If you scored a Valentine’s Day reservation at a swanky Michelin-starred restaurant this year, you might wonder why an elite restaurant rating guide has the same name as a company that makes tires.
All-weather radials and fine dining have little in common, after all. But, to chefs and restaurant owners, recognition from the century-old Michelin tire brand is a lifelong dream.
The roots of what evolved into an incredibly influential ranking system did not begin with the intent of leading diners to the highest quality restaurants. If anything, it was a sneaky publicity campaign now legendary for its success.
In the later years of the 19th century, brothers André and Édouard Michelin had a business, and a problem. They had founded their tire company, based in the rural town of Clermont-Ferrand, about four hours south of Paris. At that time, there were fewer than 3,000 cars in their home country of France. Driving anywhere was no simple feat there wasn’t an extensive network of roads and gasoline was hard to come by. They needed to give people a reason to drive more.
Enter a pocket-sized red book known as the Michelin Guide.
In the preface of the 1900 first edition of the guide, André explained the purpose of it was to provide “a driver all the necessary information for traveling in France where to fill his tank, repair his car, as well as where to find a place to sleep and to eat.”
If people drove more, it would eventually cause the tires to get worn and as a result, increase tire purchases, the brothers thought.
For a while, the guide was distributed for free but that changed after André saw a copy of one being used to prop up a bench in a garage, according to the company.
The decision to charge a fee instead of relying on advertising came “as cars became cheaper and performed better,” according to the book by Olivier Darmon, “The Michelin Man’s First Hundred Years,” which was later translated into English.
As a result, more French people had a desire to tour the country, making the Michelin Guide increasingly essential. To further aid drivers, Michelin opened offices where tourists could consult experts to craft trip itineraries and get road maps for journeys across Europe, a concept similar to AAA, which launched around the same time.
“Most of this information came from the company’s traveling (tire) salesmen, who spent much of their time on the roads and were, therefore, highly reliable and informed sources,” Darmon said.
There’s no evidence the guide increased tire sales. However, it provided a new revenue stream for the company and served as a publicity tool that increased public confidence in driving, Darmon said.
Today, Michelin is a publicly traded company valued at nearly $24 billion and produces close to 200 million tires a year. The Michelin Guide now covers over 30,000 restaurants across three continents and more than 30 million guides have been sold.
By the late 1920s, Michelin’s restaurant recommendations in the guidebooks had become so influential that it prompted the brothers to launch a new venture involving hiring undercover diners, now referred to as inspectors, to determine if a restaurant was a fine dining establishment. If they were, they’d receive one star.
The ranking system evolved, but, to this day, the ratings put in place in the 1930s stand one star means the restaurant is “worth a stop,” two means it’s “worth a detour” and three means it’s “worth a special journey.”
William Bradley, the executive chef and director at Addison, one of just 13 three-star Michelin restaurants in the United States, said that his guests who come from around the world often secure reservations at his San Diego-based restaurant before they have nailed down any other travel plans. (10-course tasting experience: $375.)
Addison received its first Michelin star in 2019, two years later it received its second and a year later, in 2022, it was awarded its third. Bradley said neither he nor any of his staff had any suspicions that an inspector was visiting the restaurant, and didn’t single anyone out.
“We didn’t want to fall into that trap,” Bradley told . “We wanted to just make sure that we were delivering top quality to everyone.”
The system has not been without its many critics. The Washington Post noted in a 2023 article, “It inhibits innovation as much as it supports it, as chefs realize they might be penalized if they stray too far outside the box.” The Michelin Guide has also received backlash for allegedly favoring French chefs and cuisine.
But gaining even a single star can put a restaurant on the map.
Roberto Alcocer, chef at Valle, a contemporary Mexican restaurant in the San Diego suburb of Oceanside, said his restaurant wasn’t consistently full before it received a Michelin star in July 2023. The morning after he received the star, reservations were completely booked for the next month.
As a result, instead of accepting only reservations for the next month, he allowed diners to book tables for the next 90 days. They quickly got booked up, too.
Christophe Bellanca, the chef and owner of Essential by Christophe, a one-star Michelin restaurant in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, can relate.
Before his restaurant, which opened in 2022, received a star last year, he said he served 80 to 100 people a night. Now he’s serving 120 to 140 people.
“Chef Christophe Bellanca’s dishes echo a simple elegance, evidenced by plump white asparagus on a fragrant bergamot-flavored crème with a refreshing herb vinaigrette and paper-thin slices of watermelon radish,” the Michelin Guide reads.
How do the secret inspections work? People have speculated that a tell-tale sign of a Michelin inspector is someone who dines alone at a fine-dining restaurant. On TikTok, some users have documented themselves getting “better” treatment at Michelin-starred and fine-dining restaurants if they’re seated alone and take notes at the table.
However, a real Michelin inspector would likely never bring a notebook since that would blow their cover. They take great lengths to conceal their identity to avoid receiving any preferential treatment, Gwendal Poullennec, the international director of the Michelin Guides, told .
Furthermore, any restaurant that’s under consideration will have served multiple different inspectors who decide to award a star as a team, he added. This also helps determine if the restaurant delivers a consistent experience one of five key criteria inspectors assess restaurants on.
The other criteria are: “the quality of products, mastery of flavor and cooking techniques, the personality of the chef represented in the dining experience and harmony of the flavors.”
All inspectors have at least 10 years of experience in the hospitality industry and also receive extensive training in the Michelin Guide’s methodology. They never reinspect a restaurant they’ve previously inspected.
Inspectors compile their initial lists of restaurants that warrant an visit through various means including “local and national media, social media and word-of-mouth recommendations,” Poullennec said.
Bradley said since most of his guests aren’t repeat diners it would be “impossible” to even try to guess who could be an inspector. “The beauty of the Michelin Guide is how secretive (inspectors) are. They take their jobs as seriously as we do.”
Barring any unknown extenuating factors, Taylor Swift’s 13 Grammys are hers forever. It doesn’t matter if her upcoming album doesn’t receive any awards next year. The same isn’t true for restaurants that have been awarded Michelin stars.
Upon receiving any stars, multiple inspectors will revisit the restaurant throughout the year to determine whether the prior rating still stands, more stars are warranted or the prior rating no longer holds.
In the latter of the three, a restaurant can lose the stars they previously earned.
For instance, Carbone, one of New York City’s most well-known Italian restaurants, where Jay-Z, Kim Kardashian and Barack Obama among other A-list celebrities have dined at, was stripped of its only star in 2022. It’s still just as hard to get a reservation there, though. (Major Food Group, the restaurant group that owns Carbone, didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
But Carbone may be an outlier in that regard. For chefs, not only is losing a star seen as the biggest possible slap in the face but it can also turn diners away. Chef Kevin Thornton’s Dublin restaurant, Thornton’s, closed after losing two of its stars.
“The loss of the Michelin star was an unexpected shock that was softened by the warm support extended by our long-standing clientele and the restaurant industry,” Thornton said.
He told the loss of the stars didn’t impact sales and wasn’t the only reason he chose to close the restaurant. However, a report from the Irish Times in 2016 said there was a sharp decline in the restaurant’s profits when it lost its stars, citing records the news outlet received from the firm that operated the restaurant, Conted Ltd.
Thornton now runs a private dining business with his partner, cooking for guests in their own homes and teaching masterclasses in his kitchen.
But since the suicides of two noted chefs who were at risk of losing their Michelin stars Michelin “has taken steps to notify chefs personally in advance of notable star demotions, allowing the restaurant team time to process the news in private,” Poullennec said.
He also added that Michelin Guide inspectors don’t give any negative reviews: “Our inspectors provide only positive comments – stating that the restaurant and its cuisine is good or very good. We never criticize, and our inspectors aren’t critics.”
That doesn’t make the job of keeping and earning stars any easier, though.
“Now that I am living this life I understand why some chefs say, ‘You know what, I don’t want this,’” said Alcocer.
Bellanca of Essential by Christophe said when he gained stars at restaurants he previously worked at, the stress of working to keep them caused him to underperform.
He’s learned strategies to adapt better to the constant stress like meditation. But in the days leading up to the next Michelin award ceremony, when chefs would typically be notified if they’re losing a star, he doesn’t sleep very well.
“I don’t want to be the guy who loses a Michelin star,” Bellanca said.