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The Michelin Guide

A history of tyres and tureens, valves and value

Despite its name, the legendary red jacketed tome is not all about rubber, treads and grip-in-the-wet traction. Its raison d’être is all about taste sensations and culinary excellence which transcends everything else in any kitchen.

For many top chefs, whether they admit it or not, a Michelin star is still a much-coveted accolade for anyone aspiring to serve fine food to the top table. For decades the Michelin reviewers have travelled the globe, incognito, dining at some of the world’s most high-end establishments in search of those that produce perfection in the culinary world.

Inevitably, the reviewers are criticised for focusing on the expensive and glitzy – a bit harsh when surely quality at this dizzying level has to be paid for. That said, some consider that rather too many fusty hotel restaurants still appear in the list despite modern dining culture becoming less formal and more inventive.

Either way, the Michelin guide provides a glimpse of artistic flair that few of us will ever experience. The flamboyance, ground breaking creativity and relentless obsession for detailed perfection surely add to everyone’s pleasure and interest.

André Michelin on his oil tricycle - 1913
André Michelin on his oil tricycle - 1913

The Michelin Guide

First things first. What is the connection between a purveyor of tyres and celebrated gastronomy? The first Michelin Guide was published in 1900 by tyre manufacturer André Michelin, along with his brother Edouard Michelin.

The aim was simple. At a time when the number of cars in France was barely 3,000 they were keen to stimulate demand for automobiles, as well as to get drivers out on the roads more. Of course, it follows that the more cars bought and the more they were driven, the greater the demand for tyres.

The first run of the Michelin Guide was 35,000 copies and included maps, instructions on fixing punctures and changing tyres. Crucially it also featured a list of restaurants and hotels throughout France, and details of mechanical workshops and petrol stations. It was not so much a handy car manual as an invitation to jump in the new car and travel to new destinations.

It was also distributed for free.

Michelin guides on display at Maison Pic, Valence (Benoît Prieur / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Michelin guides on display at Maison Pic, Valence (Benoît Prieur / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

With war breaking out in 1914, the guide was paused. In the post-war years the brothers recognised the moment had to come to change their marketing approach. They stopped taking advertising in the guide and instead started charging for it.

The story goes the decision to charge for the guide was taken when André came across a garage where his guides were being used to prop up a work bench. The principle that ‘Man only truly respects what he pays for’ was immediately adopted.

The guide expanded rapidly and now covers restaurants in 23 countries, with 14 editions sold in 90 countries around the world.

To the stars and beyond! The Michelin Star ratings
To the stars and beyond! The Michelin Star ratings

The Michelin ratings

The Michelin star system first appeared in 1926. Five years later, in 1931, the blue cover of the Michelin guide became a bright red and so the template was set. Its star system evolved to feature three distinct categories with criteria for each.

Initially restaurants were awarded a single star if they were considered to be ‘fine dining establishments’. The difference in grading was essentially subjective, based on the experience of an expert reviewer, but calculated within strict parameters.

1 Star: A very good restaurant in its category.
2 Stars: Excellent cooking, worth a detour.
3 Stars: Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.

The reviewers, or inspectors, visit restaurants as regular diners, sometimes more than once, before deciding on the appropriate star rating. They concentrate on the quality and consistency of the food served and the mastery of techniques of the chef. The décor, table setting and ambiance is not strictly under consideration.

Michelin tip
For a taste of Michelin grade cuisine, look at the lunch time options, when you can find menus that are far lighter on the pocket.

Michelin Bib Gourmand

In a move to slightly democratise the guide’s image, Michelin came up with a new category for their rating system in 1955. This was the Bib Gourmand and it recognised restaurants offering high quality food at sensible prices. The Bib Gourmand reflects regional and national variations in economic standards and the cost of living, while celebrating value for money dining.

The backlash…

For Michelin it has not always been plain sailing. Many chefs have found rock star fame and fortune and restaurants have been catapulted overnight in to the upper culinary stratosphere on the back of a Michelin star.

But it has not always brought happiness. Indeed some chefs have asked for their Michelin star to be removed on grounds that the expectations created are undeliverable and unsustainable. Others fear that the implications of stellar prices will put off many would-be diners, and the strict criteria of a Michelin reviewer might straightjacket a chef’s freedom for creativity in the kitchen.

Nonetheless the iconic Michelin star is an elusive, peerless pinnacle of desirability for many. Some say it is the only rating that matters due to its authenticity and independence, as well as the cachet of the guide’s gastronomic credentials. Increasingly others say it is out of touch, forcing restaurants to cater for undercover, mercurial inspectors, not paying diners.

Michelin rated restaurants in France

Today, with 29 restaurants carrying the coveted 3 stars, France has more top rated Michelin restaurants than any country in Europe. Only Japan has the same number.

Many venerable and globally renowned French restaurants have held their star rating for decades. But in recent times there has been change with the Auberge de L’Ill losing its third star after an incredible 51 years. Other seismic change saw Paul Bocuse’s L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges demoted two years after his death and 55 years since he was first awarded his third star. Many a gourmand was known to splutter into their lobster bisque.

But in France other legends remain on top, including Guy Savoy, Alain Ducasse and Alain Passard. Elsewhere chefs themselves have become globe trotters, sprinkling their magic fairy dust through kitchens around the world and enhancing their reputations as well as the bank balances of the restaurant owners. Not so different from football superstars.

Find out more about Michelin starred restaurants near you.

What’s new in 2020?

A total of 49 restaurants were awarded their first star in the latest Michelin guide. Of these the 2 and 3 star highlights are:

New Three Star Restaurants

New Two Star Restaurants

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