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Michelin is a name that strikes awe in many chefs, restaurateurs, and diners alike. Widely described as the most prestigious culinary award in the world, Michelin stars signify top-tier dining experiences, and the publication of a Michelin Guide (in which the stars are awarded) on a specific region signifies its merit in the global culinary scene. This week, Michelin announced its arrival in Colorado.
If the brand sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen it on a tire before. The French company published its first Michelin Guide in 1900 to promote automobile travel (and thus tire sales) by giving consumers a handy guide of hotels and restaurants to visit while driving around France. As the guidebooks began covering more countries and cities across Europe, Asia, North America, and South America, its representation of—and impact on—the upper echelons of international dining grew.
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Colorado is the sixth Michelin Guide destination in the United States, following New York City, California, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Florida and is set to be released later this year. Formed through a partnership between Michelin and the Colorado Tourism Office, it’ll cover Denver, Boulder, Aspen and Snowmass Village, and the Town of Vail and Beaver Creek Resort, almost certainly making huge shifts in these areas’ dining scenes and Colorado at large. But how? Here, our predictions for the good—and the bad—of Michelin’s arrival in the Centennial State.
Good: The international attention and increased tourism
The Michelin Guide will always do what it was originally intended to: drive tourism (albeit no longer just by car). In the official statement from Michelin, director of the Colorado Tourism Office Timothy Wolfe said, “The Michelin Guide will further elevate Colorado as a global dining destination.”
The presence of Michelin-starred restaurants is going to encourage more tourists from around the globe interested in luxury gastronomy to visit Colorado. In fact, a 2019 study by Ernst & Young cited by Michelin reports that two-thirds of frequent travelers would choose to visit a destination with a Michelin Guide presence over a comparable location without one.
Moreover, by bringing legitimacy to the local dining scene, it might encourage prestigious chefs to establish businesses here—a trend perhaps already in the works with Michelin-starred chef Ludo Lefebvre’s opening of Chez Maggy last year.
Bad: Nothing’s guaranteed
Anonymous inspectors determine the Michelin Guide ratings along five criteria: quality products, harmony of flavors, mastery of cooking techniques, the culinary voice and personality of the chef, and consistency between visits and throughout the menu (since restaurants are inspected several times a year).
In the main awards, restaurants can be given one, two, or three stars, designations described by Michelin as “worth a stop,” “worth a detour,” or “worth a special journey,” respectively. There’s no guarantee, though, what number of stars any establishment will receive. In fact, of the 25 worldwide city/regional guides Michelin has recently published, 10 contain no three-star restaurants (including the guide in Florida) and two even lack a two-star restaurant.
“The inspectors have no quotas to meet—regarding numbers of Michelin Guide distinctions to award, restaurants to visit, or types of cuisine to include in the selection,” says Gwendal Poullennec, international director of the Michelin Guides, in a statement to 5280.
Poullenec also states that inspectors have been dining in Colorado for a few months, and that the state underwent a months-long destination assessment process even before then. While all Michelin Guides contain at least a handful of starred restaurants, only upon release of Colorado’s guide will diners and restaurants alike actually know how the awards pan out.
Good: It’ll boost restaurant business
It’s a no-brainer that Michelin stars can majorly increase a restaurant’s demand.
In a 2017 article in Food & Wine, the late chef Joël Robuchon, who had earned 32 Michelin stars in his lifetime, said: “With one Michelin star, you get about 20 percent more business. Two stars, you do about 40 percent more business, and with three stars, you’ll do about 100 percent more business.”
Diners can feel relieved, though, that besides traffic, Michelin stars might not have that great of an effect on a restaurant. Tim Lu, co-owner of French restaurant Noisette in LoHi with wife and pastry chef Lillian Lu, worked at the now Michelin-starred Le CouCou in New York before moving to Denver. Despite leaving the restaurant before it received its star in the 2019 Michelin Guide, he says the high-end eatery maintained the same commitment to guest experience and food quality both before and after the award. Speaking to Michelin’s potential impact on his current career, Lu says, “For us personally here at Noisette, nothing’s gonna change.”
Bad: It might hurt some businesses in the long run
The increase in demand ushered by a Michelin star can overwhelm a business if it’s not prepared for it, meaning the award does not necessarily secure financial success. For example, a study published in Cornell Hospitality Quarterly found that in a group of 26 two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants across Europe, almost half failed to make a profit after the designation.
Lu also warns that the expectations and pressure built around Michelin stars can induce poor behavior in both diners and restaurant management. “We had that problem in New York a lot with guests just exploding and yelling at our staff in the dining rooms,” he says. “And then [there] may be a certain anxiety for certain kitchens [that leads to them] treating their staff poorly.”
Bad: Stars are expensive for diners
There’s no stepping around it: Not everyone can afford to eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
A vast majority of Michelin-starred restaurants in the United States are given the highest price rating ($$$$, spare no expense) in Michelin’s classification system. The numbers don’t lie: A report by magazine Chef’s Pencil shows that the average cost of a two- or three-Michelin-starred tasting menu in the U.S. is $313 per person.
Since Michelin’s judging system tends to favor expensive restaurants, it is likely that many quality businesses will be ignored in the upcoming guide. “I don’t think [the Michelin Guide] necessarily hits restaurants of our style. I don’t know if it’ll directly impact us in any way,” says Ben Jacobs, co-owner of the fast-casual American Indian eatery Tocabe, which earned a spot on 5280’s 25 Best Restaurants list last year.
Good: The Bib Gourmands
Luckily, stars are not the only award given out by the Michelin Guide, so keep your eyes peeled for restaurants awarded a Bib Gourmand.
The Bib Gourmand award celebrates high-quality cooking for its money value: In the U.S., a three-course meal at a Bib Gourmand restaurant must be under $50. Beyond being more accessible by cost, there are usually more Bib Gourmand restaurants in a given guide than starred ones (New York has 105 to 72), and the selection often displays a wider diversity of cuisines and culinary styles than starred restaurants.
Regardless, many people in Colorado’s restaurant industry are excited for what’s to come. “I think it’s gonna be really impactful on the overall culinary scene,” Jacobs says. “I think it’ll drive a lot of creativity… and I think that more restaurants that haven’t had that visibility necessarily on that scale will start to be recognized for something that they should have been recognized for a long time ago.”