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The Michelin Guide introduces a new designation – but it’s no big prize

The first Michelin Red Guide for Washington is seen at the residence of the French ambassador during its launch in Washington, DC, on October 13, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / NICHOLAS KAMMNICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

The vaunted Michelin Guide is all about stars: Get three of them, the guide’s top rating, and your career as a chef is set for life. Reservations at your restaurant will be impossible to get, and people will be willing to pay even more for your (probably expensive) tasting menu.

In 1955, the guide introduced a second designation. Bib Gourmand restaurants — indicated in the book with an icon of “Bibendum,” the character also known as the Michelin Man —  have been deemed a good value by Michelin inspectors. They are restaurants where you can get two courses and a glass of wine or a dessert for $40 or less, excluding tax and tip.

And for the upcoming 2018 guides, Michelin will unveil a new designation worldwide: L’Assiette Michelin, or the Michelin Plate. It’s a symbol that will indicate “restaurants where the inspectors have discovered quality food.” And from now on, you’ll see it next to any restaurant in the guide that isn’t a Bib Gourmand or a starred restaurant.

There were no three-star restaurants in Washington’s first Michelin Guide. But these restaurants earned two.

It’s an attempt to clear up a bit of consumer confusion about the guide. Michelin is famously secretive about its process, which involves dispensing anonymous inspectors to cities around the world to gauge the quality of food and service at restaurants in 28 countries. Not every restaurant in a city makes it into the book, and just being listed is an honor in and of itself. But that’s not always how it comes across to readers: Restaurants that don’t have any designations seem as though they are merely included, but not recommended.

Inspectors “want to highlight the restaurants that they review and find noteworthy food at, but haven’t earned that star or that Bib Gourmand yet,” said Lauren Davis, a publicist for Michelin North America.

So it’s actually just a change in formatting — not a new award. The Michelin Plate icon will appear next to restaurants that didn’t qualify for a Bib Gourmand or for stars, which are the real prize.

Michelin acknowledged the awkward disparity in its news release: “The stars and Bib Gourmands often garner the most attention, but each restaurant that is included in the guide has been evaluated by a famed inspector and subsequent inclusion in the guide, now marked by the new symbol, endorses restaurants that guarantee a very good standard of a food and wine experience.”

Restaurants that are listed as a Bib Gourmand are also ineligible for stars, though some “graduate” to become starred restaurants in subsequent years. Michelin Plate restaurants will be eligible to move up, too.

The Michelin Guide was introduced by the tire company in 1900 as a way to encourage people to take road trips and wear down their Michelin tires. It is still a powerful arbiter of culinary taste, though it faces steep competition from other sources, such as the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, as well as Yelp and TripAdvisor. Critics of the guide say it is more useful in Europe, where it has a deeper history, and that the cuisine and atmosphere of American restaurants can get lost in translation. (Naysayers especially love to point out that Michelin is a tire company.)

For the first time in more than a decade, the world’s best restaurant is in the U.S.

Washington received its first Michelin Guide last year, and no restaurants in the region received the top designation of three stars, though 12 restaurants earned at least one.  Three restaurants — José Andrés’ Minibar, Aaron Silverman’s Pineapple and Pearls, and Patrick O’Connell’s Inn at Little Washington —  received two stars. The arrival of the guide was widely received as validation that Washington had finally come of age as a restaurant city. Still, many local favorites that were in the guide, such as Fiola Mare and Komi, did not receive stars and were too expensive to qualify for a Bib Gourmand. Those are the types of restaurants that will receive the Michelin Plate designation in the upcoming year’s guide.

The change might be welcomed by restaurants that feel their restaurants suffer from not having a symbol next to their name in the guide. At the same time, you aren’t likely to see many chefs bragging about receiving a L’Assiette Michelin next year. Even though it indicates a high-quality restaurant, it might feel like a participation trophy.

Washington’s 2018 Michelin Guide will go on sale Oct. 20, after San Francisco’s guide (Oct. 17) and before New York’s and Chicago’s guides (Nov. 3).

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