Chicago lost its bid to host the Olympics, Oprah Winfrey is leaving town, and even Mayor Richard M. Daley is stepping down. Yet some of the city’s restaurants are collecting stars -- Michelin stars.
Michelin Guide Chicago 2011, the city’s first Red Guide and one of three in the U.S., today awarded its highest rating of three stars to Alinea, the avant-garde restaurant set in a north side brownstone, and another Lincoln Park establishment, L20.
Restaurants that win the top ranking may get a 25 percent bump to business, said Jean-Luc Naret, the guide’s director. Chefs and executives say that will ripple into an economic boost for the city, where unemployment still sits above 10 percent.
“We will get a reputation as a must-visit for foodies,” said Laurence Geller, 62, chief executive officer of Chicago-based Strategic Hotels & Resorts Inc., whose Fairmont and Intercontinental properties are close to a cluster of Michelin contenders. “The more the city gets a reputation for being a foodie city, the more tourism will come.”
Chicago joins New York and San Francisco as the only cities in North America to have a 2011 restaurant guide from Paris- based Michelin & Cie., the world’s second-biggest tire maker. It produced the first Red Guide at the turn of the 20th century to encourage travel by car.
While each of the restaurants listed in the guide is recommended, not all are awarded one to three stars to signify excellence. Around the world, 93 restaurants have three stars, according to Michelin.
Three other Chicago restaurants -- Charlie Trotter’s, Ria and Avenues -- received two stars while 18 earned a single star. Michelin said it moved the announcement forward by a day after the online restaurant review site Yelp leaked the results.
“Just being named in the Michelin guide means you are top restaurant in the city,” Naret said. “When you receive a distinction, you definitely are not only the best in this city -- you are the best in the world.”
Michelin sees Chicago as a place where people love to eat, Naret said. He expects 40,000 to 45,000 of the city’s guides to be sold for $18.99 each.
The honor arrives as Chicago wrestles with financial troubles and the most political uncertainty in two decades. Daley, who announced in September that he wouldn’t seek a seventh term, leaves the city with an estimated $654.7 million budget deficit for 2011.
The city’s promoters predict that Michelin will help turn things around.
“People are going to take a look at that guide and come to Chicago to fill our restaurants,” said Cathy Domanico, 50, director of tourism at the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau. “We have always sold dining as a major destination driver, and this is only going to enhance our efforts.”
Michelin inspectors hold candidates to a common standard, Naret said, so three stars in Chicago carries the same weight as three in Paris. Chefs covet them.
“They’re like golden carrots that we dangle to run faster,” said Grant Achatz, chef of Alinea.
Naret is known to dine at the restaurants in the running for that distinction. For Alinea, that visit came on a winter night in January, with Achatz stuck at a fundraiser in the Cayman Islands.
His staff called to tell him that Naret wanted to come in. But Alinea was fully booked.
“I don’t care what you do, get the man a table!” Achatz recalled saying.
Achatz, 36, already has experienced the boost that such attention can bring. In May, Alinea placed seventh on another prestigious list, S. Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and first for North America.
“Our servers crashed that day,” Achatz said. Since then, “we’ve been full every night -- Japanese tourists, visitors from Denmark.”
Alinea’s sales are up 17 percent this year, said Achatz, whose signature dishes include hot potato cold potato soup. Diners pull a pin holding the truffle-topped hot potato into cold soup before downing it like a shot.
Leaving Las Vegas
Michelin added Chicago after dropping Las Vegas and Los Angeles a year ago. The Los Angeles guide’s sales were disappointing, Naret said, while home foreclosures and the faltering economy drained Las Vegas’s best restaurants.
“You have to be able to sell the guides,” Naret said, leaving open the option to return to those cities.
Michelin inspectors have been visiting Chicago’s top restaurants for two years, dining anonymously and tasting every dish on the menu, Naret said.
“For over 20 years, I have been saying that Chicago is by far one of the greatest food cities in the world,” said Charlie Trotter, 51, who helped put Chicago on the culinary map and counts Achatz among his proteges.
Three stars means “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”; two, “excellent cooking, worth a detour”; one, “very good cooking in its category.”