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Traveling for the Michelin Star

Photos By : Richard Fusillo

Serious culinary travelers always know where they are going on their next trip. And it involves some strategizing.

Janice Cade remembers the exact moment in 2020 when she got an indication that COVID was to be taken seriously. Sitting in her Morro Bay home, she received an email informing her that her reservation to Rutz, a Michelin-rated three-star restaurant in Berlin, Germany, was canceled due to the global pandemic. Three days later, the U.S. went into lockdown.

“At the moment that I got the email, I didn’t realize the weight of COVID on the world, and truthfully, didn’t want to believe it. All I could think of was how my entire Germany trip was ruined because of the restaurant cancellation,” shares Janice.

This wasn’t the first time Janice’s international travel and dining plans were ruined. Just two years earlier, during a trip to Denmark, Janice and her husband Mark were booked to continue on to the Faroe Islands to eat at two-starred KOKS, the “most remote Michelin-rated restaurant,” as declared by the Michelin Guide. Its 17-course tasting menu seems out of place inside a rustic cabin set in a muddy valley. To Janice though, this restaurant, mud trekking and all, was to be the shining star of her trip, the whole reason she bore 16 hours of air travel.

Through a series of unfortunate events, beginning with a delayed plane and then a driver who never showed, Janice and Mark missed their reservation and had no chance of rescheduling during their time there. “I cried like a baby when they couldn’t fit us in,” says Janice.  

Janice is one of many people who design their travels around visiting Michelin-rated restaurants. Eating at these esteemed restaurants is not just one of many excursions lined up for these travelers’ big trips, it is the singular reason for going to these destinations.

“Every year I plan a big trip to a country I’ve never been to,” says Bill Lange, a Bay Area salmon fisherman, who travels often in his off-season. “Unfortunately, or fortunately, because of COVID restrictions and uncertainties still, I’ve decided to scale back to just U.S. travel for now. But I still make my plans around eating at Michelin star restaurants. Have been doing that for the past 15 years. I go where my stomach leads me.

I can never get enough of these experiences,” Bill adds. “I’ll probably make these Michelin trips until the day I die.”

One Michelin star, let alone three, gives a restaurant a culinary status that is recognized around the world. “Achieving a Michelin star is one of the most desirable badges of honor a restaurant can wear,” says Natalie McKnight, Professor of Humanities at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass. “It indicates to the world that it has met rigorous criteria and provides a world-class culinary experience.” And for this reason, people flock to the restaurants.

But often it’s not as easy as just going to a restaurant. Earning a Michelin star almost always guarantees constantly sold-out seatings for that restaurant. Getting into one of these places usually requires perfectly timed calls or online signups to score a reservation as soon as the opportunity opens. Reservations for a weekday have greater chances of availability. Walk-ins are accepted at many of these eateries due to last-minute cancellations, but those should never be relied upon because with Michelin-rated restaurants, guests generally don’t cancel.

“On my most recent vacation I went to Six Test Kitchen. Let me tell you, getting reservations was not easy,” says Bill. With only 12 seats at the Paso Robles restaurant, where owner and head chef Ricky Odbert offers a multi-course tasting menu inspired by the Central Coast, and open just four days a week, it’s a hard booking to make.

“They open up reservations at 9am on the first of the month of the following month. I logged on at 9 on the dot, and it was sold out,” Bill remembers. “Thankfully, living somewhat in the area, I tried month after month until I finally got a couple of seats. The work it takes to just score a reservation makes me feel that much more satisfied, for some reason. And then the food, oh gosh, the meticulous, beautiful food.”

The dining room at Six Test Kitchen in Paso Robles.
Six Test Kitchen prepares for dinner service.

The Michelin Guide and rating system were developed over a century ago by the Michelin family, known for its tire production. The tire company was founded in 1889 by brothers André and Édouard Michelin who had high hopes that the automobile industry would take off, though at the time, there were fewer than 3,000 cars on the road.

To encourage motorists to embark on road trips — with the anticipation of boosting car sales and tire purchases — André and Édouard created an automobile guide filled with travel information including maps, gas station locations, instructions on how to change a tire and listings of places to eat or take shelter for a night. This first iteration of the Michelin Guide was printed in 1900.

It evolved from a roadside guidebook, to what is now referenced as the “Red Bible” of the fine dining world, a leading expert of restaurant reviews. In 1926 the Michelin Guide began awarding stars to restaurants. A decade later, a three-star rating system was developed: one star signifies high quality cooking that is worth a stop; two stars equates to excellent cooking that is worth a detour; and three stars, the best, signifies exceptional cuisine that warrants a special journey. 

The food is judged on five criteria: quality of ingredients, the chef’s mastery of flavor and cooking techniques, the chef’s ability to imbue the cuisine with culinary personality, value for the money and consistency between visits.

The guide now rates over 30,000 restaurants throughout 30-plus territories and three continents. France and Japan lead the world for having the most three-starred restaurants, with 29 each. The U.S. has quickly become an overachiever in garnering Michelin-star ratings, coming in third worldwide with 14 three-starred restaurants.

Here in California, San Francisco rules the roost, boasting the most Michelin-starred restaurants: 61 of the 90 Michelin-starred restaurants in the state are found in the Bay Area alone.

And at home on the Central Coast, three restaurants received their first Michelin stars in 2021: Six Test Kitchen, an intimate chef’s counter restaurant, omakase-style Sushi | Bar in Montecito and Bell’s, a French bistro in Los Alamos.

Intricate plating at Bell’s in Los Alamos and Sushi | Bar Montecito.

Michelin and Visit California, the state’s travel and tourism commission, teamed up, and the latter paid $600,000, to create a guide that covers California.

“Culinary travelers are among California’s highest-spending visitors, staying on average 10 percent longer and spending 20 percent more on their trip than visitors to California overall,” shares Caroline Beteta, President and CEO of Visit California. “Coupled with the strong affinity for the Michelin brand in key international markets in Europe and Asia, we expect the statewide Michelin Guide to be a key motivator for travel to California.”

Michelin travel is big business.

* * * 

For most, eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant is a once in a lifetime event and an important item on their bucket list. But Michelin restaurants can be quite intimidating due to their high prices — however there are affordable options. Chef’s Pencil provides a map highlighting the most affordable Michelin restaurants in California.

And for those who are looking to splurge, the international food magazine has another map identifying the most expensive Michelin restaurants in The Golden State, where top-priced menu items can cost up to $500 per person.

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