A Guide Rouge for the Internet Generation

Surrounded by rust-colored walls that recall Burgundy's fertile soil, clusters of thirtysomethings dine on duck dressed with dates and celery and sip choice vintages at L'Angle du Faubourg near the Champs-Elysées. This bistro, which opened last year, has already been awarded its first Michelin star for culinary excellence, and it's obvious why. The chefs serve up classic French fare with a healthy soupcon of modern creativity, while the waitstaff is vigilant but unobtrusive.

With L'Angle's entry into this year's edition of the venerable Michelin food bible, the under-40 crowd is discovering that this isn't their parents' Guide Rouge. They can thank Derek Brown, the 50-year-old Englishman who was appointed to run Michelin's Guide Rouge, the flagship of Michelin's guidebook division, in January, 2001. Brown and his Paris staff are courting a younger readership by flagging innovative restaurants and hotels for every pocket. They're also giving Net surfers access to the entire trove of information absolutely free on their popular Web site. "Good food is not [solely] the prerogative of people with gray hair," says Brown, who previously worked as a Guide Rouge food critic in Britain and Group Michelin's communications director in Singapore.

Michelin's Guide Rouge has been around since 1900, almost as long as the company's tires. The popularity of the red book spread as Europeans began exploring their own and neighboring countries by car. The guide division--made up of the Guide Rouge and the lower-profile Guide Vert, which supplies information on tourist sights and accompanying maps--logged revenues of $70.9 million last year, equal to less than 1% of the group total. Michelin does not break out profits for the unit. Brown notes that 2002 sales of the Guide Rouge, now available for 11 European countries, are on course to surpass last year's 1.3 million tomes, in spite of the tourism slump.

When Brown was named director of Guide Rouge nearly two years ago, the French press wondered how an Anglo-Saxon could be entrusted with such an important piece of France's cultural heritage. But this Brit has demonstrated the proper respect for classic French cuisine. On his watch, two of Paris' most famed restaurants, Ledoyen and Guy Savoy, both finally garnered their third star--the highest Michelin honor. But newcomers such as L'Angle and Hiramatsu, serving high-end French cuisine cooked up by a Japanese chef, have also been awarded their first macarons. These restaurants draw younger diners, with smaller budgets but more adventurous palates. With Brown in charge, "there's a faster reaction to new trends than in the past," says Jerôme Tréca, communications director for L'Angle du Faubourg and its parent, the three-star Taillevent.

Brown is also chasing new customers over the Internet. Michelin has plowed almost $100 million into its viamichelin Web site, a pet project of Michelin CEO Edouard Michelin. Launched in June, 2000, the site is not expected to turn a profit from advertising until 2004. But Brown feels the investment is well worth it: "It's permitting a younger audience to discover the value of the information we publish." Brown is betting that this new generation of Palm Pilot and cell-phone toting Michelin dévotes will be as loyal as readers of the little red books.

By Christina W. Passariello in Paris

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