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As soon as Michelin announced its plans yesterday to bring a restaurant guide to D.C., starry-eyed locals seemed to collectively pronounce, “We have arrived!”
The Washington Post dubbed it a “prestigious boost” to the food scene. “No more food peasantry in D.C.,” I saw one person Tweet. “This is a huge recognition for DC food scene,” another proclaimed.
I get it: this is a self-conscious city when it comes to our oft-maligned dining cred. We’re extremely touchy about rising above that longtime reputation for steakhouses and expense accounts, and we trumpet successes a little more earnestly than the rest. In many respects, our restaurant scene still needs defending. We’re the short kid who sprouted up a foot one summer but can’t seem to get people to stop calling him “Shorty.”
The District has in fact become a top dining destination in America, but a guide from a French tire manufacturer is not proof of that. The arrival of Michelin stars in October should be no more a mark of approval than when your third grade teacher put a sticker on your homework assignment.
D.C. is only the fourth city in the U.S. to have a Michelin guide, after New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. But as Michelin North America Chairman Pete Selleck said at yesterday’s announcement, one of the key reasons D.C. was chosen was because of its international nature. The Michelin Guide feeds off travelers seeking out stars. Launching in D.C. is less some kind of long-awaited validation than a savvy business decision.
So yes, wealthy jet-setters will have a new set of restaurants to add to their checklists. But locals aren’t going to discover anything they don’t already know. D.C. has no shortage of top restaurant rankings and lists. You want to know the best places in the area to eat? You can check out Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants ranking, the Post‘s Dining Guide, Eater’s 38 Essential Restaurants, City Paper‘s Food Issue, or, dare I say, Yelp. All of these sources include the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, too—something that will be oddly left out in Michelin’s first D.C. guide.
The guide will ultimately benefit a very small, elite group of chefs. Sure, Michelin has its value-oriented Bib Gourmand list, but let’s be honest, no one is consulting it about restaurants that don’t have stars. Chicago currently has 22 starred restaurants, San Francisco has 50, and New York has 76. D.C. is a smaller city, so it probably won’t even reach 20.
If anything, Michelin stars will give D.C. restaurants that have earned them an excuse to raise prices. And getting already sought-after reservations will become even more of a pain. Great. It’s another excuse for chefs who are already getting pats on the back to pat each other on the back some more. That’s not to say they don’t deserve credit, but let’s not treat Michelin stars like being knighted by the Queen.
The perverse appeal of the Michelin Guide is the horse race. Who’s up and who’s down? Who’s worthy and who’s not? D.C. is full of people constantly calculating, commenting on, and dissecting political scores.
Restaurants are no exception. Maybe the Michelin Guide is perfect for D.C. after all.