A week ago, after months of anticipation, the Michelin Guide swooped into Florida to bestow its highly coveted restaurant stars for the first time ever.
The event was held at an invite-only reception in Orlando, at the Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes. It was a swanky affair, packed with chefs and their entourages, caviar-topped snacks served out of tiny egg cups and a plant wall installation that greeted guests with floating hands handing out glasses of bubbly (more creepy than cool, really).
When it came time to announce the evening’s recipients, Miami and Orlando nabbed a total of 15 stars between the two cities. Not a single Tampa restaurant received a star.
There were some highlights: Rooster & The Till, Rocca and Ichicoro Ramen all received the guide’s “Bib Gourmand” selection, which the guide bestows to restaurants of good value “where one can have two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for under $49.” And a list of 16 restaurants made the cut with “recommended” status, including Bern’s Steak House, Mise en Place and Olivia. (Tampa was the only city in the Tampa Bay area eligible for the stars.)
But the absence of stars has me scratching my head. What gives, Michelin?
First of all, we don’t need you to tell us that our restaurants are great — we know that already.
We know that a dinner at Koya can feel like hopping on an international flight to Tokyo’s Toyosu Market. That an evening at Rooster & The Till will always surprise and delight. That we could never swear off pasta after a night out at Rocca and a bite of those perfect raviolini del plin.
We celebrate our milestones at Mise en Place. We find inspiration at Edison: Food + Drink Lab. We wax poetic about our last trip to Bern’s Steak House. We can’t wait to make it back to On Swann.
Tampa is lucky to have so many great restaurants. We know this already.
But for some reason, we still care about what Michelin thinks.
The guide promises travelers and foodies a list of restaurants with prestige, elegance and, above all, excellence. Which is all fine and good. We like excellent food, too. But when you spend months dining out at Florida restaurants and bestow a whopping 15 stars collectively to spots in Orlando and Miami but not a single one to Tampa, well, forgive me if something feels a bit off.
Then, there’s the issue of money. Tourism boards are shelling out big time to have the guide in Florida — what could amount to a $1.5 million payout over the next three years. 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, with the possibility of extending after that. And local tourism agencies for the cities included in the guide (Miami, Orlando and Tampa), including Visit Tampa Bay, each made investments of approximately $348,000 over the next three years.
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Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful that Rooster & The Till, Rocca and Ichicoro Ramen received Bib Gourmand status — these are excellent restaurants that deserve to be recognized for their hard work. But some of these chefs have been working their entire careers toward that star, only to find out that Tampa once again got left out in the cold. (The prestigious James Beard Awards also declined to nominate any restaurants from the Tampa Bay area this year.)
All of this has me questioning why we’re still giving an organization owned by a French tire company so much power (and, for that matter, so much money).
I worry about what our obsession with elite ratings and rankings says about us as diners, as restaurant owners, as chefs and as food writers. I worry about the damage caring too much about a reductive, two-sentence review can do, what effect that constant drive for perfection can have on a restaurant’s work culture and treatment of its employees.
And I worry that by putting too much value on what Michelin says about us we risk forgetting — even just for a moment — how truly wonderful our restaurants really are.
Tampa Bay restaurants can hold their own against any of the other contenders across the state. We know this. We don’t need stars as proof.