When I sat down for my first Michelin star dining experience at Parachute Restaurant in Chicago, I must admit -- I felt a little bit nervous. I had eaten at a variety of different restaurants in the city, including fine dining establishments, but there was something that felt particularly intimidating about a Michelin star restaurant. Thankfully, Parachute takes a more casual approach to fine dining and it was the perfect first step into the world of Michelin restaurants because it gave me the comfort and confidence to navigate future culinary experiences.
Fast forward 5 years, and I have a total of 41 Michelin stars under my belt as well as meals at a handful of the ‘World’s 50 Best’ restaurants. Tasting new foods and culinary adventures are some of my primary hobbies, and my husband and I really enjoy going to fancy restaurants for special occasions when we can.
The world of fine dining can be really intimidating -- I totally get it!
The high prices, small portion sizes, fancy ingredients and confusing menus are enough to turn off many people. But if you are curious about food and experimenting with your palate, I highly recommend eating at a Michelin star restaurant at some point. In my experience, these restaurants are nowhere near as stuffy, scary or pretentious as you might think. I have been to steak restaurants far more snobbish than a Michelin star restaurant!
Between the food and the ambiance, dining at a Michelin star restaurant will be an experience to remember. To help get you over your nerves, I have crafted the ultimate beginner’s guide to Michelin Star restaurants.
Everything You Need to Know about Michelin Star Dining
Background on Michelin Fine Dining
What is the Michelin Star Guide?
Many people wonder where the name Michelin comes from, curious if it is the same as the tire company. Indeed it is! The Michelin Guide was originally published in the early 1900s as a field guide for French motorists looking for good meals along their cross country road trips. It has evolved over time, only started to become known for its fine dining rankings in the 1960s and 1970s. Ever since, being awarded a Michelin star has become one of the most lauded accolades a restaurant can receive globally.
Don’t get Michelin stars confused with Michelin recommended restaurants or Bib Gourmand designated restaurants. Michelin recommended restaurants are a curated selection of high-quality restaurants endorsed by the Michelin committee, while the Bib Gourmand restaurants are considered affordable yet exceptional establishments, often considered to be “hidden gems” in that city or location. The Bib Gourmand restaurants are typically first reviewed as potential star awardees in the following year. It’s a bit like a Michelin star short list.
What is the difference between 1, 2 and 3 stars?
Restaurants can be awarded one, two or three Michelin stars with three being the best. The exact scores and evaluation criteria are kept secret, but restaurants are judged roughly based on the following criteria:
- Using Quality Products
- Mastery of Flavor and Cooking Techniques
- Personality of Chef in the Cuisine
- Value for the Money and “Wow” Factor
- Consistency of Food
In defining how to rank a one vs three star restaurant, Michelin says that 3 star restaurants are “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey” while a two star is “excellent cooking, worth a detour” and a one star is a “very good restaurant in its category.” There are approximately 2,100 restaurants with 1 star, 400 with 2 stars and just over 100 with 3 stars. As of 2019, Japan had the most Michelin starred restaurants while France had the highest total number of stars.
The Michelin Star awarding process happens once per year, and the final list of starred restaurants is announced in October for the following year. Restaurants can lose their Michelin star from one year to the next, and they can also be moved up from one to two or three.
Where are Michelin restaurants located?
The Michelin review panel only reviews restaurants in certain regions, and not all regions are approved for Michelin accreditation. Currently, Michelin stars can be found in 23 countries on 4 continents. Each year, the Michelin Guide will typically expand to new locations, but it is by no means everywhere.
For example, there are only 5 cities in the USA -- Chicago, New York, LA, San Francisco and Washington DC -- that are reviewed by Michelin and can receive Michelin stars. That is why you see rankings like the James Beard Awards or the “World’s Best” as a way to denote the best restaurants in locations where the Michelin Guide is not accredited.
Another glaring oversight of this Michelin Guide process is in central + south America. Brazil is the only country that is Michelin approved in Latin America, which is why restaurants like Pujol and Chila don’t appear. This can lead to some confusion when it comes to global best restaurant lists because some of the restaurants that appear on those lists don’t have Michelin stars yet are considered the best in the world.
Elements of a Michelin Star Meal
Tasting Menu vs Ala Carte Dining
Typically called a tasting menu or the chef’s menu, Michelin restaurants are famous for fixed menus typically ranging from 5-12 predetermined courses. A tasting menu is curated by the chef to highlight their style of cuisine and will typically include at least 2 starters, 2 entrees and one dessert. Tasting menus change a few times per year, usually around the seasons. Sounds like a lot of food? Don’t worry, the portion sizes are reduced so you won’t get overly full before you’ve had all the courses. The idea is that you will be full by the end of the meal, but not stuffed or overfed throughout.
Some Michelin restaurants will let you choose the number of courses that you get on your tasting menu, while others will offer a couple of tasting menus to choose from. At Tulus Lotrek in Berlin, we had a choice between a vegetarian and meat/fish tasting menu, as well as the option to choose 5, 6 or 8 courses.
If there is a signature dish the restaurant is famous for, that dish will typically stay on the tasting menu between seasons. If not, you can typically order it (along with other dishes) in the traditional ala-carte style of ordering. The 5 seasons of parmesan dish at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana, which was featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, was not part of our tasting menu but I knew we had to try it, so they added it onto our course list as an ala carte dish.
Amuse Bouche + Petit Fours
While the tasting menu may list a specific number of courses, there are likely to be a few extras that appear over the course of the meal which are not listed on the menu, but are included in the cost. Typically, there will be an amuse bouche (or several) to begin the meal. These are small bite sized snacks which are meant to be eaten in one bite. They typically make some sort of statement or give an indication of the meal to come. For example, at our meal at Ox + Klee we had 5 amuse bouche in which each of them was dedicated to one of the five senses of taste. These amuse bouche were meant to wake up our palette to those tastes for the meal to come, and each of the courses of the meal tried to incorporate flavors for each taste type.
In between the starters and entrée, there is likely to be a bread course. This is especially true in Europe -- I have never been to a Michelin meal without bread here in Europe. Following the entrée, there is sometimes a palate cleanser, which might be something like a citrus sorbet or herb juice which removes any food or taste residues from your mouth in preparation for the desserts. After the desserts, there will usually be a petit four that comes. Often these are dropped off with the bill as the final taste of your time at the restaurant.
Wine + Drink Pairings
In addition to choices regarding the tasting menu, a majority of Michelin star restaurants will offer the choice of a drink pairing. These will be drinks expertly matched to each course by a trained sommelier who aims to enhance and bring out the flavors of the dish. Similar to the food, the pours of these pairings will be less than a full glass of wine, since you’ll be having many of them.
Usually the drink pairings are wine, but sometimes they can be cocktails, beer, or even non-alcoholic drink pairings. Aside from being high-quality, these pairings also tend to be very creative and interesting. You’ll be exposed to wine or drink flavors that you are unfamiliar with, or combinations with foods that you never would have thought of.
What is the Service Like?
Of course you expect the food at a Michelin star restaurant to be memorable, but often equally as memorable is the service and experience. You will find the staff is very attentive, doing things like folding your napkin if you go to the bathroom, cleaning crumbs off of your table, and switching out your plates and silverware after each course. It feels like you don’t have to lift a finger for the whole meal!
Because the dishes are typically quite complex, your server will typically present or describe each dish as it is served to you, walking you through the ingredients and flavors to pay attention to. It is a little bit like culinary story time! The staff at Michelin star restaurants typically go through rigorous training and are extremely knowledgeable about the menu, ingredients, and can provide great recommendations. Never feel intimidated about asking questions! We have enjoyed extended conversations with our servers during Michelin meals because interest in the cuisine and preparation is encouraged.
Another interesting thing that can happen during Michelin star meals is changing locations for various courses or getting a tour of the kitchen. We’ve had this happen a couple of times, and every time it is such a fun and adventurous way to experience your meal. Check out the video below to see our behind-the-scenes course inside Alinea’s kitchen!
Preparing for a Michelin Dining Experience
Reservations at Michelin Restaurants
Nearly all Michelin star restaurants will require that you make a reservation ahead of time. Depending on the prestige or fame of the restaurant, you might need to make the reservation months in advance. For example, I made a reservation at Osteria Francescana 4 months before we dined there.
Some restaurants will require that you put a deposit down for the meal, typically about 30-50% of the set menu price. This is usually levied as a hold on your credit card in case you cancel. Typically the reservations also carry a cancellation policy, so it is important to be sure about your date ahead of time, and be mindful of the timing to cancel if something unexpected comes up.
If you don’t make a reservation at a Michelin star restaurant and still want to go, you can try calling the day or two before you want to visit and see if they’ve had any cancellations. This is a great way to snag reservations at the last minute, but it requires some persistence and flexibility. The times might be strange and there is no guarantee it will work.
How Long Do Michelin Meals Take?
Meals at Michelin star restaurants are quite a production -- people call it food theatre after all! It is common for these meals to take at least 2 hours, but in my experience it is more like 3-4 hours. We once sat for a Michelin meal that took over 5 hours. While this may sound arduous to some, the pacing of the courses and wine pairings keeps the meal steadily flowing and with good conversation and company, you’re unlikely to notice how long the meal takes. There are some restaurants that do an early and late sitting, but for the most part, there will only be one seating for lunch or dinner because the course of the meal takes a long time.
How Much Does a Michelin Meal Cost?
I always get asked about the cost of Michelin star meals. It is hard to answer, because there is a massive range in cost, but the truth is that Michelin meals can be pretty expensive. That isn’t to say they all are though -- the cheapest Michelin star restaurant only costs $2! The price will fluctuate depending on how many courses you choose, if you get wine pairings, if you add on special courses, etc. The cheapest we have paid for 2 people at a Michelin restaurant is approximately $60 and the most we’ve paid is almost $1,000.
Before making your reservation, you can usually check the price of the tasting menu on the website. Most Michelin restaurants will disclose the cost as part of the reservation process. If the restaurant doesn’t tell you, you can always call and ask. This price will be the baseline for the cost of the meal, since it is inclusive of all the courses but not any of the extra add-ons. If you add on drinks or pairings, the cost will go up from that baseline amount.
If you want to try and save a little money on your Michelin dining experiences, check if the restaurant offers lunch seatings. There are many Michelin restaurants that offer a “best-of” menu at lunch, which is usually a shorter tasting menu that features the restaurant’s most famous dishes. That way, the dinner menu can change more seasonally or have more creative opportunities. The lunch menus typically come at a lower price too!
Because most Michelin restaurants offer fixed menus with predetermined dishes, you might be intimidated to disclose any dietary preferences, allergies or intolerances. Don’t be! Fine dining restaurants like Michelin restaurants are typically willing and able to adjust their menus according to their diner’s needs and wants -- you just have to tell them about it! There are plenty of opportunities to make your dietary preferences known. You’ll usually be asked about any special accommodations during the reservation process, but the restaurant might also call you to confirm the reservation 3-5 days beforehand, at which point you can disclose that information. On the day of your meal, you’ll usually be asked about dietary preferences when you sit down or the server will mention any previously discussed preferences to confirm.
Thankfully my husband and I don’t have any major dietary preferences that we have to work around, but one example of how accommodating a restaurant can be was our visit to Alinea. My husband Sam HATES beets because he thinks they taste like dirt. We were visiting Alinea in October, which is the prime growing season for beets. When we sat down, the server asked if we had any dietary concerns to worry about and Sam said no, but I said that he hates beets and prefers not to have them. And thank goodness I did -- one of the dishes was entirely made of beets! The team handled the request in stride, and I got the original dish while Sam got a slightly adjusted dish made of mushrooms instead of beets.
The scale of how “fancy” a Michelin restaurant is varies widely with some being very formal while others are quite relaxed. I have seen fellow patrons wearing clothes from full suits to cargo pants, so it is hard to say what an appropriate dress code is for a Michelin dining experience. I typically wear a special “date night” outfit if we go to a 2 or 3 Michelin restaurant, but a standard business casual look is typically appropriate for 1 star restaurants.
Always a stressful point of eating at restaurants is determining how much to tip. Thankfully, a majority of Michelin restaurants that I’ve visited include a 15-20% service and tip fee automatically which you’ll see listed on the bill. Of course you are welcome to add additional tips on top of that if you are happy with the service! In international dining experiences, there are different expectations. Because European servers get paid higher wages than their American counterparts, a tip isn’t expected in the same way. Typically a 5-10% tip is fine. If you tip more, you will often see looks of surprise and gratitude since it is not as common to see 15-20% tips.
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Do you have questions about Michelin star restaurants? Comment below and I can help answer them!
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