At about this time every year, Michelin begins releasing their vaunted series of international restaurant guides that highlight the best—and worst—places to sit down for a meal. While one of the best-selling dining guides on the market, they are not without detractors—notably British critic A.A. Gill who, in a Vanity Fair editorial, dubbed it an “assassin of the greatest international food” and finds the books to be limited in scope and guilty of food snobbery. Now, when I think Michelin, I think about cars and that charming little man made out of pneumatic tires. Their association with haute cuisine was something I just accepted and returned to my local newspaper/word of mouth/urbanspoon app for dining ideas. But why do we look to on automotive company to highlight the best in international cuisine?
The answer does indeed begin with cars. In late 19th century France, brothers André and Édouard Michelin were leading the pneumatic tire industry with their greatest innovation—tires that did not have to be glued to a wheel rim, but rather, easily removed and replaced—were outfitting bicycles and automobiles. Motor tourism was on the rise in and at the same time, there was also an increasing interest regional gastronomy, which was believed to contribute to the nation’s culinary richness. The Michelin grew out of this point of national pride, and when the guide first appeared in 1900, it provided information on how to change a tire, where to find Michelin dealers and a list of acceptable places to eat and sleep when on the go. But once car culture became more established, and repair places became easier to find, editions printed after World War I focused more on food and lodging, with it’s now-famous starred rating system introduced in 1931. In his book, Marketing Michelin, author Stephen Harp points out the following statistic: “In 1912, the guide had over 600 pages, 62 of which concerned tires. By 1927, however, the first section of the guide devoted to changing tires included only 5 pages, out of 990 total.” The flagship product took a back seat to people’s stomachs and with over a million copies of the guide sold between 1926 and 1940, it was clear that the tire company was defining quality French cuisine.
Both the restaurant guides and their tire industry has endured, the former being a wonderfully ironic piece of marketing that works keep the Michelin brand in the public eye. Plug food to sell tires—who’d have thought? But, as with any curated list, the question always arises as to whether said list is worth its salt. Personally, I find guides to be helpful, but only when I find one that seems to sync up well with my own personality. (For instance, when I took a trip to New York, I used the Not For Tourists Guide to the city and was able to find great food where the locals actually ate. It was a great way to feel like I fit in with new environs, and most of the places they recommended were spot-on with the cuisine.)
Do you think that the Michelin guide is a solid means to finding good food or do your sentiments fall with those of Mr. Gill and feel that it does more harm than good? Share your thoughts—or any experiences you’ve had dining in a starred establishment—in the comments section below.