plus however many are currently being considered for their initial or return award of a Michelin star. That’s a lot of food to eat! Michelin, of course, picks up the tab, and takes care of the health of their judges, ensuring that despite constantly eating hearty, multi-course meals for a living, they retain their health.
The actual criteria of how to earn a Michelin star has been a carefully guarded secret since the first guide was published in 1900. Based on available information, speaking with chefs of Michelin star restaurants, and from what I’ve personally experienced dining at Michelin star restaurants around the world, is that the process is complicated. Restaurants under consideration are visited at least once every 18 months. To go from 1 star to 2, they will be visited 4 times, and 10 visits will be made by judges to go from 2 to 3 stars. These visits determine the consistency of a restaurant, and if the restaurant is worthy of inclusion in the guide or an improvement in its standing.
All Michelin Star restaurants that I’ve visited have immaculate, clean, and modern interiors. The food is expertly plated, with colorful, seasonal, perfectly prepared food, that is consistently excellent. The staff are trained in places like France, Italy, Japan, and New York culinary schools, and have years or even decades of experience working in other fine restaurants. Dishes are inventive or traditional, and the overall experience is always excellent. A restaurant that is just average, or is inconsistent with its food, presentation, or the quality of preparation would never be considered.
How Michelin Star Rankings Change Year to Year
From year to year, restaurants might close up shop, thereby giving up there inclusion in the next guide. They may also gain or lose a star, and some restaurants drop drastically, from 2 or 3 stars to none, which can signify the end of the line for a restaurant. When restaurants lose even one star, it can be damaging for their business and their reputation for some, and for others it can be a relief, as I mentioned earlier how some restaurants don’t want to even be included in the guides at all.
Which Cities Have Michelin Star Restaurants
Tokyo is the city with the highest concentration of Michelin star restaurants in the world, at 226 Michelin star restaurants in the capital of Japan. From ramen bars with inexpensive ramen bowls to incredible multi-course traditional Japanese fine dining and everything in between, Tokyo has emerged as a culinary capital of the world. As of 2020, Tokyo boasts 11 three star restaurants, 47 restaurants with 2 stars, and 165 restaurants with 1 one star.
Are Michelin Star Restaurants Worth a Visit?
I always seek out at least one new Michelin starred restaurant when I’m visiting a city that has the designation. As I mentioned, even restaurants without the stars can be excellent, particularly in places where restaurants aren’t considered for the guides, so it’s not the end all be all of good food. However, there is a reason that these restaurants were chosen, and they definitely offer once in a lifetime meals, particularly if you go for a 3 star restaurant, like Chicago’s Alinea, or the French Laundry in California. If you’re looking for a special meal to celebrate one of life’s milestones, an unforgettable addition to a trip somewhere new, or you simply adore fine dining, I absolutely recommend checking out a Michelin Star restaurant.
Danielle J says
Excellent and so helpful! Thank you for this breakdown!
Love Alinea!!! When we’re lucky enough to score a reservation we make sure to skip breakfast and have a very light lunch in anticipation for the memorable courses!
Megan Sturm says
Such a helpful breakdown of the Michelin star system! As a formerly picky eater turned semi-foodie, I have become obsessed with the concept. My husband and I have checked three Michelin star restaurants off of our list and can’t wait to add more!