Dissecting the Michelin Hype & Is There A Bias Against Chicago?

I read this tweet by Grant Achatz yesterday and thought, here we go again, like it or not, it’s Michelin time:

Michelin less then a month away. How many three stars in Chicago this year? And any for Next? @curtisduffy @dcberan @MichelinGuideCH

Unlike Mr. Achatz, though, I’m less interested in predicting the restaurants that will win (or lose) stars than in the one part of his tweet about Next, which I think refers to the fact that Next has been shut out of the awards in any regard despite ceaseless national hype, the unquestionable top-tier talent of Chef Dave Beran, and the receipt of four stars for each incarnation by Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune.

Michelin as a gauge of restaurant quality is increasingly questionable. Its vague standards seem to be applied in a patchwork fashion from city-to-city. I’ve heard Hong Kong decried as the place with the most unworthy Michelin-starred restaurants. On the other end of the spectrum, I think, is Chicago, which seems to have had an unusually difficult time getting its restaurants awarded stars. So much that Michelin may be on the brink of losing any local credibility whatsoever.

The onset of the yearly Michelin announcement seems to have divided Chicago into two camps. One camp dismisses Michelin as an archaic novelty from the pre-internet days, and complain if it is given any attention (I’ll call them the “Emotional Distancers”). The other camp believes deep-down that Michelin is elite and influential, and mainly wants to see their city’s beloved restaurants afforded the prestige of Michelin star-designation (these are the “True Believers”).

If there’s one thing both camps seem to agree on is that there is a Michelin bias against Chicago. According to them, this is evidenced by the irrational omission of Next, and the inclusion of very traditional, predictable restaurants that aren’t highly regarded or talked about (remember one-star Crofton on Wells?). Other beloved restaurants (i.e., Ruxbin and Vera) have been lauded nationally but omitted from either the Stars or Bibs, causing more speculation and head-scratching. (That Chicago has endured being cast as such fairly recently only contributes to Second City angst.)

But could there really be an institutional bias against Chicago like people say? As with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. A grand total of 19 Michelin-starred restaurants seems like a small number. But why would Michelin have it out for Chicago?  After all, isn’t it in their best interests to give out more stars, which would generate more hype and ostensibly sell more guides?

As with a lukewarm performance review, maybe your boss is a self-absorbed egomaniac, but there are probably some things you could do to improve your work performance before quitting in protest. Before anyone can dismiss the famously anonymous Michelin inspecteurs as unadventurous, staid, French food fuddy-duddies, is it certain that Chicago restaurants are satisfying the one criterion Michelin focuses on — service?  Food is subjective, but good service is easier to universally pinpoint. And if nothing else, Michelin sets a threshold for service that all starred restaurants consciously or unconsciously must meet. Unfortunately, as much as I love Chicago restaurants, a good number of them disqualify themselves from Michelin star status right out of the gate with sub-par service in three respects:

Overbearing Bussers. The bussers in Chicago insert themselves into the dining experience like no other city I’ve known. They regularly interrupt the dinner by slamming down plates or silverware, or by reaching through numerous times to refill an eighth-inch depletion of a water glass. Especially bothersome is when they take, without asking first, used silverware and place it on the bare tabletop for re-use with the next course (even though the tabletop has seen countless fingers and elbows that no amount of quick wipes of a much-used rag can truly cleanse). Often, they must be stopped from whisking away a plate with food left on it in what is an obvious effort to rush dinner and turn the table. By giving the bussers such a prominent role, restaurants are layering in another potential for discontent. If a diner had a good experience with a server, and a bad one with the busser, what do you think they’ll remember? It’s like why cheftestants shouldn’t prepare duos on Top Chef. Prominent bussing service increases the likelihood that people will leave the restaurant feeling short-changed of good service.

Over-Extended Servers. It seems like the servers at some of Chicago’s most chef-driven restaurants are harried and under-trained. They don’t take ownership of their tables, resulting in either the kitchen (see below) or the bussers (see above) taking control of the meal, and leaving the diners caught in the middle without an advocate. I don’t mean to harp on hardworking people, but better training and more veteran, polished service might be an improvement. And I’m not necessarily blaming the servers themselves; I think their employers — some of which are serving Chicago’s very best food — are doing everyone a disservice by not providing them with appropriate support.

Small Plate Frenzy. Small plates (and by that I mean, dishes that are meant to be shared, consisting of only a few bites, and requiring patrons to order at least 4 per meal) create a service minefield that can easily trip up a meal. With few exceptions, dining with small plates means, “whatever dishes the kitchen finishes first.” No order, no planning. So, the salad may come out after the meat dishes, or the table may end up stacked with several plates that came out at once. Sometimes, when the table is already filled with small plates, runners arrive with their hands full of more small plates (the actual plates being not so small), holding them aloft, looking expectantly at the diners to solve the problem of the lack of room on the table. In cases such as this, I’ve seen diners take on the task of rearranging plates, stacking them or even scarfing down what’s left on the plates a la Lucy at the chocolate factory. If a Michelin inspecteur has to rearrange his or her table to make room for more plates, poof! there goes your Michelin star (and probably also your Bib).

So maybe it’s true that Michelin is too traditional or hates the casual dining mish-mosh triggered by small plates and there’s nothing to be done, but I think it’s hard to write off Michelin as biased until the service improves. And just as I write that, I think back to the recent meal I had at New York City’s Danny Brown Wine Bar, a Michelin one-star…

NEXT: Danny Brown Wine Bar, or the Best Case of Anti-Chicago Bias by Michelin

DANNY BROWN WINE BAR, OR THE BEST CASE OF ANTI-CHICAGO BIAS BY MICHELIN

On a recent business trip, I detoured from LaGuardia to Danny Brown Wine Bar & Kitchen in New York City, which has the distinction of being the borough of Queens’ only Michelin-starred restaurant. It also happened to be the day that Michelin announced its star designations for NYC restaurants, so they had received the good news (that they retained their star), and many regulars came in to congratulate them.

I liked Danny Brown Wine Bar, more for the vibe than the food or wine. For a place that calls itself a wine bar the wine list was ho-hum. The food, while a dated parade of mid-90s standards (duck confit, roasted chicken with rosemary potatoes, hangar steak), was satisfying in a comforting weekday sort of a way. As I enjoyed my well-paced meal (service was great), I settled in, sipped a middling glass of red wine as dusk descended, and watched as more patrons arrived in casual, post-work dress. They were greeting Danny and the staff with cheek-kisses and chit-chat, inquiring after family, and contributing to a mellow, friendly vibe, helped along by the soft-jazz playing, I thought, oh, this is such a classic New York neighborhood restaurant, exactly what you’d expect —

RECORD SCRATCHED.

No, it wasn’t. Or maybe it was, but that was not what formed my frame of reference. DBWB reminded me of CHICAGO neighborhood restaurants. West Town Tavern (RIP) was the first, most prominent comparison that came to mind. Not to sound boosterish, but Chicago — the city of neighborhoods — has perfected the neighborhood restaurant. What is more, there are many versions of DBWB in Chicago, except that I can name several off of the top of my head that have more ambitious menus and better executed food, cocktails, and wine programs than that at DBWB. Yet, few of them are Bib Gourmands, let alone Michelin stars.

How can Michelin possibly explain this disparity? Maybe Michelin isn’t going deep into Chicago’s restaurant landscape, but that’s inconsistent with its awarding Bib Gourmands to little-discussed restaurants like Yolo or De Colores. Frankly, I don’t think there is an explanation, except that Michelin wanted to reward the borough of Queens with a Michelin-starred restaurant. But this sort of relaxing of standards for NYC and not Chicago would indicate a bias, because Michelin doesn’t seem so concerned with equitably distributing its stars throughout Chicago neighborhoods. The popular, dining-rich neighborhoods of Andersonville and Wicker Park, for instance, have zero Michelin-starred restaurants.

So, to prove my point (if only to myself), here are 10 great neighborhood restaurants in Chicago that are similar to but better than Danny Brown Wine Bar:

Restaurants that do not have a Michelin star but are Bib Gourmands:

1)  Balena

2)  Avec

3)  The Bristol

4)  Nightwood

5)  The Storefront Company

(Note that I could have also included places like Maude’s, Ada Street, Gilt Bar, Au Cheval, Spacca Napoli, etc., but in fairness, I think they’re going for something different than DBWB.)

Restaurants that do not have a Michelin star or a Bib Gourmand:

1)  Vera

2)  Telegraph

3)  Yusho

4)  Ruxbin

5)  A Tavola

Any of these restaurants are easily more worthy of accolades than DBWB, either because their food is more finessed, their wine and beverage programs are more honed (or ambitious), or they exceed DBWB’s idea of an exceptional neighborhood restaurant.

Depending on the next announcement, Michelin is teetering on a genuine perception problem in Chicago. Talk to any frequent Chicago diner, and they’ll most likely grumble about Michelin. (In contrast, here is one example of how Michelin is viewed differently in NYC.) DBWB is just one argument (in my opinion) for a colorable claim of bias. If Chicago restaurants are subjected to the yearly dog-and-pony announcement show put on by Michelin only to feel shorted by the process, well, the major accomplishment by Michelin will be to create a large group of Michelin Nihilists in the country’s third-largest city. Does Michelin’s US arm benefit from having a holdout city that loudly discredits the guide as a joke? Depending upon what happens in November, we’ll see.