Sacre bleu: For the first time, a vegan restaurant has received a star from the Michelin red guide.
Restaurant ONA, 28 miles west of Bordeaux, was founded in 2016 by Claire Vallée (ONA stands for Origine Non Animale, or non-animal origin). Michelin has been awarding stars since 1926; it’s fair to say that exclusively vegan restaurants have only existed recently in France and elsewhere, even though famous chefs such as Passard and Ducasse have been limiting the amount of meat on their menus for years. In fact, Ms. Vallée was unable to get a bank loan to start her restaurant and was forced to rely on crowdfunding.
On the restaurant’s website, she describes plant-based cooking as “a natural cuisine, elegant, refined and subtle, with an unrivaled range of flavors, textures and colors.” She is generous in praise for her “tribe,” a cluster of bakers, wine merchants and organic produce suppliers who have contributed to her success. The prices are certainly reasonable: 24 and 59 Euros respectively for set menus at lunch and dinner, or a fraction of what other starred restaurants typically charge.
In a world where consumers are becoming more and more empowered, the Michelin guide still retains the ability to make or break a restaurant. Top establishments receive one star (“a very good restaurant in its category”), two (“excellent cooking, worth a detour”) and three (“exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”).
While ONA is Michelin’s first vegan starred restaurant, vegetarian establishments are no strangers to the guide. NIX in New York City holds one Michelin star, and Daigo in Tokyo—serving Buddhist vegetarian cuisine—has received two. Meatless restaurants in Beijing, Shanghai, Italy and Austria have also been honored.
The question that should be asked is whether this is the right time to be grading restaurants on an intense quality scale, given that many of them are struggling to survive. Fine dining establishments, the type of places that receive Michelin stars, have been particularly hard hit. Michelin announced that no three-star restaurants would be demoted for 2021, and other recipients would only lose a star if they had closed or changed their chef and/or dining concept. They’ve also become more flexible in recent years and would probably point to their Bib Gourmand category, which recognizes places serving good food at moderate prices.
The most noteworthy thing about Restaurant ONA’s website, however, isn’t the food or the prices. It’s the fact that everyone involved seems to be carefree and having fun—something that rarely exists in the superheated atmosphere of the Michelin-starred world.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His latest release, Impeachment, is now available on Amazon.