Mayor Muriel Bowser meets the Michelin Man
Mayor Muriel Bowser meets the Michelin Man Credit: Laura Hayes

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The next time someone from fill-in-the-blank city brags that their hometown has better food than D.C., Washingtonians will have fresh fodder to counter the claim. Michelin announced today that the District will become the 4th U.S. city to get a guide from the prestigious French company, joining Chicago, New York City, and San Francisco.

That means Michelin’s anonymous inspectors have been dining at area restaurants for months and will continue to do so until the first edition publishes on Oct. 13. The first guide will be limited to D.C. proper, but it’s possible future editions will include the greater Metro area.

Though the movie Burnt—starring Bradley Cooper on a quest to gain a third Michelin star—might lead you believe inspectors are easy to spot because of tactics like dropping silverware on the floor to test how quickly it’s noticed by wait staff, it’s far more difficult. Impossible even, according to Michael Ellis, the international director of the Michelin guides. “Michelin inspectors are anonymous food experts, many are former chefs, and they always pay their bill,” he says. They are careful not to visit the same restaurant twice in the same year.

It’s not just the crème de la crème—like, say, Komi, Pineapple & Pearls, or Kinship—that could be awarded stars. “The two- and three-star restaurants probably won’t be a surprise because they’re already pretty well known, what will surprise people are the one-star restaurants,” says Pete Selleck, Michelin North American chairman and president. “This is not a popularity contest, the inspectors are truly professional in what they do. There will be surprises. That is really what the guide is all about.”

The 116-year-old international guide has followed the same five criteria since its inception in 1900. “Quality and freshness of ingredients; mastery of cooking technique; personality of the chef as expressed in the creation of food; consistency over time and consistency throughout the menu; and value for money,” Ellis explains. “That way the quality of a Michelin star will be the same whether it’s in New York, Paris, or Hong Kong.”

But there’s more to a Michelin guide than one, two, and three-star ratings. These only make up 20 percent of each guide, according to Ellis. The guide will also include a host of restaurants where diners can expect a good meal based on food, service, and ambiance. Some D.C. restaurants will fall under the Bib Gourmand category, which Michelin says is for the “frugal foodie.” “We recognize that not everyone will want to go out and have a multi-hundred dollar meal,” Selleck adds. That could mean some of the city’s best ethnic food, be it Ethiopian or El Salvadoran, could get recognized.

The international nature of D.C. was one of the major draws for Michelin, as the original guidebooks were aimed at travelers. According to Selleck, a Michelin guide is likely to boost tourism because “people seek out stars.”

The other reason D.C. is now on the short list of Michelin cities in America has been the dining’s scene’s swift evolution. “It’s always been very good here, but now it’s the best it’s ever been, and hopefully this guide will continue to promote it so people can really understand the valuable culinary scene that exists,” Selleck says.

Mayor Muriel Bowser acknowledged the changing food scene at a National Press Club press conference this morning for the announcement. “You can go now on 14th street where we have nearly 100 restaurants in 11 blocks,” she says. “You can go to H Street, Shaw, Adams Morgan, Anacostia and everywhere in between, but we’re kind of greedy and want more.”

Chef April Bloomfield was also at the press conference. She holds two stars in New York, one for The Spotted Pig and the other for The Breslin Bar & Dining Room. She explains that when the guide comes out, restaurants can’t go back to business as usual. She says it’s just as nerve-racking waiting to find out if your restaurant has retained its star or stars. “Every year, we chefs nervously wait by the telephone,” she says. “Getting a star doesn’t mean you can relax, it means you have to work harder.”

Despite all the Michelin hype, there’s still the question of whether something created more than a century ago is still relevant. Even Michelin has had its doubts.

“With all of the online rating systems that have come out, there was a concern 10 years ago that a guide of this sort with a professional process to go through might have outlived its usefulness,” Selleck says, “but people are recognizing that there is a need for professional navigation.”