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Wheels on Meals

How the Michelin Tire Company Became the Premier Restaurant Reviewer

For many, vacation planning involves scads of food recommendations—from your mother, your coworker, your go-to travel blogger, and . . . your tire company? It’s no secret that Michelin stars, the sought-after restaurant rating, and Michelin tires, the sought-after transportation accessory, originate with the same company. But the history behind this unlikely connection, along with its widespread effects, provides much more food for thought.

Because cuisine is intrinsic to culture, tourism is tightly interwoven with the food industry. Tasting a country’s food can begin a love affair with a locale, and eating certain dishes at the right time or place can be considered a rite of passage to truly experience a culture. Many dedicate their whole vacations to scoping out the best diners or holes-in-the-wall, leading global food tourism to be valued as high as $1.1 trillion in 2009. The fame of the Michelin star reflects how early the tire company jumped into this lucrative industry.

The Road to Refinement

In 1900 Michelin Tire Founders published its first travel guide. The company was looking to capitalize on the rage of travel guides, hoping to encourage drivers to travel farther and wear out more tires. In a time when new travelers needed recommendations of places to visit, one thing led to another, and soon the Michelin guide was a respected authority on restaurant quality.

It wasn’t until 1926 that the first Michelin stars were awarded. The original system included only one star; the current system now has three. One star means “high-quality cooking, worth a stop”; two stars indicate “excellent cooking, worth a detour”; and three stars boast “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”!

3-Star Thrillseekers

And people tend to agree. A restaurant with one star sees its business increase by 20 percent, while those with two stars can expect a healthy boost of 40 percent. Restaurants with three stars, then, see business swell by a whopping 100 percent. The internet is teeming with foodies on a pilgrimage to eat at every three-star restaurant in the world, which is no small feat considering price tags can range from $60 to $1,000. Interested parties can even pay for gastronomic tours that attempt to cram in as many Michelin-approved restaurants as possible.

The draw of the Michelin star seems to be its anonymous authority and tradition of excellence. According to Michelin, a star indicates quality product, masterful technique, the presence of personality, harmony of flavors, and consistency between meals.

Michelin and Me

At this point, your stomach must be rumbling (though your wallet may be quivering). If you’re interested in joining in on the “Michelin madness,” you can start by traveling to one of the select few regions that boast a Michelin guide; in the United States, that’s San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, and Washington, DC, though guides also exist in Europe, Asia, and South America. You may need to make a reservation months in advance, but tenacious foodies might be able to snag a table at the last minute by checking for cancellations. Michelin-starred restaurants often have several courses and fixed menus, so any choice you make is sure to be thoroughly vetted. Expect to spend two to four hours there, and dress somewhere between business casual and date night formal. It should add up to a memorable evening.

Food for Thought

One thing is for certain—Michelin stars attract attention. A tire company’s food reviews may seem like a gimmick, but any food lover should think twice before jumping to such a negative conclusion. Michelin is steeped in the discovery of excellence in every location. Each star represents a kitchen full of artisans and a menu brimming with closely held recipes, whether original or passed down through generations.

Local fine dining celebrates the human experience of preparing and eating food with one another—an experience that transcends languages and borders. But if you need to buy a tire or two along the way, we might have some recommendations for that too.

Hannah Johnson