Is Chicago dining getting worse?
That's one way to view the results of the 2013 Chicago Michelin Guide, which hits bookstores today. In the eyes of the anonymous Michelin inspectors, Chicago deserved fewer stars than in 2011, when Michelin first began rating Chicago restaurants.
In the 2011 Guide, there were two three-star restaurants, three two-star restaurants and 18 one-star restaurants. In 2012, there was one three-star, two two-stars and 18 one-star restaurants. In the latest guide, Michelin recognized one three-star, two two-star and 16 one-star establishments.
Michelin is by far the most prestigious restaurant-rating operation in the world. Receiving but a single Michelin star increases a restaurant's prestige, and the financial impact can be considerable; foreign visitors in particular are sensitive to Michelin's mandates.
Conversely, the absence of a Michelin star, or, worse, the loss of a previously earned star, can be devastating to a restaurant's ego, though the effect on the bottom line is less certain. Local residents continue to be the life's blood of all but the most rarefied restaurants in town.
Still, when Michelin recognizes 52 one-star restaurants in New York City and 34 one-stars in San Francisco (the only other American cities that Michelin rates), it's hard to view Chicago's 16 one-star restaurants — down from 18 in 2011 and 2012 — as anything else but a slap in the face.
One restaurant was certain to be dropped from the one-star list — Seasons, which the Four Seasons hotel closed last year. But Michelin also stripped away its one-star rating of Courtright's in Willow Springs, and Vie, in Western Springs. Those demotions also eliminated the only suburban restaurants to hold Michelin stars; this year's list is strictly within the city.
Alinea, as expected, retained its three-star rating, which it has held since the 2011 guide. This isn't likely to change the restaurant's fortunes, as it already enjoys a worldwide reputation. But a demotion would have grabbed headlines, and Alinea's partners are no doubt quietly relieved that no such thing happened.
But for the second straight year, there was no recognition of Alinea's sister restaurant, Next.
The big winners are chef/owner Graham Elliot and his eponymous restaurant, and chef Matthew Kirkley of L2O, both of whom received two Michelin stars. Both restaurants were on the one-star list last year, but the jump to two stars from one is a move very few restaurants are able to manage.
"I'm so very proud of the team," Elliot said via e-mail from Europe. "I took a risk taking the restaurant in a more refined direction, and we've had some bumps along the way."
Bumps, indeed. In October, Elliot dismissed his executive chef, said goodbye to his executive pastry chef and resumed day-to-day control of Graham Elliot's kitchen, a move that might have cost him his star, given Michelin's emphasis on consistency.
But the turnover didn't hurt the restaurant, according to Michelin's anonymous editor. "We try to look at the history and evolution of a restaurant overall, and not just which chef might be coming and going at any given moment," she said. "Graham Elliot is still at Graham Elliot."
The jump to two stars completed a rare trifecta for L2O. Under original chef Laurent Gras (for whom the L stands), L2O received three stars in 2011, only to sink to a single star after Gras' departure. Kirkley, who took over for Gras (along with Francis Brennan in an unusual and brief two-chef arrangement), raised L2O's game to the extent that a return to a third star next year isn't out of the question.
"They called and said I was awarded two," said Kirkley, "and the first thing I asked was what didn't you like, what can we do to improve, which at the end of the day is what I'm after. This is something to celebrate, but we're going back to work tomorrow. If anything, I'm grateful that more attention brings more customers and more people to cook for."
Another big winner was Mexique, a Mexican-French hybrid in West Town. Mexique received a Bib Gourmand (designating a restaurant that offers good value) last year, but earned a one-star rating this year, a significant honor considering the 2012 Bib Gourmands (Frontera Grill, Girl & the Goat, GT Fish & Oyster) that didn't make the leap.
Michelin is notoriously secretive about its evaluation process, and never releases the names of its inspectors. Even the Michelin editor, who oversees all the North American guides, operates anonymously.
Speaking by phone, the Michelin editor said she was particularly pleased about the Mexique's ascension.
"It was really exciting," she said, "to find the consistency we've been looking for, because we've been following (chef Carlos Gaytan) very closely since the first Chicago edition."
For Gaytan, receiving a star was a joy and a relief. Michelin released its Bib Gourmand winners a week ago, so for seven days, all the chef knew was that he was off that list.
"Honestly, I was kind of upset," he said. "I didn't think we were so bad, to be dropped from the list. But last night, I had a dream that they called to let me know I had one star, and there is the phone call today, telling me they really enjoyed my restaurant a lot. It's very exciting."
The 2013 Guide also reestablished Sixteen, the luxurious perch in Trump Tower, as a one-star restaurant. Sixteen earned a star under original chef Frank Brunacci in 2011, but lost the star after Brunacci's departure. Credit executive chef Thomas Lents, on board less than a year, for Sixteen's triumphant return.
On the negative side, a number of restaurants that might reasonably have expected Michelin recognition were shut out. Balena and Yusho, two of the best new restaurants in Chicago, received no stars, and inspectors continued to deem Les Nomades, one of Chicago's most well-established restaurants, unworthy. Paul Virant, who earned a Michelin star for Vie last year, not only failed to receive a star for his other restaurant, Perennial Virant, but also had his Vie star taken away.
El Ideas, Henri, MK, North Pond, Sprout — all among Chicago's most highly regarded restaurants — all failed to receive stars.
And the suburbs — from the demoted Courtright's and Vie to the underappreciated Quince, Restaurant Michael and Tallgrass, enjoyed a collective snub.
Michelin's editor, who hinted that her inspectors are paying close attention to a number of as-yet-unstarred Chicago restaurants that could make next year's guide "very exciting," dismissed the notion that Chicago's dwindling star numbers should be of concern.
"The numbers go up and down in every city every year, and there's nothing negative about it," she said. "What we find is what we find. I wouldn't focus on the numbers specifically, because restaurants are always in flux, and things go up and down."
Except that in the last several years, New York and San Francisco's numbers continue to go up. Chicago, not so much.
Three stars (exceptional cuisine): Alinea
Two stars (excellent cuisine): Graham Elliot, L2O
One star (very good restaurant): Acadia, Blackbird, Boka, Everest, Goosefoot, Longman & Eagle, Mexique, Moto, Naha, Schwa, Sepia, Sixteen, Spiaggia, Takashi, Topolobampo,