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Stars & other symbols: a guide to the Michelin system

What is on the plate is all that matters when it comes to winning a Michelin star (or more). Inspectors look right past decorative table setting, flowers and other ‘fuss’ to focus on their five essential criteria: the quality of ingredients, mastery of flavour and cooking techniques, the presence of the chef’s personality in their cuisine, value for money, and consistency between visits. Whether or not you get good service, the attitude of the waiter is irrelevant to a Michelin inspector even if it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

One star defines a restaurant as being ‘very good in its category’, two stands for ‘excellent cooking that’s worth a detour’ and the pinnacle of three stars means that an establishment offers ‘exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey’. The gourmet Michelin Guide as we know it dates back to 1920, when it was conceived by Clermont-Ferrand brothers André and Édouard Michelin as a way of encouraging motorists to travel more in their cars. Early inclusions of the little red book were travel maps, information on how to change a tire and other driving-related issues, directions to petrol stations, lists of hotels and restaurant tips. By 1930s, the three-star tier ranking system has been established. The guide grew in popularity and the brother recruited a number of inspectors to visit and review France’s restaurants.

To control and maintain the integrity of the guide, stars are awarder following several visits by different inspectors: “[Awards] are never just the result of one person’s judgement; they are formed by a collective decision which is the result of a long process,” say officials. “Our inspectors are real experts in the catering and hospitality industries… but are above all customers like any other.” As such, visits are conducted anonymously.

In addition to the stars, keen gourmands may have noticed a few other Michelin symbols adorning the plaques of restaurants. A vista-style symbol denotes a ‘magnificent view’ while a bunch of grapes, cocktail glasses or sake set indicates a ‘notable’ in-house selection.

But there is far more to the guide than stars and other symbols. Since 1955, the Bib Gourmand category has promoted restaurants offering high quality food for moderate prices (a three-course menu for under €37.5). There are around 40 in the south of France, including: Fine Gueule and La Merenda in Nice, Café de la Fontaine in La Turbie, Bistro du Clos in Le Rouret, L’Amandier in Mougins, Bistrot des Anges in Le Cannet, Le Bistrot de l’Oasis in Mandelieu-La Napoule, and Bello Visto and La Verdoyante in Gassin. If you’re looking for somewhere new to try this summer, we recommend you start with one of these.