The Michelin Guide this week serves up its judges' annual assessment of Chicago-area restaurants. As always, it should be a hefty helping of red meat — or well-prepared portobello mushroom — for those whose mouths water at the prospect of arguing whether this place is that good or that one was snubbed.
Michelin star ratings historically confer or confirm a certain global status to restaurants and the chefs who preside over them. Coupled with the Bib Gourmand designations it awards to very good eateries that offer very good value, they are intended to help those seeking fine food find it.
But do you still set your courses by the stars?
Not only do diners share dishes among themselves, but from the soft launch on, they also share and dish about their experiences with anyone who's interested online. As a result, the weight of Michelin's authority and its stars' actual worth are, like everything else on the menu, open to debate.
Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University writing in the New York Times in 2006, cited a European research paper that estimated receiving a Michelin star increased prices in Parisian restaurants by 20 percent. But reached Friday, he pointed out 2006 was a long time ago.
"Things like Facebook matter much more now," Cowen said. "Yelp is now a big deal. If that study were rerun today on just U.S. data, I'd be surprised if it had that much effect."
The role of the critic in many fields is evolving from that of a teacher lecturing students to more of a conversation leader, as it has become easier for the audience to interact with each other. Haute cuisine is no exception.
So, depending on the reason for the demotion, even the dreaded loss of a Michelin star might have a less dramatic effect on a restaurant's business today than it did in 2003. That's when anxiety over possibly losing his restaurant's three-star standing was said to be a factor in the infamous suicide of French chef Bernard Loiseau.
(Loiseau at the time also was deeply depressed, deeply in debt and dealing with a decline in business although his restaurant was not in fact demoted.)
"If the restaurant is really worse, there may be an effect anyway," Cowen said. "It depends on why you go from three to two. …If you go from three to two because it's just not thought of as innovative anymore and the quality is still high, I'm not sure the diners care about that.
"Tourists who collect three-star meals won't go to the place anymore, so there may be some marginal effect. But I think in most cases it would be a modest one."
Michelin was a leader in this field. But a U.S. pioneer in authoritative restaurant guides started out by compiling his own notes on restaurants while on the road as a salesman for a Chicago printing firm. His name is familiar still, though not for the invaluable reviews first published in 1936 as "Adventures in Good Eating for the Discriminating Motorist":
It's Duncan Hines.
Fifty-five years after Hines' death, his cake-mix brand outlives the reputation as a discerning diner that scored him that lucrative business tie-in, but straight-forward reviews are his most impactful legacy.
One from 1939, for example, touted a 24-hour restaurant in Corbin, Ky., as "a very good place to stop en route to Cumberland Falls and the Great Smokies" and noted its steaks, country ham, biscuits and, not least of all, its fried chicken.
The proprietor was Harland Sanders — as in Col. Sanders, who would begin actively franchising his "finger lickin' good" Kentucky Fried Chicken in the 1950s.
Hines was nothing if not a dedicated foodie. According to a 1938 Chicago Tribune profile found by his biographer, Louis Hatchett, Hines frequently drove to Nashville for what he believed to be America's best apple pie, its crust made with a mixture of chicken fat with shortening.
Hines reportedly bought his household coffee from a place in the city on Chicago Avenue but headed out to an unincorporated area near Wilmette for his preferred milk and cream.
Merchants and restaurateurs today cater to that sort of devotion. They are rewarded not only with business but patrons posting pictures and bite-by-bite reviews. But not everyone buys in.
"I start with the question of who's paying," Cowen said. "If I'm spending my own money — I'm not rich, but I'm not poor — I can go to these (Michelin-ranked) places if I want, but I don't actually enjoy it more than really good ethnic food."
Besides, people who run with a crowd that can afford to routinely eat at top-tier restaurants like Alinea or Sixteen may not get the after-dinner treat or sustenance sought from chasing Michelin stars.
"People want to do something unique that they can talk about and other people haven't done, but to go to a three-star (restaurant) may not make that bar anymore," Cowen said.
Michelin's reviews are part of the discussion but hardly the last word.