Although this year’s pre-Michelin build-up is far from being as heady as last year’s bubble of excitement, there’s still a spirited guessing game as to whether Chicago will be flattered or disappointed when the star ratings are announced tomorrow, in spots ranging from Vettel in the Trib to Crain’s. But trust us: disappointed is a done deal. That’s for one simple reason: in the past year, we’ve opened more of what the French don’t like, and closed some of what they do. Given the body of restaurants out there, there’s just nowhere to go but down.
Michelin already looked at what Chicagoans seem to love at the moment, casualish places big on pork and beer, and said: Non, merci, giving their fourth-best designation out of four to places like Avec and Girl & the Goat which could reasonably have expected one, even two stars. But the problem with making it up on the high end is simple: it’s shrinking. Here’s how the star ratings shape up:
Three stars: Alinea will remain… most likely alone, on the theory that no place like L2O (the only other three-star designee last year) changes chefs a week before good news. Verdict: -1.
Two stars: Avenues is closed; if it still gets its star, it doesn’t count. We see no reason to think Trotter will move up or down; Ria could well keep its star (Danny Grant’s transition to the top spot after Jason McLeod left has been flawless), but with rumors about the hotel being sold, no telling if that will matter in a few months. We could see them being wowed by Next— specifically Paris 1906— and giving it two; we could as easily see them giving it one. There’s no other real candidate. Verdict: as many as +2, but one of which would be L2O moving down.
One star: The places that were on last year’s list seem stable in terms of any chance of moving up; it’s possible they could love new things happening at Blackbird or Tru, one supposes, but most of these are what they always have been. NoMi, which went casual, is most at risk for getting booted (Seasons smartly held off the announcement until too late for Michelin to react); Sixteen, which lost its head chef a few months back, is also at risk. But apart from Next, it’s hard to think of a new place likely to jump here… that didn’t already get a Bib Gourmand; Sable, maybe (we might say The Florentine, but they’re not big on Italian food; likewise, if they didn’t like Moto, they won’t like Ing). Verdict: -1 or -2.
One thing that might inflate these numbers is the report (which the Bib Gourmands gave credence to) that suburban restaurants will get more attention this year. Perhaps, but with the most widely acclaimed suburban spot (Vie) only managing to get one star, it seems unlikely they’ll fill the list with too many Le Titi de Paris’s and Sugar Toads. And as for Phil Vettel’s idea that our steakhouses will suddenly earn Michelin love… Michelin likes fine dining, not Texas-sized red meat joints. They’re so… American. Vettel optimistically had the one-star category alone growing by six from 18 to 24 spots; even with the suburbs added, we’ll be surprised if the whole list grows by more than four or five.
In the end, Michelin coming to Chicago is sort of like the moment when James Bond lands on the villain’s private island; panic and excitement ensues, when the response should really be a sarcastic “Here come the British, now I’m really scared.” The French are about to express their disapproval of our more casual food scene. Let’s go to The Publican and cry over a couple of Belgian beers about it.