The start of the year traditionally sees the publication of the new Michelin Guide – an opportunity for foodies to slaver and drool over the latest must-visit gastro-hotspots across the UK. But is it still a relevant guide in this cyber-led day and age or is Michelin whipping a dead souffle?
There are generally few surprises, it has to be said. A grand total of 140 restaurants in Britain have now achieved a Michelin star and – as usual – the awards are somewhat controversial. Perhaps least so is the loss of Gordon Ramsay's single star at Claridges, but given his misfortunes over the last year and his apparent desire to be on telly rather than behind a hot stove, it's hardly news. The guide also saw fit to award its first London pub, The Harwood Arms, a star, which is progress indeed, given that the majority of the country are eating more often and better in pubs than in establishments such as those run by Alain Ducasse.
Yes, the Ducasse empire still straddles the gastronomic world like a truffle-laden behemoth. The Dorchester Hotel-based branch has now got its full three-star complement, but the award is questionable. With its astronomical prices topping £100 a head on a restrained day and a slew of reviews ranging from average to appalling, it seems that some stars are handed out without apparent thought for the value achieved during the meal.
This might be the nub of the problem. In the current climate we're witnessing a return to a more sensible style of eating out. That is, rather than spending money hand over fist on show-off, one-off dinners, we prefer to patronise local establishments cooking good food at reasonable prices; it's an obvious choice and means that those three-star venues could become irrelevant to even the most ardent restaurant-goer. Yet local restaurants are hardly likely to win a star, so why buy the guide?
And there's the other issue. With foodies becoming increasingly internet-savvy and review blogs springing up every day, who says Michelin inspectors have the edge over Joe Public when it comes to reviewing a restaurant? Surely, like much else in life, it's other people's experiences that we relate to, rather than some mystical, anonymous deity whose benevolence merely serves to increase prices in restaurants rather than reward those who deserve it.