Published annually by the Michelin tyre company, the esteemed Michelin guide is so synonymous with fine dining that its name is recognisable even to those who wouldn’t dream of paying to eat at such restaurants. In some ways that’s a shame. Its reputation belies the fact that the guide lists many surprisingly affordable eateries too, from gastropubs to notable street food stands.
Still, it’s the famous Michelin stars, hugely coveted by ambitious chefs and restaurateurs, that attract most attention. So how did it come to be this way?
You may not be surprised to learn that it began with selling tyres.
Michelin star guide: who invented it?
The picturesque town of Clermont-Ferrand in the French Alps might seem like a surprising location for the headquarters of the world’s second-largest tyre company, but it’s here where the grandfather of the Michelin brothers, André and Édouard, founded his rubber factory.
By the time André and Édouard took it over, the factory was struggling. However, in 1889, a chance encounter with a passing cyclist inspired the brothers to invent the removable pneumatic tyre (until then, tyres were uniformly glued to wheel frames and laborious to repair). Their 1891 patent just happened to coincide with the birth of the motorcar. Now the Michelin brothers were in business.
There were several contributing factors to the extraordinary success of Michelin in the early 20th century. Some, such as the emergence of complementary and world-changing technologies, were fortunate. Some, such as the treatment of rubber plantation workers, were downright exploitative. But some were undeniably genius.
It wasn’t just their relentless innovation in tyres and transportation. In 1900, the brothers hit upon a marketing masterstroke. At the time, bicycle tyres were still the crux of the business, with fewer than 3000 automobiles on French roads (compared with over 30 million today).
To increase the demand for cars and, by extension, car tyres, André and Édouard distributed 35,000 free copies of their inaugural Michelin guide to France.
The first Michelin star guide
In the first guide there wasn’t as much of a focus on restaurants. A few were listed, but most of the featured establishments were more obviously motorist-friendly, such as petrol stations, mechanics and hotels. It also contained roadmaps, instructions on how to change a (Michelin) tyre, and other useful information.
Over the following years, Michelin published similar guides for most of Western and Central Europe, parts of Southern Europe, and several North African nations too. Publication ground to a halt with the outbreak of World War I, but eventually resumed. By the early 20s, in a bid to make the guide more respectable, the brothers removed advertisements from the guide and started charging for it. They also began to expand their restaurant listings.
By this point it was becoming clear that the restaurant listings were the main reason motorists continued to purchase the guide. A team of inspectors were hired to review restaurants – always anonymously, as it still is today – and, in 1926, fine dining establishments were highlighted by a single star.
Five years later, the three-star hierarchy was introduced. One star signified “a very good restaurant in its category”. Two meant it was “worth a detour” and three was “worth a special journey.” This unique rating system – essentially a measure of how much travelling the dining experience was worth – resonated with motorists and gave the Michelin guide an edge over its competitors that continues to this day.
The first Michelin star restaurants
The first Michelin stars were awarded in 1926 to 46 restaurants in the French provinces. But there was also an important difference in what a Michelin star meant then compared to with the introduction of the three-star rating system. Prior to 1931, a star wasn’t so much a recommendation as an indication that the restaurant was perceived to be haute cuisine.
Several of those provincial restaurants held onto their stars despite the change in the star system in 1931 – some also gaining a second, of course. Many new restaurants were added to the list, including several Parisian ones.
The most noteworthy restaurants featured in the 1931 guide were the first ones to ever receive three stars. Paris boasted three of those: le Café de Paris, la Tour d’Argent, and Lapérouse. The others were la Mère Brazier on the outskirts of Lyon, la Côte d'Or in Saulieu, l’Auberge du père Bise in Talloires, and la Pyramide in Vienne.
The first Michelin star chefs
It would be impossible to list every chef awarded a Michelin star in that iconic 1931 guide, but there are certainly a few noteworthy names to zone in on. Four of them went on to become arguably the most famous chefs in French history.
Let’s start with Eugénie Brazier, one of the Mère Lyonnaises – the mothers of Lyonnaise cuisine – who developed the region’s culinary style in the early 20th century. Her restaurant la Mère Brazier on the Col de la Luère, just outside of Lyon, made her the first woman to receive three Michelin stars.
Born in 1895, she worked her way up from a maid to work for another of the Mère Lyonnaises, Mère Filloux, before opening la Mère Brazier on Lyon’s Rue Royale. Although it was her identically named second restaurant that earned her those initial three stars, the original followed in 1933, making her the first chef, male or female, to hold six Michelin stars.
Although Brazier can claim to be the first three-star female chef, 1931 saw Margueritte Bise split three stars with her husband Marius for their restaurant l’Auberge du père Bise,situated in the scenic former commune of Talloires. However, it was Margueritte who was head chef and, in 1951, she eventually won the three Michelin stars for herself. That made her officially the third woman to win three Michelin stars, with Marie Bourgeois having become the second in 1933. (Sadly, there wouldn’t be a fourth until Anne-Sophie Pic in 2007.)
Brazier and Bise were joined by two other culinary titans in the 1931 Michelin guide. Alexandre Dumain, having made his name running hotels in Algeria with his wife Jeanne, had taken over the Hotel de la Côte d’Or in Saulieu just the year before. Under Paul Budin, the 19th-century hotel had already been awarded a star in 1926, but Dumain turned it into an essential stop for the rich and famous en route to their alpine holidays.
La Côte d’Or became one of the most famous restaurants in France, if not the world, alongside another restaurant that gained three-star recognition in 1931 – Fernand Point’s La Pyramide in Vienne. Remarkably, Point opened La Pyramide when he was just 24, having hailed from a family of chefs.
These all remain extraordinary achievements, but the Michelin guide and the nature of culinary entrepreneurship has come a long way. Eugénie Brazier’s six Michelin stars went unmatched until Alain Ducasse cracked six in 1998. Ducasse now holds an incredible 17, having peaked with 21. Of course, he also owns 36 restaurants – something which would have been unthinkable in the era of the Mère Lyonnaises and the early Michelin guides.
The Michelin Guide has published its listing for Washington D.C., with one new two-star and four new one-star restaurants. The Inn at Little Washington is the capital's only three-star restaurant. Take a look.