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Did The Michelin Guide Get It Right This Time?

By Anthony Todd in Food on Nov 13, 2013 7:00PM

2013_11_13_Michelin.jpg Now that the Michelin stars are out, it's time to play Monday morning (or in this case, Wednesday afternoon) quarterback. We've regularly complained about Michelin's treatment of Chicago restaurants, both here and in other forums. Did things improve for the 2014 guide? As with most things, the answer is: sorta.

Let's start with the good stuff—the new stars. While Grace was a gimme—everyone knew Curtis Duffy and company would get a star, the question was just how many—the new one-star restaurants were real treats. El Ideas, North Pond, Elizabeth, Senza and The Lobby at the Peninsula Hotel all deserved their stars and, in our humble opinion, represent both the most innovative and reliable restaurants in Chicago dining. Even some of Michelin's biggest detractors gave them props for that. RedEye critic Michael Nagrant told them that they deserved a star for themselves and the reaction throughout the day was largely positive, rather than the massive outrage that accompanied Michelin rollouts in the past.

Here's one big question: Why did it take them so long? We've been dining at El Ideas and North Pond for a while now, and nothing has particularly changed in the past year. Combined with the increase in the number of stars overall (from 19 to 25), it almost feels like a quota was changed, as if Michelin suddenly said "Ok, Chicago deserves a tiny bit more." Much of the talk in the food world was about how Chicago "earned" more stars than ever before - but how much actually changed? Did we "earn" more or did Michelin finally realize that by giving Chicago fewer stars than San Francisco, something looked a little bit fishy?

On the other hand, some of the omissions continue to confuse. Not to bash on Longman & Eagle, but is it really in a totally different class from avec, Vera, Balena or Publican? The Bristol was entirely snubbed, losing its Bib Gourmand and not gaining a star. Similarly Storefront Company, which we think is underrated (and has improved mightily in the past year) lost its Bib and got nothing in return.

Michelin Guide international director Michael Ellis talked to Crains about the selection process, and the whole thing made us laugh a little bit inside. He insisted that the stars "are about the food and only about the food," not the level of fanciness or number of servers breathing down your neck. That's completely nuts, especially if you look at the hierarchy of restaurants between the one and two/three star level. Apparently, they will look at any restaurant with "culinary significance" and give it an equal shot, but can you imagine the world's best hot dog stand getting a Michelin star? Of course not.

The big shocker/non-shocker of the day was Next, which continues to be ignored. This is completely baffling and does more of a disservice to the guide than to the restaurant which continues to book up months in advance. Eater also got in touch with the director of Michelin, who gave this ridiculous non-answer about Next: "it's hard to get in there and it hasn't been open long." What?

Even better, Next didn't just fail to get a star—they were totally trashed in the text of the guide itself. The guide calls it "outrageously hyped," puts "cuisine" in quotes in the review (as if somehow they aren't serving actual food), points to "outlandish misses" and insists that the staff will blame you if you dare to say you don't love the food. Admittedly, I've only been to two iterations of Next, but even a sometimes-vocal critic of the Achatz/Kokonas empire like me thinks that's a completely ridiculous evaluation.

I'll give the final word to the Reader's Mike Gebert, who summed it up nicely. "So: once again, it's a weird way to look at our dining scene, which is why we mainly only think about it once a year. We remain a Bib Gourmand city to them, not a city for many stars."