wiki : latimes

Ce journal est payant mais contient plus de pubs que Metro !! Illisible, et de plus en plus conservateurs, il est tout de même incontournable sur las West Coast/ South California.,1,940688.column?coll=la-home-food


What the French have that we don't
David Shaw

May 19, 2004

Why does the United States have no equivalent to the Michelin Guide, the small but fat red book that's crammed with restaurant ratings in every Gallic nook and cranny?

Good question. The answer, I think, is that for several reasons such a book — a single volume, encyclopedic, authoritative, respected by readers and restaurateurs alike — would be impracticable in this country.


Well, for one thing, France is still a far more homogenous society than ours. Yes, there are more North African and Middle Eastern restaurants in some areas of France than there once were, and in some regions — especially Paris — you'll find Vietnamese, Chinese and Italian restaurants, among others. But Michelin mostly rates French restaurants, using standards applicable and recognizable to all.

To be truly useful — and successful — a restaurant guide in the United States would have to rate not just American restaurants but also French, Italian, Mexican, Cuban, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, German, Spanish….

Where would one find enough critics knowledgeable in all these cuisines and able to travel throughout the country to apply the same standards equally everywhere? The U.S. has 17 times more land mass than France. Even if there were enough qualified critics, it would be prohibitively expensive to pay all their salaries, travel, hotel and restaurant expenses so they could squat and gobble across the fruited plains, from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine.

The 2004 Michelin Guide for France has 1,823 pages. Even if someone could afford to subsidize a national guide for the United States, it would be the size of a telephone book and certainly wouldn't fit in any purse or automobile glove compartment.

Michelin, the guide, survives largely because it's part of a large publishing company, which also produces maps and tourism guides — and because they're all owned by Michelin, the tire company. I've long heard that the Michelin restaurant guide in France loses money, despite sales of about 500,000 copies a year, but when I spoke with Derek Brown, the editor, by phone recently, he said that wasn't necessarily so.

"There are years when the red guide is profitable," he said, "but it's an integral part of the whole publishing operation, which is profitable, so profitability [on the red guide] from year to year is not a great concern."

Brown would not say how often the red guide is profitable nor how much it sometimes loses, but the guides are clearly a great promotional vehicle. The guide and the Michelin symbol are ubiquitous in France; the red book is the bible of French gastronomy.

A daunting task

Who would underwrite such a project in the United States?

Michelin has considered it from time to time, Brown said, and in the course of his 33 years with Michelin, he visited the United States twice to look into the possibilities. He was daunted by the "sheer scale" the undertaking would represent, and he left wondering if there would be "sufficient demand" from Americans for it to succeed.

Both Mobil and the American Automobile Assn. (AAA) publish regional guides here, and since their core businesses — like Michelin's — encourage travel, they might be the logical publishers for a Michelin-like guide. Both say they are considering such ventures, though probably not as single-volume guides.

Kevin Bristow, vice president for publications at Mobil, said last week he hopes to start work on a national guide, perhaps within a year. "It would have to carry 8,000 or 9,000 restaurants, and I think it would be too complicated to use and too big to carry around, so we might have to do it in two or three regional volumes," Bristow said.

Mobil publishes 16 regional guides and 10 city guides and will publish dining guides for four cities this summer as a first step toward "getting the most out of our database … and producing a national restaurant guide," according to Bristow.

Michael Petrone, director of tourism information development for AAA, said he too would like to publish "a national restaurant guide of sorts … but we now cover 21,000 restaurants in our [22] regional guides, and I don't think anyone would want to carry all that in one volume. We might have to do the top 20 cities or the top 10 AAA destinations."

Petrone said it would be "pure speculation" to say when such an endeavor might begin.

But the Mobil and AAA guides have never had the impact or credibility as restaurant guides that remotely approaches that of Michelin in France, even though Petrone said AAA inspectors have "a background in the hospitality industry and go through six to eight weeks of training," including use of a "cuisines of the world training book on CD."

Shane O'Flaherty, vice president of the Mobil travel guides, told me that while Mobil inspectors also have "a tremendous background in food from all their work for us over the years … they're not specifically food critics … restaurant critics."

"We don't pretend to be experts," he said. "We look at the overall dining experience. The culinary aspect is only part of that."

Well, yes. Service and ambience count too. But I don't know anyone who has ever chosen a restaurant based on a Mobil or AAA rating. Chefs and restaurateurs here don't lose sleep waiting for the new Mobil or AAA ratings every year, and hordes of readers don't immediately make reservations at the newest Mobil five-star or AAA five-diamond restaurant as they do each year the day the newest Michelin three-stars are named. I've never heard of a chef going into a deep depression — or killing himself — after losing a star, as has happened after Michelin demotions in France.

Zagat guides

Despite the burgeoning celebrity status of some chefs, the statistics on how much more often Americans now eat out and the steadily increasing sophistication of many American diners, the restaurant experience is still not nearly as integral a part of our culture as it has long been in France.

After all, a great deal of America's eating out takes place in chain outlets of the McDonald's, Sizzler, Applebee's variety, for which a Michelin-like guide is about as necessary as a magnum of La Tache.

The Zagat Survey is, of course, the leader in restaurant guides in this country today. The company publishes 22 city and regional guides, as well as the closest approximation we now have to a national guide — "America's Top Restaurants."

But Zagat is unlike Michelin in almost every way imaginable, relying on everyday diners rather than trained inspectors and lacking any uniformity of judgment. In France, whatever differences might exist among individual Michelin inspectors, restaurants with three-star ratings are of comparable quality whether they're in Paris, Lyon or the tiny town of Eugénie-les-Bains (pop. 507). With Zagat, there's no way of knowing if a restaurant with a 27-point rating in, say, Detroit, is likely to be qualitatively similar to a restaurant with a similar rating in Los Angeles or Chicago or anywhere else.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Michelin and Zagat's "America's Top Restaurants" is that the latter makes no attempt to be all-encompassing. It covers only the 50 or so best restaurants in each of 41 large cities. Michelin rates more than 400 restaurants in Paris alone, and one of the venerable French guide's great strengths is that it covers restaurants throughout the country, in more than 2,000 cities, towns and villages, some so small it's hard to find them on a map.

Of course, there are great restaurants in such tiny, remote places in France. Eight of the country's 27 three-stars are in towns with less than 3,000 population, and four are in towns of less than 1,000. One would be unlikely to find a great restaurant in any American town that small. But you do find restaurants serving good, unique regional food in small towns here, and if I were driving through any of those towns, I'd sure like to have a single, reliable guidebook that included and rated them all.

It would be great to have one reliable book, one volume, for the entire country — large cities and small towns, high-end and low-down. But I don't think it's possible. No publisher could afford to do it properly, and if one did, it would inevitably be so large and so expensive that it wouldn't sell enough copies to be profitable.

So I'm not holding my breath. Or my fork.

David Shaw can be reached at To read previous "Matters of Taste" columns, please go to


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allez, amusez-vous de l'initiative de faibles et de partisans du chaos institutionnalise. Liberte syndicale et liberte de l'Homme ne pourront se rencontrer que lorsque le syndicat aura pris conscience de l'importance de l'Homme.

moderateur vadrouilleur, j'ai supprime cet atteinte à la netiquette, que les precedents posteurs ne devaient pas connaitre...

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