Ed Levine raises some points about Michelin today in what will no doubt be the first of many arguments and think pieces on the subject. There won’t be much debate, though, on the larger question about Michelin: Nearly everybody we know agrees that the book sucks. Unlike its French original, whose authority was well earned and absolute, and based on an army of incorruptible gourmands, the New York book seems more like the product of two Short Hills foodies passing the time on a red-eye airline flight. We haven’t seen the book itself, so we can’t say if the prose will be as insipid and amateurish as last year’s, which was straight from the South Bend Pennysaver, but we think we might get why Michelin is so weirdly arbitrary, a “combination of the Edsel and the Yugo” in Levine’s words.
Essentially, there are two problems with the Michelin guide. Despite the fact that there is a separate knife-and-fork symbol used to rate the physical comfort for the restaurant, with the stars supposedly reserved for “cuisine,” both the French and American books conflate the two. The only thing that separates the two-starred restaurants from one-starred ones is their luxury and physical grandeur. Is there a single diner in New York that thinks Gordon Ramsay a better restaurant in terms of food than L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon? Or for that matter who thinks the food at Del Posto is that much better than that of Babbo?
The larger problem is one not limited to Michelin. The three-star system has become unmoored from its original purpose, that of guiding travelers driving around in cars. The stars had objective meanings: One star was good in its category, two was worth a detour, and three worth a journey in itself. But in a city like Paris or New York, where all the restaurants are equally accessible, the ratings just become a matter of good, better, and bestest. And when done by a committee of secret inspectors without any agreed-upon criteria, the result is exactly what you would expect: a random smattering of praise, some deserved, some not, riddled with unforgivable lacunae. (Denying Esca a star is like printing “Made in Secaucus” on the cover.) Levine expresses his reservations at so-called “citizen brigades” like Yelp or Zagat, but until someone at Michelin goes back to basics and says just what the stars mean, for our money the Michelin guide is just Zagat with a different shade of red.
Michelin, Yelp, Zagat: Who Can We Believe? [Ed Levine Eats]
Related: The Case Against the Michelin Guide