Our Very Best Restaurants (According to the French, That Is.): The Michelin Guide, Published by a French Tire Company since 1900 and for Decades the European Gourmet's Bible, Has Invaded America, with Lots of Controversy but Surprisingly Good Results, Writes Amy Cortese. New York, for Instance, Beats Rome
Cortese, Amy, The American (Washington, DC)
ON A FEBRUARY NIGHT in 2006, the Guggenheim Museum on Manhattan's Upper East Side was packed with some of the world's greatest culinary talent. There was Alain Ducasse of Louis XV in Monte Carlo and the restaurant at the Hotel Plaza-Athenee in Paris; Jean-Georges Vongerichten of Jean Georges in New York and Prime in Las Vegas; Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Napa Valley, considered by many critics the best restaurant in America; and Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque, who practically invented the modern luxury Manhattan dining room. Each had left his kitchen for the evening to celebrate, along with other gastronomes, the launch of the New York version of the venerable Michelin Guide--not the green one on sightseeing but the red one, treated in much of Europe with reverence, on restaurants.
In France, where food has always been an art and obsession, Le Guide Rouge, as it is known, is the Bible. Created in 1900 by a tire company as a means to encourage people to get into their cars and explore--at a time when there were only about 3,000 automobiles in all of France and a drive to Marseille from Paris could take several days--the free guide listed helpful locations such as gas stations, restrooms, hotels, and restaurants.
But it was not until a few decades later that the guide became serious about evaluating restaurants, using anonymous inspectors and applying a rating system with stars. Most restaurants received no stars at all; just an inclusion in the book was a seal of approval. One star signified a very good restaurant in its category, and two stars, a restaurant worth a detour. Three stars was a rating reserved for exceptional cuisine worth a special journey.
A century later, Michelin's red books, in editions that cover 20 countries, are the leading guidebooks in Europe, selling 800,000 copies a year. Of 45,000 hotels and restaurants across Europe included in the guides, only 1,500 receive stars. A website meticulously maintained by food critic Andy Hayler (www.andyhayler.com) counts 60 three-star restaurants in the 2006 guides, up from just 20 in 1995 and only seven in 1951, when Michelin resumed publishing after World War II.
There is no higher accolade in the culinary world, nor one that so swiftly accrues to the bottom line. One restaurateur said his business rose 60 percent immediately after he was promoted from two stars to three. A Michelin blessing brings a steady stream of big-spending diners and has launched the global careers of many chefs.
With such honors also comes intense pressure to maintain one's place in the Michelin firmament. Two three-star French chefs, Bernard Loiseau in 2003 and Alain Zick in 1966, were reportedly driven to suicide by the prospect of losing a star. Another chef, Emile Jung of Strasbourg, whose restaurant, Le Crocodile, was demoted from three stars to two in 2002, said, "No words can ease the pain that eats at our hearts and that has killed our spirit." This stuff is serious.
Of the 60 three-stars, 26 are in France, and nine of those are in Paris, including such classics as Le Grand Vefour, still making Pigeon Prince Rainier in the Palais Royal gardens; Taillevent, a monument to understated perfection near the Arc de Triomphe; and L'Ambroisie, serving fricassee of Breton lobster with chestnuts and puree of pumpkin in a 17th-century townhouse on the Place des Vosges.
The other 34 three-star restaurants are scattered about parsimoniously--six in Italy, six in Germany, two in Switzerland, and so on. It was a surprise then--and a pleasant one--to find last year that four restaurants in New York had been awarded three stars in the first American Michelin dining guide: Alain Ducasse; Per Se, owned by chef Thomas Keller; Jean Georges; and Le Bernardin, a restaurant which, like Ducasse, has a Parisian pedigree. For 2007, Ducasse was dropped--temporarily, we assume--because the restaurant is moving into new quarters at the St. …