For good or bad, Atlanta is about to become a Michelin city

Former AJC restaurant critic discusses effect of rating stars in other dining hubs
Atlanta has been selected as a Michelin Guide destination. The first Michelin Guide Atlanta will be released this fall. Courtesy of Michelin North America

Credit: Courtesy of Michelin North America

Credit: Courtesy of Michelin North America

Atlanta has been selected as a Michelin Guide destination. The first Michelin Guide Atlanta will be released this fall. Courtesy of Michelin North America

As the dining critic for Chicago Magazine, I found myself in a familiar conversation with my editor. Another new tasting-menu restaurant had opened, one clearly gunning for a Michelin star, and we had to figure out how to feature it. The images of this restaurant’s food on Instagram looked terrific, and the chef clearly was a talent to watch. Yet, if the two of us want to dine there, we’d have to purchase tickets up front that cost nearly $200 a head, along with a 20% automatic gratuity and the city’s 10%-plus sales tax on both.

Not only would a meal eat up our budget, it also would be of interest to just a small portion of our readers. The restaurant was hardly a sensation. Despite its small size and limited hours, its reservation book was wide-open online. But if it does eventually earn a Michelin star, this place will become a destination for the culinary tourists and national food media who love visiting Chicago.

I wasn’t in Chicago when Michelin came a-knockin’ in 2011, but I’ve been here long enough to witness the effect it has had on the city’s dining scene, and to have some idea of what it might do for Atlanta when the first guide debuts this fall. Much of the Michelin effect will be salubrious — particularly if you ask those who’ve risen to the challenge and benefited from its spotlight.

“It is the only world-renowned, world-recognized dining guide,” said Michael Muser, co-owner of Ever, one of four restaurants in Chicago with two stars. (Alinea is the only place here with three stars, while 16 restaurants hold one star). “That’s huge for tourism. It fills hotel rooms. It brings business to other restaurants. It creates jobs in so many sectors of the industry.”

Three-star restaurants are, according to the guide in its original French, “vaut le voyage,” or worth the trip. “Think about it,” Muser said. “They’re saying it’s a place worth traveling to. You will travel from London to Chicago to dine at Alinea.”

I can verify that: On my last visit to Alinea, I dined next to a table of San Franciscans who had flown in that day for dinner and were returning the following day. “It was a bucket list meal,” one said.

Muser and his partner at Ever, chef Curtis Duffy, both were working at another restaurant when it earned two stars in the guide’s first year out. That gave them the impetus to strike out on their own, opening Grace — a restaurant that achieved three stars, the highest honor. After a dispute with their landlord forced them to close Grace, they opened Ever and have maintained a rating of two stars, though they keep their eyes on the prize. On a whiteboard in the kitchen is a countdown to the release of the next guide — motivation for the staff.

Most of the starred restaurants in Chicago are expensive, offering fine-dining tasting menus or sushi bar omakase experiences. But Muser said he appreciates the way the guide sometimes makes room for “the things that need sunlight,” such as the gastropub Longman & Eagle, once recognized for its elevated beer-hall fare.

On the other hand, “Michelin judges Chicago by continental standards,” food writer Michael Gebert said, and the guide gives short shrift to the unique and more nonconformist restaurants that add character to the city’s dining scene. Gebert, who is working on a history of Chicago dining, argues that the guide has more value for tourists than for locals, who know and patronize the city’s distinctive restaurants.

For chefs, however, a Michelin star is the ultimate accolade. I was at a dinner party recently with a chef who closed his restaurant after a seven-year run, but whose six-lobed Michelin star will live on forever in the prominent tattoo on his forearm.

Otto Phan, a high-end sushi chef, said that he moved to Chicago precisely because it was a Michelin city and he felt he could earn a star. But his restaurant, Kyōten, has failed to pass the test, even though many (myself included) consider it the best sushi experience in the city. When I interviewed him last summer, he took a more conciliatory tone and surmised that he didn’t need the star to succeed. “I don’t have to bend the knee to do well,” he said. “I can do it on my own talent and push my craft to the utmost limits.”

While starred restaurants are the most prominent entries in the Michelin Guide, these little red books attempt to offer a comprehensive look at a city’s notable restaurants. Some that are deemed to offer a lot of bang for the buck are designated as Bib Gourmand, denoted with an icon of the Michelin Man licking his rubbery lips. A newer Green Star category signals restaurants that show good effort at sustainability.

Here’s where, in my opinion, the guide falls short of local publications: These listings feel dated by the time they’re published, and while a lot of restaurants like to affix the Bib Gourmand stickers to their front doors, the selection always feels haphazard.

So, this would be my preview for Atlantans: Get ready for the emergence of a tourist-class tier of dining, but if you want to find out what’s new and amazing on Buford Highway, you’ll get a much better idea from the reviewers at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution than from Michelin. Tattoo artists, meanwhile, might want to study the logo.

John Kessler is a food writer in Chicago. He spent nearly two decades at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he wrote about food and served as the newspaper’s dining critic. He can be reached at

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