New York’s list of Michelin stars was announced a couple of days ago, ours are just over a month away (November 14), and famously nasty Brit-critic A.A. Gill has just published the opening Michelin takedown of the season in Vanity Fair (favorite quote written in stomach acid: “It’s no accident that the legacy of 100 years of Michelin is not just an emaciated, inhospitable French table but the legion of score-settling adjective junkies populating unreadable Internet blogs”). So it’s time to start obsessing over those awards we insist don’t matter and don’t judge on the criteria we care about. Who will win? Who will be closing after reservations dry up following their demotion? We don’t know, but there are a few things we do know, and here they are.
1. People will predict extravagant things entirely out of character for Michelin.
This is the year Michelin goes starry-eyed for steakhouses! Phil Vettel predicted that last year; it didn’t happen. This is the year Michelin expands into the suburbs to include Inovasi/Le Vichysoisse/June in Peoria! Uh no, that won’t happen either (though John DesRosiers will be hard-pressed to top last year’s tweet crack that apparently Michelin tires can’t drive as far as Lake Bluff). This is the year that Michelin throws aside a century of Frenchness and goes gaga for small plate informal whatever! No, much as we may enjoy such places, Michelin will not be putting, say, Tavernita up next to Alinea. The French are who they are and they like what they have always liked and it’s not our hot chef-driven casual scene.
2. The actual amount of change will be glacial.
A few changes are foreordained— like the fact that the entire two star category closed this year (RIA and Charlie Trotter’s). (Here’s the current list if you want to play along.) Same for Seasons (gone) and now Bonsoirée in the one-star category, and who knows what they’ll do about Graham Elliot. If we had to bet, on the most conservative possible basis short of no change at all, it would be that Alinea will remain the sole three-star, the new, frankly Michelin-ambitious Sixteen might reenter the list at two stars, and L2O has at least a decent shot under Matt Kirkley of climbing back to two after its fall from three to one.
But that already starts to feel overly ambitious for Michelin, who depend in part on the fact that change is usually so tiny and carefully judged that a twitch lands like a blow.
3. Something will die as a result.
We don’t literally mean death of a chef, as happens on occasion in France where Michelin matters enough to drive them mad. But Crofton on Wells was done in by their Michelin demotion, and someone else could be too. We look at the list and we don’t know who it would be— most seem quite steady, and we expect to see the likes of Blackbird, Sepia etc. on the list for years to come. (We kind of think that if Blackbird did lose theirs, Paul Kahan would just mutter a single expletive, and then business would continue as usual.) But something will probably take the hit, and their survival as a result will be thrown into doubt. We Chicagoans don’t listen to the Michelins that much, but we’ll second-guess ourselves about any place the French diss that badly.
4. We are a one star/Bib Gourmand city and that’s cool.
As far as we’re concerned, the real action in Chicago is always in the one stars and the Bib Gourmands. And that’s just fine. It’s nice that we can field a handful of more ambitious places to aim for three stars, good for them, but we’ll never approach New York’s seven three stars; our heritage is less formal cuisines (German, Italian, Mexican) and our thing is at the intersection of high and low, where Allium in the Four Seasons makes a hot dog and a hot dog guy like Doug Sohn puts foie on his. Michelin doesn’t go for that, and downgrades certain restaurants as a result (we’d eat at Bib Gourmand The Purple Pig, to name just one, over many of the one stars it should be among). But that’s okay. We like one stars for food and service way more than we could tolerate being serviced like a Saudi oil minister every night.
There’s an impressive crop of new places which don’t reach two or three star levels on service and pretension, but put out high caliber food. Casualness may condemn Yusho, EL Ideas* and Vera, to name three, to the Bib Gourmand list (all Michelin’s loss more than theirs, we’d say), but at least they certainly belong there. And stepping up a notch in polish, at the minimum Allium and Goosefoot ought to arrive on the one-star list. (We have no idea what they’ll think about Next this time, but they’ve made some comments that hint that they’re responding to last year’s criticism for whiffing the ball on this one last year.)
But the thing to remember is that Michelin isn’t about “ought”; it’s about the inscrutable will of the mysterious French autocrats we love to hate. Bring them on, in their funny little cars with Michelin tires.
* UPDATE: A reader reminds us that there seem to be sort of price maximums for Bib Gourmands which, though obviously pretty elastic to judge by some of the spots on there (e.g. Girl & the Goat), nevertheless probably let at least EL Ideas out.