We’ve all heard of one, two, or three Michelin star restaurants. But has a restaurant ever been awarded four stars? If hotels like the Burj Al Arab in the United Arab Emirates, or the Taj Falaknuma Palace in India can have seven stars in a rating system that usually maxes out at five, surely a four Michelin star restaurant is at least plausible?
Perhaps disappointingly, the answer is no - three is still the maximum number of Michelin stars that can be awarded to any one restaurant. And as their rating system hasn’t changed since the second and third star tiers were added almost a hundred years ago, it doesn’t look like a fourth star will be appearing any time soon. But then the standard three star restaurants are expected to achieve is so dizzyingly high, it’s difficult to imagine what might be required to earn a fourth anyway.
The glamour of a modern day three star restaurant is a far cry from the somewhat unlikely origins of the Michelin Guide. It all began in 1900, when French tyre manufacturers André and Édouard Michelin began distributing free motorists’ guides to try and create interest in that new-fangled invention known as the automobile. Perhaps surprisingly, the first Michelin guides barely mentioned restaurants at all, instead focussing on things more obviously needful to a motorist, such as petrol stations, mechanics, and good hotels to stay in during your travels.
The guide quickly grew in popularity, and soon Michelin was publishing guides for countries throughout Europe and parts of Northern Africa. Restaurant listings increased as they grew, and they began hiring anonymous inspectors to write reviews. By 1926, these reviews were in such demand that Michelin began publishing two distinct guides: The Green Guide was a typical motorists guide, and the Red Guide was reserved solely for Hotel and Restaurant reviews.
Perhaps inspired by hotel ratings, which are typically between one and five stars, The Red Guide introduced a star rating system for restaurants too, initially awarding a single star to any restaurant deemed ‘a very good restaurant in its category’. In 1931, the two and three star ratings were introduced, with two stars indicating an establishment was ‘worth a detour’ and three that it was ‘worth a special journey’. Stars have always been awarded to restaurants rather than chefs, so while there may be no such thing as a four star restaurant, a chef with more than one restaurant could quite easily have a total of four stars to his name.
Since those early days, the Michelin guide has spread to major cities throughout the world, and the rating system has remained the same throughout. It is essentially a four tier system, since any given restaurant has between zero and three stars. The vast majority of restaurants have zero stars - most have never been inspected, many don’t quite make the grade - but this doesn’t mean they’re not good, or even great restaurants. Michelin standards are so high that very few restaurants will be awarded even one star. Tokyo is the most Michelin starred city, with a total of 226 Michelin starred restaurants, while France has the most Michelin stars of any country, with 628 Michelin starred restaurants (figures taken from the 2020 guides)
Michelin Rising Stars: How Useful are They?
Because Michelin’s standards are so high, they introduced a different award, known as the ‘espoir’ or ‘Rising Star’, to indicate restaurants who missed out on an award by the narrowest of margins, and could be one to watch in next year’s guide. Introduced in 2005, the Rising Star award was initially awarded to one or two star restaurants who were almost good enough for another star. Later, this was expanded to include restaurants with zero stars, who looked set to achieve their first in the next few years.
The Rising Star hasn’t caught on everywhere. It doesn’t appear in any of the country guides, and not all of the city guides use it either. Being awarded a Rising Star is no guarantee of promotion, and restaurants can only hold the award for two years if they fail to live up to their initial promise. That said, it can be an excellent way to encourage restaurants which are close to achieving their goals and can also be a good way for diners to identify the best restaurants within a particular tier.
Bib Gourmand and Other Features
There are several other ways a restaurant can get into the Michelin guide, sometimes without being awarded a single star. For those of us who enjoy good food, but can’t afford to eat at luxury restaurants every night, the Bib Gourmand is an award for quality cuisine at an affordable price. To be awarded a Bib Gourmand, a restaurant must offer a certain number of courses for under a set price - different according to what is considered affordable in each city - and of course, the food must be delicious. As an example, restaurants in New York can be awarded a Bib Gourmand for offering good quality food at a rate of $40 or under for three courses plus wine.
Other, non-starred restaurants are also reviewed in the Michelin guide. These restaurants awarded a Michelin Plate, which signifies good food, but not quite Michelin standard. The Michelin Plate award is much-prized, as making it into the guide at all is a considerable achievement. Like the Rising Star, it is a sign of promise, and many Michelin Plate winners go on to be awarded stars in the future.
There is even another tiered rating system in the Michelin Guide, this time scoring the quality and comfort of an establishment, rather than the food itself. Restaurants can be awarded a ‘Fork and Spoon’ rating, according to the relative luxury of the surroundings, and unlike the stars, this rating system goes up to five. So while it isn’t possible for a restaurant to have four Michelin stars, it could have four forks and spoons.
Finally, if you really want an establishment with more than three Michelin stars, you can always try putting several world-class restaurants in the same building. In 2017, the Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris, became the first hotel in Europe to contain three Michelin star restaurants. Le Cinq, Le George and L’Orangerie are all located within the luxury Parisian hotel, and were all awarded Michelin stars in the 2017 guide, with a grand total of not four, but five Michelin stars between them.