The Michelin Guides and their star ratings are valued the world over, but with the first-ever D.C. guide coming Thursday, you might not know where they come from or what they mean. If you need a primer on what has had the local dining scene in a tizzy, here are some basics.
What is the Michelin Guide?
A dining guide, essentially. It's published by, yes, the tire company, starting in 1900 when its founders launched a guide to encourage people to get out on the road in France and wear down their tires. A star rating was introduced in 1926, with the three-star system going into effect in 1931.
Michelin also releases non-starred recommendations for more affordable restaurants: the Bib Gourmand (in Washington, $40 or less for two courses and a glass of wine or dessert) and cheap eats ($25 or less here) lists.
How many guides are there?
Washington is the 29th edition of the collection, joining fellow American cities San Francisco, New York and Chicago. (Los Angeles and Las Vegas were discontinued in 2010.) The guides, which span 28 countries and can focus on individual cities, countries or regions, include editions on London, Paris, Tokyo, Italy, Germany and, of course, France.
What do the star ratings mean?
Technically, one star means "a very good restaurant in its category." Two stars equate to "excellent cooking, worth a detour," and three stars are awarded for "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey."
The standards, though, are tougher than they sound. There are only 127 three-star restaurants in the world. New York only has six three-star restaurants; Chicago has two; and San Francisco has five. There's a chance no D.C. restaurants will earn three stars come Thursday. At least in the United States, the rare three-star rating tends to be awarded to restaurants with pricey tasting menus created by highly-acclaimed chefs who've spent years toiling in the industry.
The pressure to achieve and maintain star ratings can be immense, a cultural phenomenon that's recently been dramatized in films such as "Burnt" and "The Hundred-Foot Journey." In real life, the push for perfection and the disappointment of falling short can be devastating, as Quartz wrote last year, leading to serious soul-searching, actual tears (from Gordon Ramsay, no less) and, in at least one extreme example, suicide, as is suspected in the 2003 death of French chef Bernard Loiseau, who reportedly feared a demotion in his star rating.
Who are the inspectors?
The inspectors, who train with more experienced colleagues for six months before becoming full-time employees, are anonymous. Most are trained chefs, and most who came to D.C. were Americans, according to Michael Ellis, international director for the Michelin Guides, who spoke with The Post's Maura Judkis. Michelin did reveal that 10 nonlocal inspectors came to research Washington. Each inspector visits around 250 restaurants a year.
What are the criteria for reviewing restaurants?
There are five: product quality; preparation and flavors; the chef's personality as revealed through his or her cuisine; value for money; and consistency over time and across the entire menu.
How does it work?
Here's a bit more from Judkis's story:
To maintain their anonymity and objectivity, all [inspectors] pay for their meals and never eat at a restaurant more than once in the same year. For restaurants that are being considered for stars, Michelin sends multiple inspectors throughout the year to test a restaurant’s consistency and creativity.
A recently published Michelin Guide to Brazil, released in time for the Olympics, offers some additional insight to the group's "star sessions," in which the restaurant ratings are determined:
An essential moment before the publication of each yearly guide, these top secret sessions are attended by all the inspectors, and only the inspectors, in order to discuss the allocation of new stars. A star is in fact never just one person's choice; it is a collective decision resulting from a lengthy process and the final decision always involves several meals by different inspectors, in order to guarantee the reliability and objectivity of the decision. Stars are above all a collegiate decision.
Who's getting stars in the D.C. guide?
That answer will be revealed Thursday, when the full list is released. In the meantime, it's possible to narrow down the possibilities. The guide will only include restaurants within city lines -- sorry, Inn at Little Washington! The 19 eateries on the Bib Gourmand list don't earn stars, either.
The Post recently sent a poll to restaurant industry insiders, and if their votes hold out, Pineapple and Pearls, Komi and Minibar are strong contenders for two stars and possibly even three stars.
So why should I care?
There's definitely a sense that Michelin arriving in Washington proves the city has arrived on the world stage as a food scene. Then again, Washingtonian reported that there may be more prosaic reasons at play, too, such as proximity to . . . federal regulators.
The guides may also attract more visitors to the nation's capital, or at least give them a reason to think more about where they eat. That may especially be the case with tourists from Europe, where the little red guides have a much more established foothold and, arguably, cultural cachet. (The first American Michelin Guide, New York, did not arrive until 2006.) Food is a compelling reason to hit the road for many travelers today, and there are even some jet-setters who travel the world just to eat at Michelin-starred restaurants.
It's entirely possible that Michelin-starred D.C. restaurants will see renewed interest among locals -- and therefore longer lines. After Bon Appétit hailed Bad Saint as the No. 2 best new restaurant in the country, the tiny Columbia Heights eatery was slammed with massive crowds that stretched down the block.
Correction: A previous version of this article said the Michelin Guides are in 25 countries. They are in 28 countries.