Wow. As I look at winners of three star Michelin restaurants in France and elsewhere, I'm blown away. No, not by the number of newcomers but by some of the memories I'm having from dining at these places, long before they even earned star one. You can find the list here.
As someone who plans trips around restaurants and wineries, I'm often digging into the local news, best of articles what's new and reviews about a town or region long before I even look at the Michelin Guide these days. Sure, the Red Book has always been a data point, a reference and a starting point, but it's just one. And, as a frequent traveler and visitor to France, and the wine regions there, I'm often looking first for local intelligence, not a recap of the past, and the rigidness that earning the stars carries with it.
You see, the stars are both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is for the chef and restaurant, as it is the ultimate honor. The curse of the stars is the pressure they put on the restaurant to deliver flawless execution from arrival to departure for the guest, and a table like experience that is so precise that you are feeling like you're having an out of body experience as a guest. As someone who has dined in 3 stars to no stars (yet) since the 80s, and where my first experience was in Alsace and then Paris, my feelings have shifted, to finding the restaurants on their way up, and only dine in the 3 stars when it's a truly special occasion or simply because you have been going there since they first arrived. I did this with Pic, AM, Helene Daroze, and more and more as I peruse the star list.
My favorite story on this 3 star experience is El Cellar de Can Roca in Spain just outside of Girona. Having lived in the shadow of the famed El Bulli, I had been working with a client in Girona so El Cellar de Can Roca was not yet at 3 stars. They had two, but getting a weeknight reservation was easy. After three wonderful experience in the late 00's and with my then wife joining me on a business trip, we decided to go there.
This dinner though was about a month after they earned star number 3 in 2009 and while everything had been correct, there was something we both felt was lacking. It was missing the spontaneous experience and the ability to change things up. The restaurant while delivered on a "perfect" dining experience, it had lost the vibrancy, the edginess that it had on the way up. For Helene, who had heard such glowing, excitement from me after each meal in the past, and for me, the three star experience was just too stiff. Gone were the smiles, the laughter and the frivolity of my attempts to order in a hybrid of French, Spanish and English, and in turn, the banter back and forth with the staff.
Gone too was the friendly nature of the sommelier and servers who once learning of my wine interest began to go off list and bring things just to enjoy. Post three star recognition, the meal became as if every diner was the potential Michelin Guide correspondent on a check visit. Sure that pressure brings on consistency, but the joy of a dinner for me has never been about that, but the fun, imagination and human side of dining out.
So while many of the places on the Michelin list bring back memories of the past, I'm looking ahead to where things will be. In France I used to always buy the local reviewers books, coming home with various guides and using them to find where I would go on the next trip back in the 80s and 90s. I did the same thing everywhere I traveled and my library became a reference point for each next trip. In reality, I think they actually fueled my interest in another trip. The new data, about what was new, which chef had moved where. Who had opened an annexe restaurant all led me to find the next best thing.
Once the internet arrived and more and more content found its way online, the books stopped being bought, but the local information became my guideposts. Le Fooding,more than any website, became my go to first source for what's new in Paris. As they expanded across France, I found their repository of information perhaps my best source of where to go. They were as much an early discovery site, as EATER is in the USA, but better because they required real commentary from real diners, who actually paid for their meals. I also began to read Le Figaro, and Francois Simon, who penned his last review in the paper about pal Tim Johnston's Juveniles. and find the locals elsewhere who were doing their own research and reporting too.
I would also ask Tim and pal Mark Williamson of Willis Wine Bar fame, and they too would make suggestions about where to go that was new, or sometimes, old, but with a new chef. The same in the Languedoc, where my winemaker friends always have their fingers on the pulse, or the hotel concierges, like the lovely Audree Berr at the Marseille Intercontinental or James Ridenour who holds down a similar role in Melbourne.
Over now multiple visits to their hotel, I'll make my own picks, and run those by them, and often have already made my reservations. To their credit, they often admit having not yet visited some places, but value my opinion. In Audree's case we often compared notes, as she'll go a few weeks before my arrival, and either give me the thumbs up, or simply say, "No, Andy. Let's not have you go there."
And then there's Google, for as its search tools have gotten so much better as with the addition of translation has became the standard way to find, the ability to find local with local info got really easier.
Having the local's perspective always helps. On a recent trip after getting some pointers as a starting point from a regular visitor to Valle de Guadalupe in Baja Mexico, a friend and I went for a five day sojourn to make new memories. Having never been to Baja for wine visits before it put the kind of challenge I love.
Pick the restaurants, choose hotels, find a driver, book the wineries. Over the next four days after we decide to go there, I did all that, hitting the mark about 85 percent of the time on wineries, 90 percent on restaurants (only the cold weather at night caused a shift one evening) and 100 percent on the driver. But what made the trip successful was the ability to find so many articles and reviews from people who had recently been there. It then became a game of routing, deciding which place would be great for lunch, and which for dinner.
So here's the bottom line. If you've never been to a region, the Michelin Guide is a sure fire way to find places to dine. But the real fun is when you dig below the stars, find the other restaurants that are listed without the stars in the book, go look around online and search out the hidden gems.
By finding the local commentary, and then venturing out on your own you'll find the gems that are yet so widely known and best of all, you'll have fun as you've found the next star, not the stars that already are.