Guiding Stars: How The World’s Most Famous Restaurants’ Guides Work

This articles is written by our guest blogger Olivia Gagan.

We live in an age where, when it comes to choosing somewhere to eat, we’re spoilt for choice. There are more celebrity-chef backed eateries than you can shake an online voucher-deal printout at. Pop-up restaurants, well, pop up everywhere. Formerly dingy pubs are transforming into locally-sourced, imaginatively-menued gastropubs across the country.

And as we grow accustomed to the variety of food on offer, we are becoming more discerning in our tastes. Food blogs, tweets and emails passed between friends can advise on the best places to eat out. But there remains a very specific, more old-fashioned kind of review, one that comes from some of the world’s most respected critics.

This review comes out once a year, and every January restaurant staff worldwide await its publication with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The review with the power to make anonymous chefs celebrities and send big-name chefs into culinary oblivion? The Michelin Guide. A good review from this small tome could mean the restaurant stays afloat for the next twelve months; a bad one, or worse, to be ignored completely, could spell disaster.

Which is not to say that there are no other guides with clout. There are a plethora of restaurant rating guides out there, and the most influential come from some rather unlikely sources. For example, alongside the aforementioned tyre manufacturer, fizzy water producers San Pellegrino also maintain a highly respected list of the 50 best restaurants in the world.

Here’s a guide to some of the most influential:

The Michelin Guide

Quick Facts:

* Began in 1900 as a guide for drivers to find decent food and lodging
when touring France
* Star rating of one, two and three stars
* Michelin’s anonymous reviewers visit restaurants several times each year to decide if they deserve a star
* This year marks the 100th anniversary of the guide in the UK

A slim, 70-page red book, it only sells around 7,000 copies a year – hardly a best seller. But the fact that even those who prefer a McDonalds to haute cuisine know of the Michelin star system shows just how much the guide has infiltrated the public consciousness.

To earn one star is considered a huge achievement; two is a rarely-given prize; three stars are almost unheard of. All restaurants in the running for stars are subjected to repeat visits by professional Michelin food critics until a decision is made, and places that already have stars must prove each year that they deserve to retain their crowns.

There are only four restaurants in the UK with three stars; Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, Alain Roux’s Waterside Inn (both in Bray, Oxfordshire), Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, and Gordon Ramsay’s eponymous restaurant in Chelsea.

A tip for those on a tight budget: there is another grade of eateries that have been awarded ‘Bib Gourmand’ status by Michelin. This means that the cafe, pub or restaurant in question may not quite be star-worthy, but ‘offers good food at moderate prices’. It’s worth checking these out, as these places have also run the Michelin reviewers’ ruthless gauntlets.

The Good Food Guide

Quick Facts:

* A guide specifically geared towards UK dining
* Restaurants are graded on a scale of 1 to 10
* Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Bray is the only restaurant to be awarded the coveted 10 out of 10 score

The UK’s bestselling restaurant ratings guide, the Good Food Guide was launched by Raymond Postgate in 1961. After the rationing and poverty that followed WWII, Postgate was shocked at the state of British restaurant fare. He collected a group of volunteer reviewers to go out and compile reports on restaurants, in the hope that the anonymous write ups would encourage restaurants to lift their standards.

Fifty years on from the first edition, the Guide is still seen as one of the most reliable barometers of the UK restaurant scene. Each year the previous reviews are scrapped, and the process starts all over again, so that the reviews stay as relevant and accurate as possible. This is a great guide to go to if you’re looking for solid, dependable and down to earth UK-based reviews.

You can book 4 of the Good Food Guide’s Top 10 at Bookatable!

Gault Millau

Quick Facts:

* A major rival to the Michelin Guide
* Published in France and various other countries, for example Switzerland, Austria, Germany and the Benelux
* Famous for its focus on the food, and not the restaurant
* A points system of 1-20. The 20 score was never awarded by the founders of the guide….

…because they believed that perfection in a restaurant was impossible to achieve. Famous for its focus on the quality of the food, the Gault Millau guide is also infamous for the harsh judgment that is meted out on the restaurants that come under its gaze.

Founded in 1965 by restaurant critics Henri Gault and Christian Millau, the guide rates restaurants on a scale of 1 to 20. Restaurants that score under 10 are not listed, and the opinions of the French guide are taken seriously. In 2003, one chef committed suicide after his learning that his restaurant’s rating was to be downgraded.

Restaurants are judged solely on the food, with the prices, atmosphere, and service considered mere footnotes to the actual food eaten. This pits it against the Michelin guide, whose detractors say can be too easily swayed by a fancy dining environment or expensive menu.

The founders of Gault Millau have left the guide. Under the new editorial team the guide has begun to award the 20/20 score to restaurants, leading to criticism that its standards have started to slip. What do you think? Is a perfect meal possible? Have you ever had a 20/20 dining experience?

San Pellegrino, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants

Quick Facts:

* A relative newcomer to the ratings scene, launched in 2002
* An international list, that does not focus on one specific country or continent
* Intended as a snapshot of where the world’s best gourmands are eating right now

San Pellegrino is perhaps better known for its fizzy water, but the Italian drinks maker also sponsors an international restaurant competition. Each year, a panel of 800 worldwide industry experts choose the world’s top 50 restaurants. The restaurant with the most votes wins. Each panel member simply votes for their seven favourite restaurants, so the results are less closely regulated than, say, the Michelin Guide.

However, the guide is made more personal – and the results often more unexpected – as a result.

The Top 50, say its founders, is intended as “an honourable survey of current tastes and a credible indicator of the best places to eat”. Establishments cannot apply to be included, and every single restaurant in the world is eligible. The UK has four eateries in this year’s Top 50 list: Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Bray (again), and eateries The Ledbury, Hibiscus and St John in London.

So there you have it. These are just a few of the many guides that are out there, but these are the guides with the most influence and the ones most likely to still have a place in the future. Next time you’re planning a meal out, have a look at some of these guides – you may be pleasantly surprised at how many reasonably priced restaurants make the grade. And in this age of austerity, restaurants have to work even harder to deserve your hard-earned money. Of course, part of the fun of trying out a new restaurant is deciding for yourself whether it lives up to its reputation – but it is always useful to see what trained experts have thought of it before you dine.

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