It's important to remember that the Michelin Guide is, first and foremost, a business venture. In that light, its inaugural 2006 guide to the New York City dining scene was a big success, with more than 100,000 copies sold. That's a huge number for a guide whose five-person inspection team was primarily made up of Frenchmen, and which made the further gaffe of writing and editing its guide in Greenville, SC (Michelin's U.S. headquarters) instead of New York City, the self-appointed epicenter of the U.S. publishing industry. They couldn't have made themselves seem more like outsiders than they did.
Yet their work stood up to that of deeply entrenched rival the Zagat Survey. Zagat is edited and published in New York City. And we should also say written, because city residents turned in 31,604 rating for the 2007 Zagat Survey New York City. Michelin's experts-only approach hasn't eclipsed Zagat's populist method, but it's coming a lot closer to parity than most publishing pros predicted. We don't know who the five Michelin inspectors are who cover New York City. But thanks to the power of the printed page, an awful lot of people now care deeply about what they think.
How did Michelin come so far so fast? The arrival of the second year's edition provides some perspective. The genius of the Michelin star system is that it's so easy to talk about year-to-year changes. This year, the buzz in New York is all about the removal of Alain Ducasse at the Essex House from the three-star rankings (it will close in January and move to a new location) and the fact that no other restaurants were elevated to three-star level.
Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich's Del Posto, a new restaurant, joined the list at the two-star level, while Danube was bumped down from two stars to one.
Joining Danube as newcomers on the one-star list were A Voce, Country, Devi, Kurumazushi, Perry Street and Sushi of Gari. Departing were BLT Fish, Jo Jo, Lo Scalco (which closed), March, Nobu and Scalini Fedeli.
The biggest name on the list of departees was Nobu, flagship of Nobu Matsuhisa's global string of namesake restaurants. How come it got kicked off? Here's what Michelin Guide director Jean-Luc Naret told New York City website www.urbandaddy.com: "There's always a good reason to lose a star. It's about consistency. Sometimes somebody's losing interest, they're not consistent anymore-there's always a good reason. Inside themselves, they all know the reason why they lose a star." It will be interesting to see if the removal of a Michelin star necessarily translates into lost business for a place as reputable as Nobu New York.
In contrast, the Zagat Guide's 0-30 numerical ranking system doesn't seem to lend itself to producing as much buzz. It's hard for interested parties to decipher what it means when a restaurant goes from a 26 score to a 24 or vice-versa, let alone gossip about it. Complicating this numerically based system is that restaurants get three separate scores in the Zagat system-one each for food, décor and service. Zagat does provide an overall "Most Popular" ranking, but Michelin's you're-in-or-you're-out star system is just easier to grasp.
But what most operators want to know about the Michelin Guide is if it is coming to their town. Zagat is well-established in just about every major U.S. restaurant market, and there's no question that its information-saturated guides pump life into any city's restaurant scene. Michelin, which publishes 12 guides in Europe, broke into New York City last year and published its inaugural San Francisco edition (see the Nov. 2006 issue of RH) this fall. A good ranking in any of these is bound to boost any operator's business.
Jean-Luc Naret, director of the Michelin Guides, says that the company will not cover any additional U.S. markets for 2007 but may add one for 2008. Given the saturation-level coverage Michelin has established in Europe, we're betting the company will add more U.S. markets sooner rather than later. We hope one of them is yours.