Michelin Bib Gourmands Damn With Faint Praise

Look at that supercilious sneer.
Look at that supercilious sneer.

The French are in the dictionary next to the phrase “supercilious sneer,” and that trait is in evidence in the latest list of 56 Chicago Michelin Bib Gourmands, intended to whip up Michelin Fever in advance of next week’s announcement of the fine dining stars. In reality, there are two lists here. One is modest places which can be genuinely flattered to be on the list. Michelin is careful to scatter these at an assortment of restaurants representing the cuisines of countries where tourists buy a lot of Michelin Guides, and on that level, sending Polish tourists to Smak-Tak or Chinese to Lao Sze Chuan when they get homesick is smart marketing. That part of the list especially fleshed out the Mexican side— Mundial Cocina Mestizo, Sol de Mexico, Xni-Pec and something called Yolo in Skokie are four of the seventeen new places. (There was only one spot booted off the list, Frances’ Deli; a handful of others have closed in the interim.) But if that side of the list is a hearty handshake for the mostly modest restaurateurs involved, another side of the list offers some more upscale chefs the back of the hand.

Look at that supercilious sneer.

It seems increasingly clear that Michelin is trying to hold the line on the ultraposh French dining that is the mainstay of its prestige by subtly dismissing the casualness and earthiness of so much modern American dining. How else to explain that places such as Avec, The Bristol, Nightwood, Perennial Virant and The Publican get merely the pat on the head of a Bib Gourmand designation? It is impossible to argue that there is not high skill in those kitchens, comparable at least to the one-star spots which will be named next week. Yet their approach— farm-to-table, simple cuisine— recalls not the three-star restaurants of Paris but the modest, peasanty restaurants of the French countryside.

And Michelin is about nothing if not drawing the distinctions between la cité and les provinces, between bourgeois and paysan. The Guide came into existence, after all, to give those wealthy enough to own an automobile direction to where it would be suitable for their sort to eat out in the ruder precincts far from Paris. So it’s not surprising that they should react with alarm to such democratic stirrings in American cuisine, and seek to enforce their subtle social distinctions upon us.

So yes, it’s fun every year when the French make their strange and arbitrary and inscrutable proclamations about our dining scene‚ but fundamentally, the values Michelin represents are not those of diners in Chicago— and that’s just fine.

Here are the 56 Bib Gourmands; restaurants new to the list are bolded.

Ann Sather
Belly Shack
The Bristol
Ceres’ Table
De Cero
Frontera Grill
Gemini Bistro
Gilt Bar
Girl & The Goat
Green Zebra
GT Fish & Oyster
Han 202
Jin Thai
Kabul House
La Creperie
La Petite Folie
Lao Sze Chuan
Los Nopales
Lula Café
M. Henry
Maude’s Liquor Bar
Mixteco Grill
Mundial Cocina Mestiza
Opart Thai House
Owen & Engine
Paramount Room
Perennial Virant
Publican (The)
Purple Pig (The)
Raj Darbar
Riccardo Trattoria
Smoque BBQ
Sol de Mexico
Spacca Napoli
Taste of Peru
Thai Village
Twin Anchors
Urban Belly
West Town Tavern
Xni-Pec de Yucatan

Michelin Bib Gourmands Damn With Faint Praise