Michelin Dining Reviewers Come to Los Angeles

The Michelin Guide — a French restaurant review that strikes fear and longing in the hearts of chefs — hits Los Angeles later this year. How do you put together a fine-dining guide for a city that rejects formality?

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(Soundbite of song, "Be Our Guest")

Mr. JERRY ORBACH (Actor and Singer): (As Lumiere) (Singing) Be our guest. Be our guest. Put our service to the test...

ALEX CHAWICK, host:

Ah, the magic of a good meal in a fine restaurant. And that one, of course, was magic. It comes from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." But in the real world out there, how do you know you're in a good restaurant? There's a new guide with impeccable French connections coming to Los Angeles. NPR's Karen Grigsby-Bates takes a nibble.

KAREN GRIGSBY-BATES: For decades, Americans traveling through Europe have relied on a little red book called "The Michelin Guide" to steer them toward destination-quality restaurants. It was originally created by the French tire company at the turn of the last century to guide chauffeurs as they drove their employers on long distance trips.

The tradition of anonymous evaluators bestowing stars on chefs evolved from "The Michelin Guide." The guides cover 21 countries, mostly abroad, although some of New York and San Francisco's best restaurants have received ratings in previous years. And now the Michelin Guide is turning to Los Angeles, a city that's known for stars. Not that his inspectors will be influenced by that, says Michelin Guide president Christian Delhaye.

Mr. CHRISTIAN DELHAYE (President, Michelin Guide): There are some stars in the restaurants or (unintelligible), but our inspectors, they are searching the stars in the plates.

BATES: In the Michelin tradition, Delhaye's inspectors will be anonymous, and don't look for them to be dressed like chic Parisians either. They're all locals, says Delhaye.

Mr. DELHAYE: Our inspectors are like normal customers, and you cannot recognize them.

BATES: So that romantic couple that's sitting to my left in a nice restaurant could be out on a date, or they could be a couple of your people trying to decide whether the soup is up to snuff.

Mr. DELHAYE: Yes, of course.

BATES: Those precautions might not be enough though. Andrew Knowlton is the New York-based food editor for Bon Appetit magazine. He says Los Angeles's ambience and fondness for food on the fly makes it very different from the places Michelin usually evaluates. Even diners in high-end restaurants, says Knowlton, don't regularly luxuriate in the hours-long meals that are the hallmark of haute cuisine.

Mr. ANDREW KNOWLTON (Bon Appetit Magazine): Although we used to be like that, even in New York it's moving away from that, and I think the epitome of that casualization of American dining is L.A.

BATES: Knowlton says the city is casual in dress and eclectic in its tastes. He worries that Michelin will miss some of the best bites.

Mr. KNOWLTON: So it'll be interesting to see the way they address particularly Los Angeles, because I mean you guys have the best ethnic food scene out there. Are they going to give a Michelin star to the taco truck down on Santa Monica Boulevard? I mean I don't know.

Mr. DELHAYE: We are going in all types of restaurants and in all types of cuisine.

BATES: Well, that's a relief, but Pierre Selvaggio is the owner of Valentino, routinely rated as one of the nation's best Italian restaurants. Selvaggio says Michelin may have forgotten one critical element in his formula.

Mr. PIERRE SELVAGGIO (Owner, Valentino Restaurant): It's called traffic. The traffic, as you know, has become unbearable.

BATES: True enough. L.A.'s legendary monster traffic can be a serious disincentive to go cross-town to eat, no matter how many stars a restaurant gets. As Selvaggio's staff prepares for the dinner service, he wonders aloud how much influence the new Michelin L.A. will have on the city's diners.

Mr. SELVAGGIO: Will he have the same impact of the very casual and very handy pocketbook Zagat Guide? Will it have the same input that a good review in a national magazine? I don't know.

BATES: What Selvaggio does know is this. A star or two or the rare maximum three would be a lovely thing to have from Michelin, but he values another kind of validation more.

Mr. SELVAGGIO: That doesn't comes from a book and from some silent inspectors but comes from the public that has been spending the money and give us the true satisfaction for what we have delivered.

BATES: And, says Bon Appetit's Andrew Knowlton, in the end no matter how Angelinos are dressed, they really want the same thing as everyone else.

Mr. KNOWLTON: People just want to go out and have a nice meal, and whether it's in their flip-flops or their jeans or, you know, they put on a suit, they just want good food.

BATES: A little something for the Michelin people to chew on. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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