Our first experience at Alinea, Chicago eating a helium balloon dessert

Ever eaten a helium balloon? Not only does it make you giggle but it tastes like sweet taffy! If you have never been to a Michelin Restaurant, you are in for a treat! If you heard of Michelin, you’re probably a foodie or live in a town with plenty of food scene hype. For those that are curious, a Michelin Star restaurant is like receiving an Academy Award in the culinary world. It brings prestige and international recognition to the Chef even though technically the Star(s) belong to the restaurant.

There are only 4 cites in America that Michelin rated restaurants exist. They are New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington D. C. You can imagine there are thousands of restaurants in these large cities, but only about 20-30 per city, will make the Michelin Star status. When you travel to these cities and want an elevated dining experience, be sure to check the Michelin Guide for that city’s current ratings. Here’s an example link that features Chicago, but you can change the city preference from there. Just be sure to filter for the appropriate star distinction. The Michelin Star rated restaurants will have the symbol that looks like a 6 petal daisy.

So, how is it like to dine at a Michelin Restaurant? After eating at around 50 Starred restaurants between 3 countries so far with the hubs, I would say it’s like going to a gourmet theatre to watch a play where each course is its own act. 

If you love art, theatre, and food- Michelin Restaurants are perfect for simultaneous entertainment and fine dining. The Chef is the writer and producer of the Menu. The guests enjoy the edible storyline and journey. There are some like the renowned Alinea Restaurant, where it takes the experience a step further and becomes an Odyssey in your mouth. I enjoy documenting each unique engagement. Please visit the Michelin Dining section of our site for reviews. I have so many more experiences to write, but stay posted by subscribing to our newsletter.

The 5 Top Questions About Michelin Restaurants

Signature Dessert, Alinea-Chicago,🌟🌟🌟Michelin

1: How does a restaurant get a Michelin Star?

Once a year, top restaurants sweat for the call to either be part of the Michelin Star Restaurant list or to remain on it! Yes, restaurants can lose star status also- a Chef’s worse nightmare. In the same token, this system encourages Chef’s to continuously break barriers and not be complacent.

Michelin Stars are awarded by the Michelin Guide. Michelin is based in France where the concept of fine cuisine was first introduced into the world. Although the Michelin Guide existed since 1900, it has only been in the U.S. since 2005 and can be found in 4 cities. It began with New York City and both Chicago and San Francisco soon followed. The most recent welcome is Washington D.C. in 2016.

The evaluation process is quantified by their private inspectors and may be rather elusive, but their rating system is easy to follow. Restaurants are rated on a scale from 1-3 stars (3 being the best) and are awarded once a year. The list of recipients can change annually and not every restaurant may maintain their stars. For each annual edition, Chefs can either gain, lose, or keep their Star status. Michelin defines each status by the following:

Three STARS 🌟 🌟🌟 — “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.”

Two STARS 🌟🌟 — “Excellent cooking, worth a detour.”

One Star 🌟 — “A very good restaurant in its category.”

The Michelin Guide published an article in August 2018 about “What it takes to earn a Michelin Star.” These are the 5 assessment criteria their inspectors have used for over a century:

  • Using Quality Products
  • Mastery of Flavor and Cooking Techniques
  • Personality of Chef in the Cuisine
  • Value for the Money and “Wow” Factor
  • Consistency of Food

Read the article

2: Do I have to make a reservation?

Neige d’été, Paris 🌟Michelin

In most cases, yes. Especially if the Chef is of celebrity status like Gordon Ramsey, Grant Achatz, or Thomas Keller. Usually the higher the star rating, the more likely you will have to make a reservation. Also, the food is so detailed, they want to know approximately how many guests they will have per seating to properly prepare.

Like going to a theatre or concert, some of the most exclusive Michelin Restaurants sell tickets to their venue. This is a prepaid reservation and there are no refunds, but you are able to transfer them to someone else if you can’t make it. Sometimes the restaurant can help facilitate finding you a buyer if they hold a waiting list. Places like Alinea- Chicago and The French Laundry- Yountville are super popular and are very difficult to get into within 3 months. It is highly recommended to book in advance to the best of the best Michelin restaurants.

Ticket prices can range from $100-$800 sometimes more for special occasions, per person and without the alcohol package. If the restaurant sells tickets, they either have a pay system to directly buy with them or they use Tock which is like a Ticketmaster for restaurants. Not every restaurant on Tock is a Michelin rated, but it’s a great place to explore fine dining and trending Chefs.

Most Michelin Restaurants are like many other fine dining establishments and have normal reservation scheduling. The experience may begin with a call or email from the restaurant 1 to 7 days before your arrival to ask if you have allergies, special requests/occasions, and confirm your reservation. For the best experience, make sure to provide the information. This is important for the Chef and his team to properly prepare for any unique needs that you may have.

For non-prepay restaurants, be careful for penalties if you don’t cancel a reservation within their specified policy period, usually a day or more before the reservation time. It’s normal for these places to have a credit card on file for no-shows.

It may sound insane to pre pay for a meal, but some of these places are so exclusive they sell out quickly. For sold out tickets that you really want, it helps to live in the Michelin city for easy access to snag last minute openings. Sometimes restaurants open up a few seatings the day of, and if you are already there and follow them, you won’t have to wait months to dine. This is how we got lucky to go to Alinea in Chicago on short notice.

3: How long will the meal take at a Michelin restaurant?

Winter Garden, Florence 🌟🌟Michelin

The food can be exceptional at any restaurant, but if the service is terrible- unfortunately that is what will be remembered foremost by any guest. Michelin restaurants take this to heart because their mission is to create the most memorable experience for you. Perfection takes time. On that note, prepare for a visit to last 2.5 to 3 hours on average.

Because of the details that the Chef and his team puts into every dish, it is not unusual for a Michelin dining experience to last over 2 hours. Just like a show or concert, after every act (course), they reset the table and prepare for the next one. The food is meticulously prepared and plated taking up most of the time.

While you wait for your courses to be expertly prepared. You may notice the continuous attention you will receive. At these establishments, you will find a lot of teamwork among the servers. Basically, you will have 1 main server, a drink server or sommelier, a bread server, and several servers that rotate delivering your courses to the table. Optional services may include a cheese, truffle, or tea experts.

Someone is always paying attention and it’s rare you will need to ask for anything after you initially order.

4: À La Carte vs. Tasting Menu?

Coi, San Francisco 🌟🌟🌟Michelin

There are 2 types of menus you can expect to find at a Michelin Restaurant. “À la carte” just means it’s an open menu with each item priced individually. You can pick and choose what you’d like. Most everyday restaurants have this type of menu.

At more formal restaurants, you will find “Table d”Hote” or a pre-fixe tasting menu with one set price for 5-12 courses on average. Dont’ worry, the more courses included on the menu, the more bite size the dish. This is a closed menu and there may be no to limited options to alter it. Many of the top Michelin and Celebrity Chefs offer this type of menu. It is important to note with this selection, the whole table must participate for proper time placement of each course.

Tasting Menus can also be blind where you completely trust the Chef and none of the food is revealed until the end of dinner. These are a lot of fun, but I would suggest the other 2 menus first if you’re not familiar with the Chef’s style or cuisine type.

In general, when the courses are served, a server will recite what is in the dish and any helpful instructions on how to eat it. You can take all the time you wish to enjoy each course.

There are several Michelin restaurants that offer both types of menu. We found many in France that had the operations to serve both. It’s a good idea to check the restaurant before committing to a reservation to see what they are serving when you plan to visit. Most will share their pricing too.

Visit their website for a sneak peek of upcoming themes and what they will feature on their website. Or if you’re like me, my hubby and I like to be adventurous with our food and prefer to be surprised.

5: What is the tipping etiquette at a Michelin Restaurant?

Elske, Chicago 🌟Michelin

“Should I tip at a Michelin Restaurant?” I get asked this question a lot. Usually with prepaid tickets, the tip up to 20% is already included. When you purchase your tickets, make sure you read the terms. It will break down the charges in your receipt.

For non-ticket restaurants, there are some cities like San Francisco that may include a 15% service charge in lieu of a tip and will give you discretion to tip more if you’d like. The key is to read your receipt to see if you have already been billed a “service charge” of some kind. Many of the restaurants we went to in Chicago was discretionary, 100% up to you. In these cases, you would consider on the high end of at least 20% for great service.

Many diners also ask about tipping particularly in France since they hear that it’s not expected there. It’s true to some extent because they automatically add a “TVA” or Taxe sur la Valeur Ajoutée or Value Added Tax. When you see the price on a menu, it legally has to reflect the cost, tax, and service charge of the item. If you feel a need to tip beyond that, most French people will just round up.

In a café with a bill of 18 euro for example, it’s acceptable to round up to 20 euro if you feel the service was above and beyond. It’s important to not go overboard with tipping because the French are proud people. The servers already get paid a nice wage so if you overtip, they may feel uncomfortable or worse offended. In a Michelin setting, for a 1 Star restaurant about 5 euro extra and for the 2-3 Stars 10 to 20 euro total if you feel it necessary.

Use these concepts in domestic cities and other countries and check your bill before deciding to tip. Ask yourself:

  • “Is the tip or service charge already included?”
  • “If yes, how much is included? Determine if the included charge is fair for the service received and consider the cultural perceptions.
  • “If no, tip at your discretion”
  • If the service is poor and you were charged for it, most places in U.S. will return the credit to you. In France, it’s legally part of the price and no refunds for poor service. But from experience, the Michelin restaurants have impeccable service everywhere.

The Good to Know Before You Go Tips

Le Cinq, Paris 🌟🌟🌟Michelin

Hopefully some your common questions have been answered about Michelin dining, and now just a few more good to know tips before you go.

Michelin restaurants are all about creating a memorable experience for you. To Wow! you, they may use visual props such as smoke, fire, fog, and suspending food from the ceiling, so there may be a certain way to eat it.

You may encounter different kinds of silverware you’ve never seen before and will be curious on how to use them. There may be place settings for your phone or personal items.

The plating of your food can be unusually creative, and sometimes not a plate at all. It’s all part of the show. Enjoy!!!

Each Michelin Restaurant will offer you some of the most unique dining experiences you will ever encounter. The best of them will incorporate as many human senses as possible to make your visit unbelievably memorable. Try at least one in your lifetime.

Alinea Restaurant is my favorite Michelin Restaurant of all time, an absolute gastronomic Odyssey. If you love Vegas-style theatrics and incredibly delicious foods, this ticket is for you.

My Hubby and I have been close to 50 Michelin Restaurants since our discovery of what it was in 2013. I like keeping a food diary of what we ate and our thoughts if we had any. The stars are from the Michelin Guide in the year we dined at the restaurant. Unfortunately, a few have lost their stars since then.  Most of the restaurants are in Chicago because we resided there from 2012 to 2015. We have spread our wings and tried Michelin’s in San Francisco, New York, France, and Italy ever since. Read each of the reviews under Michelin Dining.

An edible helium balloon
Alinea, Chicago 🌟🌟🌟Michelin

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