I remember the first time I bought a Michelin guide, many years ago when I started traveling professionally. Before a long trip to France, I went into my local bookstore and picked up the heavy red-covered tome. The nice woman at the checkout desk seconded my sense that this was a momentous purchase — “Oh, you’re going to have some great meals,” she told me, and she was right. The guide led us to many good places on that trip, and made me a Michelin fan.
Through the years, I’ve read a great deal about the Michelin system, its secretive inspectors, its inscrutable scheme for evaluating a restaurant or a hotel, and its general unwillingness to tell the rest of the world very much about itself. I actually find this rather refreshing in an age of relentless self-promotion.
But during the last few years, I’ve encountered some terrible disappointments using the guides. This year, the Michelin New York guide, which I don’t recommend, led me to a very ordinary meal at the incomprehensibly praised Spotted Pig in New York’s Greenwich Village. Michelin awarded this place a star, but from my point of view, it’s a West Village pub that’s only slightly better — and much more expensive — than many others.
Using Michelin during recent trips to Spain and Italy, I also had some outright bad meals. Why? I think that Bibendum, the pneumatic mascot of these guides, tends toward a certain dated and rather fussy idea of Gallic gastronomic elegance, even in countries outside of France. Spanish food is wonderful, but Michelin’s Iberian hierarchy rewards restaurants that tack toward very French ideas of culinary excellence. The same goes for the guide to Italy — very few of my favorite osterias and trattorias show up in the pages. And the file on Athens at their online guide recently led me to a gallingly overpriced and very indifferent meal at Vardis, the “one-star” restaurant at Athens’ Hotel Pentelikon.
I also find it highly questionable that Michelin has lately awarded more stars to restaurants in Germany than in Italy. There is some excellent food in Germany, but in my humble opinion, Italy trounces Germany in the gastro sweepstakes.
While Michelin was once my go-to source for good dining addresses while traveling in Europe, I now find myself referring more often to local websites and blogs. In Paris, for example, the comprehensive new website Paris by Mouth is an excellent source of information, and many other cities and countries have online offerings that I think are now much better sources than old-line guides such as Michelin.
Among websites that have also recently been useful to me are Istanbul Eats, Amsterdam Foodie, and Elizabeth Minchilli in Rome. In addition, I frequently recommend new restaurants on this blog, and feature dozens and dozens of fully vetted spots on the regional pages of my web site. If you love good food, I’d say that the Internet is your best friend.