For much of the past year, the restaurant universe has been in a state of suspended animation. COVID-19 wreaked havoc on everything from no-frills establishments to temples of haute cuisine, and the National Restaurant Association reports that 17% of the nation’s eateries are either temporarily or permanently shuttered.
In the face of the pandemic, it seemed unfair to subject restaurants to the type of evaluation and criticism they would usually face. As the country returns to normal, however, quality distinctions are once again fair game. Last week, the Michelin Guide announced they would resume their ratings of establishments in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Michelin is often regarded as the gold standard of restaurant criticism. The Guide dates to 1900, when cars were just beginning to appear on French roads. The tire company used the Guide as a promotional device to help drivers navigate a landscape with few gas stations, repair shops or roadside restaurants. Over time, they began to award stars for culinary excellence, either one (“a very good restaurant in its category”), two (“excellent cooking, worth a detour”) or the ultimate accolade of three stars (“exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”), and they expanded from Europe into Asia and the U.S.
Michelin inspectors have been dining on patios, with masks on and appropriate distance from their neighbors, and they are ready to award their stars for 2021. In addition, restaurants will be named in the Bib Gourmand (good values) and Plates (noteworthy simple food) categories; Green stars will also be awarded to restaurants that lead in sustainability.
New York is the leader of the three Guides in question, with five three-star restaurants, 10 two-stars and 61 one-stars. Chicago is next (2/4/19), followed by Washington (1/2/15). Michelin has been controversial from time to time during its history, with allegations of lax inspection standards and accusations of a bias toward French cuisine (hardly believable anymore, since Tokyo now has more stars than Paris). Despite any criticism, though, a Michelin star is still the most sought-after distinction in the culinary world, and restaurateurs in three cities anxiously await their verdict.
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.