Tuesday, November 12, 2013

My Thoughts on Michelin and the Next Conundrum.

So today the 2014 Michelin Guide Chicago stars were announced. This red book generates a lot of chatter in the Chicago restaurant community and among enthusiastic diners.  A few weeks ago I said on social media that I questioned the continuing relevance of Michelin, particularly in Chicago.

Basically there was very little change in the starred restaurant list from last year. There are 5 new restaurants receiving stars and congratulations to these folks. They work very hard and it's nice that their accomplishments are recognized.   But of all of the restaurants on this list none are restaurants that I eat at regularly, and few are places anyone I know eat at on a regular basis.  Now, most of the starred restaurants are pretty pricey and not really the kinds of places that I, or the people I know, can afford to eat at on the regular. And that's fine.  Are they good restaurants? Well as a friend of mine said today "Michelin is still a too-short , patchwork list of bad-to-OK-to-good one stars" And I think this nails it. Where Michelin does hold some relevance is in the 2 and 3 star list. Of course not so much for Chicagoans, but for people traveling here. Where should you go for a blow out, price is no object meal on your trip to Chicago? Look to Michelin's two and three star list.
But that really doesn't hold any relevance to me.
Then there are the "Bib Gourmand" award winners. This award is supposed to be given to favorite restaurants that you can get two courses plus a glass of wine or a dessert for under $40. Again, this list is pretty wide ranging, but when you get to these kinds of places I can see a wider range that won't necessarily mesh with my opinions.
All of that being said, what really has me questioning the relevance of Michelin, for diners like myself, is that of the half dozen or so restaurants that I would consider myself a regular at, not a single one is on either list. Now, I'm not talking about places that fall outside of what Michelin typically reviews, super hidden little gems, odd ethnic places, or far off suburban locations. These are restaurants that are widely talked about, doing quality creative food, and their absence on either Michelin list leaves some very knowledgeable food people dumbfounded. Look, I dine out quite a bit, more than the average person, heck, I dine out more than I ought to, and there's a reason I go back to these places over and over again. They're really good. The food is often seasonal, the service is professional and friendly, the dining rooms are comfortable, and the wine/ drink lists are well done. But what it's really about for me is the food. And that's what Michelin says too. So how can we have such a wide gap between what Michelin thinks is worthy of their little awards and what I (as well as those very knowledgeable food people I mentioned earlier) think? Clearly they're looking at these places from a different point of view than I am. Since Michelin fails to recognize some of these outstanding places their list is really irrelevant to me. Again, that's not to say that award recipients aren't doing good, even great food. Often they are doing just that. They're just not places I choose to, or can afford to dine at regularly. And I'm OK with Michelin not giving the places I like their stars. But people who run these places work really hard and not making the list, at least to some of these people, hurts. What I would say to them is "Keep doing what you're doing. You're great at it and your customers appreciate it. After all isn't that all that matters?"

Michelin confounds.

And speaking of food, how is it Michelin continues to ignore  maybe the most important restaurant in the country, Next. Last year Michelin went on about how Next was too difficult to get into with their ticketing system. OK, I can sort of see their point. But should that really exclude Next? No, it shouldn't because Michelin says it's ratings are all about the food. This year getting tickets to Next became much easier.  This year again, Michelin left Next unrated. Why? Well this year a Michelin spokesperson said in an interview "it's hard to get in there and it hasn't been open long." Excuse me? Virtually every day tickets are available. Tickets are slowly released throughout a menu run and not all that hard to come by.  And not open long enough? Come on! This is the end of Next's third year in business. Grace on the other hand, which deservedly received two stars today, has been open for less than a year. As Mike Gebert wrote in the Reader today "If you can't figure out how to evaluate a restaurant which has sold out every night for 2 years, you're apparently the only one with that problem."

My friend Josh sums it up nicely in his blog

"1. Chefs and some media folks start posting about their excitement, anxiety, and predictions
2. The rest of us either join in or start complaining that Michelin is stupid (note: the latter group is no fun and should be shunned)
3. Some of the list leaks. Nothing leaked is remotely surprising
4. The stars are officially announced. Some choices are good, some are not so good. Glaring omissions are made
5. Everyone goes back to what they were originally doing, since honestly who cares what Michelin has to say about Chicago."
So that's what I'm going back to doing. Eating at great restaurants that I really enjoy, regardless of what some anonymous inspector grading places on mysterious criteria is doing.
Oh, those places left off either of Michelin's lists that I love (in alphabetical order)
That's my list of stars and it's probably irrelevant to you.

That's how lists like these work I suppose.