Michelin's cheap-eats list might work in Europe, but it is out of touch with America

Baan Thai and its signature khao soi should be on Michelin’s list of Washington, DC, cheap-eats destinations.
Baan Thai and its signature khao soi should be on Michelin’s list of Washington, DC, cheap-eats destinations. PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

(WASHINGTON POST) - There is no reason to sugarcoat this, so I won’t: The Michelin Guide has a cheap-eats problem.

The famous French dining guide – once the arbiter of taste for many chefs and the public – does not officially label the food “cheap” at the restaurants on its annual Bib Gourmand list, but the word is implied louder than a jackhammer at dawn. For a restaurant to qualify for the list, Michelin’s anonymous inspectors must be able to order two courses and a glass of wine, or dessert, for US$40 (S$54) or less, excluding tax and tip. 

Where to start with this mess? How about here: Spending US$40 for a meal is not cheap. Not for me and probably not for 95 per cent of diners. 

It is cheap only by the tortured standards of a guide that clings to an Old European notion of fine dining, with white tablecloths, impeccably dressed servers and sommeliers who dangle silver-plated tastevins around their necks. 

Of the 22 restaurants placed on the Bib Gourmand list for the 2018 Washington, DC, Michelin Guide, only two serve what I would consider cheap eats: CherCher, a terrific Ethiopian spot, and 2 Amys, where you can still get a beer and a charred-and-chewy Neapolitan pizza for under US$20.

Even some chefs who oversee Bib restaurants in DC do not lump their menus into the cheap-eats category. They will say their food is “affordable” or “competitively priced.” 

But they, like most diners with any sense of perspective, will reserve the cheap-eats tag for places that truly aim for a lower price point, such as a fried chicken joint.

“I’m married. I got two kids,” said Rob Rubba, chef behind the Bib-designated Hazel in Shaw. “Hazel would not be a cheap night out, I can guarantee you that. That would be going out for us.”

“Going out” as in: Going out for a nice meal.

Michael Friedman, chef and partner behind Red Hen, has a different definition of cheap eats than the one that Michelin has applied to his Bib Gourmand restaurant. “Going to my favourite taco shop for US$2 lengua tacos. That, to me, is cheap eats,” Friedman said. “A great slice of pizza for US$3. Those are, for me, the guidelines for ‘cheap eats.’ I would say that in the world of Michelin, obviously you are dealing on another level altogether.” 

Michelin is still relatively new to the universe of American dining. The tyre company only started publishing dining guides in the United States in 2005, when it rolled out a little red book for New York City. 

In the past dozen years, Michelin has already stopped publishing guides in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, ostensibly because the recession put the brakes on such profligate spending, though Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Los Angeles Times, suggested another theory to The Washington Post last year.

“In their two editions here, the Michelin ratings seemed uniquely ill-suited to evaluating Los Angeles restaurants, which tend to aspire to different things than the restaurants in Paris. Some of our most imaginative chefs use the same farmers' market ingredients, top-rank seafood and sustainably raised meat as the expense account restaurants, but put their creations on tortillas instead of fine china and serve it from the back of trucks. Others serve brilliant tasting menus in barely converted mini-mall pizzerias, in the back of convenience stores or in untranslated Chinese.”

Gold, I think, gets to the heart of the issue about Michelin in America: Our dining culture is more relaxed, more multicultural and informal, and that trend has only accelerated as Gen-Xers and millennials have taken over local restaurant scenes once run by baby boomers, who still had a Rat Pack-era mentality about fine dining, one so Frenchified, it smelt of butter and black truffles.  

In its first DC guide, Michelin seemed to make some accommodations to the American-style of dining (while also awarding stars to air-pinky palaces such as Plume).

Rose’s Luxury, chef Aaron Silverman’s restaurant with the mismatched plateware and the quirky, personalised wait staff, earned a star. So did Tail Up Goat, a modern Greek restaurant with tables sans linens and chairs that look like they were swiped from study hall. 

But Michelin has made few, if any, accommodations with its Bib Gourmand list, which seems less a cheap-eats category than a minor-league system for those polished restaurants that have not quite made the jump to the Bigs. Worse, most – and I do mean most – of the 22 Bib Gourmand restaurants on this year’s list would be compromised if a diner were forced to cobble together two courses with a glass of wine (or dessert) for US$40.

For starters, you would not have the budget to enjoy a pasta at Sfoglina, Fabio and Maria Trabocchi’s restaurant. Need I remind you Sfoglina is a pasta house?

At Doi Moi, you will probably have to skip the entrees. At Jaleo, you will be forced to stop eating after two or three small plates, no matter how hungry you still were. And so on.

So whom does this arbitrary US$40 threshold benefit? It mostly benefits Michelin, which can honour deserving restaurants in a category that is not becoming to most of them.

Chef Peter Pastan, the mastermind behind 2 Amys, has been to a few Bib Gourmand restaurants in Italy and he has noticed a difference between the Bibs in the Old World and those in the New World.

He offered these thoughts about Italian Bibs via e-mail: “Of the few I’d been to, they are family places in every possible way. I assume the family owns the property outright, so no rent to pay, no (community area maintenance) charges, which relieve an enormous burden. They are also multi-generational in terms of who works there: Dad on the floor, mum in the kitchen, kids helping out and, not to overly fantasise about other people’s lives in the restaurant business, but they have a pretty good life and don’t seem to be driven by ideas of owning a mini-restaurant empire... In much of our country, those types of places have become chain restaurants.”

Yet there are such family-run places in DC. They are just harder to find.

They are tucked into lonely corridors, sometimes run by folks who speak English as a second language and who struggle from month to month since they are paying rents and other fees.  These are the true bargain restaurants in DC, the real Bib Gourmands. They are spots that place a premium on cooking techniques, good ingredients and authentic flavours, regardless of what kind of atmosphere they provide for diners or what kind of surly server sidles up to the table.

Restaurants such as Baan Thai, El Sol Restaurante & Tequileria, Federalist Pig, Mi Cuba Cafe and many more. (There are tons more in the DC suburbs, of course, but Michelin remains firmly rooted in the District of Columbia at this point.)

The tyre company, in other words, needs to see cheap eats through the eyes of the average American, not from under the nose of a Michelin inspector who clearly values pampering as much as a well-prepared meal.