Chicagoans in Every Walk of Life Shattered By News of Decline in Michelin Stars

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Tourist! Photo: Galdones Photography

“Bring only what fits in a carry-on bag. Checking your luggage is asking for trouble. Add several travel-size packets of detergent so you don’t fall into the hands of foreign laundries.” This was the kind of advice that the protagonist of Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist gave in his guidebooks, to help the traveling businessman get along in foreign places with the least possible disturbance to his well-settled way of living. And between last week’s Bib Gourmands and this week’s Michelin star announcements, it’s how we’re beginning to think Michelin approaches the job of covering Chicago, too, as our number of starred restaurants falls from 23 restaurants to 19, even with all the high profile openings we’ve had this year (two of whom— Acadia and Goosefoot— did make the list). At a time of immense creativity on our food scene, Michelin finds a lot to sniff at and not much to enjoy. But if Michelin is wedded to a staid manner of dining that Chicago diners have moved past, we think it's Michelin, not Chicago, that suffers as a result— and not just because they don't seem to be enjoying some great food.

But first, let us dispense the bare facts, if you didn't see them on Twitter yesterday as they began to escape, first as restaurants tweeted their own good news, then as the whole list leaked from somewhere.

Three Stars
Alinea

Two Stars
Graham Elliot (+1*)
L2O (+1*)

One Star
Acadia*
Blackbird
Boka
Everest
Goosefoot*
Longman & Eagle
Mexique*
Moto
Naha
Schwa
Sepia
Sixteen*
Spiaggia
Takashi
Topolobampo
Tru

* new since at least last year

In terms of change, that's Graham Elliot and L2O both moving up a star; Sixteen returning to the list under a new chef at one star; new entrants Acadia and Goosefoot at one star each; and Mexique jumping up from the Bib Gourmand list to a star. (That had heads shaking, but we actually like that they're championing a place most others overlook; it's the most human thing on the list.) Bonsoirée and Seasons left the list because they basically closed and/or reconcepted, and in the closest thing to a shocker, Vie has been booted off the list (as Perennial Virant was kicked off the Bib Gourmands); the Michelin editor told Eater they detected consistency problems as Virant not only managed two kitchens but took on duties for the entire Hotel Lincoln. (Also removed was the only other suburban restaurant on the list besides Vie, Courtright's.)

The Michelin editors also took pains to note that Graham Elliot's stars were not for the Andrew Brochu period alone, but included visits since Elliot took the kitchen back over in September, and represented their favorite virtue, consistency. And to answer your next question, they completely ignored Next again this year, doubtless because it is inconsistent (offering three very different menus a year) unlike, say, Graham Elliot (which offered three different chefs this year).

But immediate reaction was less about specific restaurants than the overall numbers, which were well below those for the only two other American cities rated by the guide. Which prompted Phil Vettel at the Tribune to ask flat out, "Is Chicago dining getting worse?"

When Michelin recognizes 52 one-star restaurants in New York City and 34 one-stars in San Francisco (the only other American cities that Michelin rates), it’s hard to view Chicago’s 16 one-star restaurants — down from 18 in 2011 and 2012 — as anything else but a slap in the face.

What he says is worth considering, but we disagree with the premise that quantity alone tells the story. Both New York and San Francisco (which is really San Francisco plus Napa) both probably do deserve more in raw numbers. But the issue is that Michelin seems insensible to the virtues of what Chicago does have to offer, which is a less formal style of dining built on small plates and big flavors. Like Tyler’s guidebook author, Michelin goes looking here for what it has at home in France, rewards the few examples of it that it can find in Chicago pretty accurately at the three and two star levels, but then seems dismissive of anything— Avec with its uncomfortable chairs, noisy, rushed Girl & the Goat, hyperinformal EL Ideas— that isn't modeled basically on aristocratic hotel dining circa 1928, no matter that the food may be phenomenal.

That focus on a tiny sliver of the market at the top, however glorious it can be, has to reduce in-city sales of the guidebook— really, when you can walk around naming the three and two stars from memory, what do you need a book for? And Michelin's validity as a guide to the next tier below that has to have been hurt by this year's pretty terrible Bib Gourmand list, which lumped genuine culinary stars with "good enough" white tablecloth spots in a way that seemed to signal to Chicagoans that stuffy Michelin readers were much more concerned about having the right atmosphere than in having exceptional food. It's about ensuring adequacy in a socially proper setting more than it is about the chance of finding something magical in a distant city, and we have to say, that's just not why we travel.

Michelin may sell guides like hotcakes overseas, and it has certainly proven that it can get us all hanging out by the Twitter machine for news on one or two days a year. But being so wedded to its own hobgoblins of consistency and classical service means that apart from a brief media frenzy every November, it it is essentially invisible in our own city. What Chicago foodling has ever said "I was going to suggest Avec, but I see Michelin didn't give them a star"? When have you ever seen one of your friends carrying the red book around? There are 392 pages in the guide, but who knows anything about what Michelin thinks beyond the list above? The list of starred spots, with its criteria so out of step with how Chicagoans actually experience their scene, and aimed only at the tourist wanting a sure bet, makes Michelin famous once a year— and too eccentric and tuned out to what's really happening here to be useful the rest of it.