Michelin stars: Discerning travelers beware!

The Cliff restaurant in Barbados: no Michelin stars, but worth the price of admission!
The Cliff restaurant in Barbados: no Michelin stars, but worth the price of admission!

We do love to have new dining experiences when we travel.  We’ve waxed rapturously before about those times when we’ve had that defining experience that stays with us for years to come (The Cliff in Barbados comes to mind) – and despite opinions to the contrary, dining is not just about the food.

The concept of those restaurants that boast “stars” – you know the ones: those Michelin stars – is one that is intriguing for us when we travel.  Usually, we’ll want to splurge on one such experience during a trip, but our travel mantra is more focused on service and the overall experience, regardless of price or even some kind of external validation that is something like a Michelin star.

Dublin is a wonderful mix of the old and the new.  St. Stephen's Green in April.
Dublin is a wonderful mix of the old and the new. St. Stephen’s Green in April.

Last month we had the pleasure of a wonderful trip to Ireland with a three-day stop in Dublin.  Searching for restaurants, we found Chapter One, and even our driver recommended it.  We stopped by the concierge at the wonderful Westin Dublin where we stayed, and miracle of miracles, he was able to procure for us a table for that very evening.  We had heard that you have to book weeks if not months in advance.  So we were excited.

Even when you “Google” Chapter One the heading on the web site as listed in the results says, “Chapter One Michelin Star Restaurant Dublin…”  So it would seem that this little star is important and that restaurants trade on it.  But what does it really mean and will it guarantee a great dining experience?

According to Michelin’s own web site, the stars are awarded based on a “clandestine” approach to evaluation wherein their “full-time professional inspectors” (!)  anonymously partake of repeated test meals.  In other words, the evaluators are unknown to the restaurant and they could be there any day without notice.  Their description of what the stars mean is very telling from our perspective: “The star symbols judge only what’s on the plate, meaning the quality of products, the mastering of flavors, mastering of cooking, personality of the cuisine, value for the money and the consistency of what the restaurant offers to its customers both throughout the menu and the year.” [from their web site]

The notion of stars referring to only what is actually on the plate says a lot to us as discerning diners: we now know not to expect much in terms of service, consideration of clients or even selection of wines or spirits.  Case in point: our recent visit to the one-starred Chapter One.

We arrived there one lovely April evening to be greeted by fantastically friendly staff, although to be truthful, we found everyone to a person in Ireland to have this same approach, so it was no surprise.  Although we arrived on time for our dinner reservation, we were led to a tiny bar to sit, order a drink and in due course actually see a menu and order food – all before going to our table.  This was surprising, but we accepted it as their “way.”  We ordered two Martini Biancos on the rocks only to be  told they had enough for only one.  So whose job is it to ensure that the bar is always fully stocked, we wondered?  Not to worry though, we enjoy other drinks.  Okay, we thought, so they don’t have it.  What about an Aperol spritz?  The waiter had never heard of Aperol.  Two strikes and we haven’t even seen the menu.  He eventually

What an Aperol spritz looks like in its country of origin: Italy.
What an Aperol spritz looks like in its country of origin: Italy.

consulted with someone else who procured a bottle with some Aperol left in it and proceeded to produce for us Aperol topped with soda.  Oh dear.  An Aperol spritz, as any worthy bartender ought to know is topped with Prosecco, not soda and is served with a slice or twist of orange in a large wine glass, not an old-fashioned!  However, we saw no point in getting off to a really bad start and looking like annoying tourists, so we sucked it up.  Then it was on to the menu.

It was interesting and we found several selections to look forward to.  A waiter then took our dinner order, and were eventually led to our table.  With a corner vantage point, we could see the small room well.  It was one of two connected rooms, and we could see a private dining area beyond.  What struck as the most al throughout the evening (and it was long – too long for our liking) was the feverish activity displayed by one and all.  The waiters flew back and forth past the table so fast it seemed as if they were in training for a sprint.  In our view, it’s fine to be busy, but there should be a degree of calmness exhibited in the presence of the guests so that they can enjoy a relaxed evening.  The stress level was palpable and could have been contagious if we hadn’t already had a drink!   In spite of all of the frenetic activity though, we had been in the place for an hour before we had an appetizer.

There’s something about the ambience that makes an evening special.  Wonderful food is nice – and the food that evening was nice, but hardly worth the price (we’ve had a lot better elsewhere) – but the feeling we had was that old army saying: “Hurry up and wait.”  Additionally, there was no background music at all to provide even a perception of peace.  So, for us, the evening was not worth the price we paid for it – and it was expensive.   In truth, the restaurant holds one star which Michelin defines as indicating “a very good restaurant in its category, offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard. A good place to stop on your journey.”   After several days in Dublin, we’d have to say that if you have limited time (and/or resources) there are much better places where the experience will be more delightful.  The Pearl, a lovely French restaurant comes to mind: we had a wonderful evening enjoying the food and the ambience, where the relaxed atmosphere coupled with the knack for French sauces had us swooning.

Our conclusion is that when selecting restaurants, those Michelin stars tell only part of the story – a story which is very clearly described on the Michelin web site itself: “The star symbols judge only what’s on the plate…” and even at that, you might not agree.  So for us Michelin stars don’t really provide the kind of discerning travel guidance we’re seeking.  We have just by happenstance landed in Michelin-starred restaurants before and enjoyed ourselves.  But you won’t need a Michelin star to do that!

Advertisements