For nearly a century, the Michelin Red Guide has been the ultimate arbiter of restaurant success. At the top of the pyramid are those establishments receiving stars: one (a good restaurant in its class), two (worth a detour) or the top accolade of three (worth a special journey).
For many years the Guide focused exclusively on restaurants in France, mirroring the Gallic belief that those places were the only ones worth dining in. Times have changed, however—there are now Red Guides to most major Europeans countries, as well as cities in Japan and the United States. Michelin has learned to release the Guides in stages throughout the year, thus garnering the maximum of both publicity and suspense.
What’s really interesting, though, is where the stars are located. In 2008, die-hard Francophiles were shocked to discover that Tokyo had garnered more stars than Paris (in fact, at 191 to 97, it wasn’t even close). The trend has continued. Last year the total numbers were about even, but there were 32 three-star establishments in Japan compared to only 26 in France; this year, France accounted for 27 of the 104 three-stars in the world.
For anyone with a long memory, this is astonishing stuff. When I first went to Paris in the early 1970s, the cuisines of other countries were dismissed as not even worth investigating. There were a handful of Japanese restaurants in the city; Robert Courtine, the dean of Parisian food critics, dismissed sushi as “disconcerting for someone not used to it.” Today you can find just about any type of food in the French capital, and in certain districts you might have to search diligently for a place that serves classical French food—while passing a number of take-out sushi joints in the process.
Cynics might dismiss this as profit-taking on the part of Michelin, but I suspect the truth is simpler. The world is a different place, and even the Michelin inspectors have been forced to acknowledge that fact.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); his second book, Moonshine Nation, is forthcoming from Lyons Press in June 2014. for more information, go to amazon.com