ORLANDO — For the first time ever, Florida restaurants received recognition from the elite and esteemed Michelin Guide. The coveted star ratings were bestowed to restaurants at an invite-only ceremony on Thursday evening at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes.
Roughly 300 people attended the event, which took place in a large tent outside the hotel, where guests sipped sparkling wine and cocktails and nibbled on passed hors d’oeuvres. The ceremony was packed with chefs and culinary professionals as well as their families and friends.
Restaurants in Tampa, Orlando and Miami were eligible for stars. Orlando and Miami restaurants collectively nabbed a total of 15, including Miami’s Korean steakhouse Cote and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (which snagged the only two-star rating of the evening) and Orlando’s Kadence and Soseki.
Not a single Tampa restaurant received a star.
Rooster & The Till, Rocca and Ichicoro Ramen all received the guide’s “Bib Gourmand” selection, which the guide bestows to restaurants “where one can have two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for under $49.”
An additional 19 Miami restaurants and seven in the Orlando area received Bib Gourmand awards, including Miami’s Itamae and Red Rooster Overtown and Orlando’s The Ravenous Pig and Bombay Street Kitchen.
In addition to the Bib Gourmand awards, 16 Tampa restaurants received “recommendations” and will be listed in the Florida guide, including Hyde Park’s On Swann, Armature Works’ Oak & Ola, Mise en Place, Bern’s Steak House and The Columbia, among others.
For Tampa chefs, many of whom have been anxiously awaiting the guide’s publication since it was first announced this past fall, Thursday’s reveal was met with bittersweet emotions.
Bryce Bonsack, owner of Tampa’s Rocca, traveled to Orlando with his family for the reveal Thursday night. He said he was grateful to be there but disheartened by the evening’s results.
“It’s a little bit of a bummer, but I think it will propel us forward. It will give us a lot of focus,” he said. “Of course you have your hopes up for a star. I’m disappointed that there were no stars in Tampa.”
Rooster & The Till’s Ferrell Alvarez, who attended the event with his business partners Ty Rodriguez and Chon Nguyen, said that while he was honored to have his restaurant recognized, he was surprised and disappointed it didn’t receive a star. But he said it wouldn’t change his team’s approach to their Seminole Heights restaurant.
“We’re not going to change or refocus just to obtain this award,” he said. “It is a good moment to take a deep breath. I’m an optimistic person, but it’s challenging.”
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Although the guide asserts that both recommendations and Bib Gourmand selections carry prestige, the absence of stars was the latest snub for Tampa’s culinary community, which earlier this year didn’t receive a single James Beard Award nomination for the second year in a row.
Though the Beard awards are considered by many the Oscars of the culinary world, the Michelin Guide is arguably the most well-known and respected restaurant ratings system, known for garnering international accolades and recognition for restaurants that get a coveted three-star rating. Critics of the guide have harped on coverage that’s deemed by some to be elitist and a tendency to focus on expensive fine dining restaurants — something the guide’s leadership has denied.
The guide, from the French tire company of the same name, was founded by brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin in 1900 in Clermont-Ferrand, France. Initially designed to help motorists plan their travels, the guide started issuing stars in 1926 to fine dining restaurants. By 1936, the three-star rating system was in place, with three stars being the most prestigious and acclaimed of the lot “given for the superlative cooking of chefs at the peak of their profession.”
For many years the European-centric publication only focused on a few American cities, including New York, Chicago, Washington D.C. and the San Francisco Bay Area. More recently, the guide has expanded its footprint — with significant financial investments from the cities in which it lands.
In 2019, The Michelin Guide announced it would issue a California-only guide that would include 90 restaurants, for which California’s tourism bureau reportedly paid $600,000. In 2016, the website Eater reported that Michelin received roughly $1.8 million for heading to Seoul, South Korea.
The guide’s foray into Florida is the result of a new partnership between the Michelin Guide, the state’s tourism marketing agency Visit Florida and tourism marketing boards in Tampa, Orlando and Miami (Pinellas County restaurants were not eligible for stars this time around).
Though exact details of the partnership have not been provided, Visit Florida said they are paying the Michelin Guide $150,000 as part of a content and marketing partnership with the organization for the next year, said Visit Florida’s president and chief executive officer Dana Young.
The contract with Michelin lasts until June 2023, at which point Young said they’ll reassess possible future investments.
Local marketing agencies are also shelling out big for the guide. Visit Orlando told the Orlando Sentinel that they pledged three annual payments of $116,000 to Michelin. Though he couldn’t provide an exact number, Visit Tampa Bay’s president and CEO Santiago Corrada confirmed that the number spent by the Tampa-based tourism agency was “similar” to what Visit Orlando and Visit Miami paid.
“We all made the same investment,” Corrada said, adding that the initial conversations with Michelin started roughly 2 1/2 years ago.
After the stars and awards were announced Thursday, Corrada said he still saw the investment — and the evening — as a positive development.
“When you think about it dollar-wise, to be able to do something of this magnitude for the restaurant community — it’s worth every penny,” Corrada said. “Yes, we have work to do, but we’ve come a long way. We may be crawling today, but we’re going to be running soon.”
The financial exchange between the parties has sparked a fair amount of controversy, with critics questioning the objectivity of the ratings and restaurant choices and the rationale of taxpayer-subsidized agencies shelling out such a large amount for what essentially amounts to a more widely recognized restaurant review.
But both the tourism agencies and Michelin Guide tout the investment and partnership as a worthwhile enterprise destined to bring an influx of both national and international travelers and tourism dollars.
According to a 2019 Ernst & Young study referenced by Michelin and Visit Florida, 76% of frequent travelers cited the Michelin Guide as the most trustworthy reference for restaurant recommendations. Two-thirds of frequent travelers said they would rather visit a city where restaurants had received Michelin recognition than a comparable one that hadn’t.
“For a chef, being recognized by Michelin is life-changing,” Young said. “From a tourism perspective and an economic perspective, the Michelin recognition brings with it so much clout, particularly internationally.”
Gwendal Poullennec, the international director of the Michelin Guide, disputed the concerns over objectivity, calling the agency’s restaurant inspection process “fiercely independent.”
“Everything starts with the culinary potential,” Poullennec said. “If there’s no culinary potential there would be no Michelin inspection. The agreement we have with the marketing organizations does not impact the way we work — we are absolutely independent from any authority.”
The Michelin process is notoriously very secretive. Inspectors visit restaurants anonymously and judge eateries on the following criteria: quality of product, mastery of flavors, excellence in technique, distinct personality of the cuisine and the restaurant’s consistency between visits. Restaurants are not judged on service.
Michelin’s chief inspector for North America, who remains anonymous, said his team chose which Tampa restaurants to visit through extensive research involving local and national publications and social media. He said that just because Tampa restaurant owners didn’t receive a star this time around doesn’t mean they can’t in the future and that there would be “more to come.”
“I think all in all Tampa proved to be an impressive, interesting, diverse area,” the inspector said. “It’s an encouraging area ... we will be back. We look forward to the future evolution of the Tampa dining scene.”
Tampa restaurants recognized by Michelin
Rooster & The Till
Bern’s Steak House
Oak & Ola
Mise en Place
The Columbia Restaurant