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Michelin-Starred Dining Can Be Intimidating. Here’s Everything You Need to Know to Have a Great Time

A beginner’s crash course in Michelin-starred dining, including background, etiquette, duration, price, and wine pairings.

Some lucky travelers might encounter a Michelin star at some point in their lives. The coveted awards are given to the finest restaurants inspected worldwide, a badge of honor they can place proudly at the entrance.

Upon receipt of one, that business becomes the epicenter of all culinary spotlight; foodies flock, posts go viral, and travel guides take serious note. Guests expect an unforgettable gastronomic experience. If you’re new to Michelin-starred dining and keen to sample the sauce everyone’s talking about, we’ve got you covered. Here are all those burning questions answered.

How Did Michelin-Stars Begin?

In 1889, brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin founded a tire company in Clermont-Ferrand, France. In a genius idea to boost car sales, and thus tire sales (remember, this was when there were fewer than 3,000 cars in all of France), they launched a Michelin booklet.

This booklet gave motorists free practical advice, plus maps and a list of suggested places to eat and sleep. Popularity and influence ensued, and eventually, the brothers had a team of mystery diners reviewing France’s fine-dining restaurants and giving them star ratings from one to three. Thirty million copies later, the books are published in over 30 territories across the world, from Seoul to San Francisco and all the major cities in Europe.

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1_Petrus with Michelin Star Plaque, CREDIT Petrus
5_Dessert Dish CREDIT Petrus
1. Orson Vergnaud, the head chef at Petrus by Gordon Ramsey, which has one Michelin star.Petrus 2. A dessert at Petrus.

What Do the Stars Mean?

Michelin inspectors use the following criteria in their judging process:

1. The quality of the ingredients.
2. The mastery of cooking techniques.
3. The harmony of flavors.
4. The personality of the cuisine.
5. The consistency, both over time and through the menu as a whole.

Based on these, Michelin-anointed restaurants typically receive between one and three stars, three being the best. They translate to:

One star: high-quality cooking, worth a stop.
Two stars: excellent cooking, worth a detour.
Three stars: exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.

Where Will You Most Likely Come Across a Michelin-Starred Restaurant?

Michelin-awarded restaurants are dotted all over the world. In 2023, France had the most Michelin-starred restaurants, with 625 carrying between one and three stars. In second place was Japan (414 restaurants), and third place was Italy (380 restaurants). The U.S. was number six (223 restaurants), comprising clusters in major cities including New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, Washington D.C., and Atlanta. However, of all cities in the world, Tokyo has the most Michelin stars (203 restaurants).

How Expensive Are Michelin-Starred Meals?

Since the majority of Michelin-starred restaurants are fine dining, be prepared to dig deep into your pockets. The average price of a one-starred restaurant is $165 per person, without service charges or drinks. For every additional star, add another $100 to that figure.

The most expensive Michelin-starred restaurant in the world is SubliMotion in Spain, where a tasting menu will set you back approximately $2,380 a person. Travelers to Thailand will be pleased to find some of the cheapest Michelin-starred fine dining experiences in Bangkok, like Blue by Alain Ducasse (a five-course tasting menu is $70 per person) and Saneh Jaan (a three-course tasting menu is $23 per person).

Michelin has also notably awarded stars to street food restaurants. Recently, Taquería El Califa de León, a taco stand in Mexico City, received a one-star review. A taco costs about $3. Previously, a Singapore hawker stand, Hawker Chan, had a Michelin star–though it lost it in 2021.

In 1997, Michelin launched the Bib Gourmand distinction, awarding restaurants serving exceptional three-course meals at a moderate price. These vary by a country’s cost of living but provide an entry point for those to sample an incredible meal without breaking the bank.

A dessert course at 1890 by Gordon Ramsey, a one Michelin-starred restaurant.Restaurant1890

What Is a Typical Michelin-Starred Meal Like?

How long is the waitlist? The Michelin guide represents flavors and styles from every corner of the globe, but it’s worth noting the majority of awarded restaurants fall under the fine-dining category, for which the French laid down the foundations back in the 17th century.

As of last year, the top two most awarded chefs have been Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon, who died in 2018. Brit Gordon Ramsay was third, with 17 stars across restaurants such as Pétrus, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, and Restaurant 1890. A typical meal at one of these European restaurants offers both à la carte options and tasting menus. It’s recommended to go down the tasting menu route in order to best sample the breadth of the chef’s mastery and to enjoy a carefully curated sequence that’s paced somewhere between two and four hours long.

Are There Any Special Etiquette Rules to Note?

Your typical Michelin-starred restaurant requires booking ahead and confirming attendance and dietary requirements as the date nears so teams can prepare. At some restaurants, you’ll need to pay in advance.

Check the website for dress code rules.

When seated, you’ll notice more than one server assigned per table because everything is served and cleared in one efficient sweep. Therefore, time restroom breaks well, as your party will not be served the next course until you’re back.

Silverware is usually arranged in the order intended to be used and always replaced. Do not expect to use the same fork across multiple courses. Which means, leave all cutlery on the plate for servers to gathers up. Finally, when it comes to the bill, keep things discreet. Avoid dramatic scuffles to pay between friends. If you’re the host, simply hand over a card before your guests arrive or agree with them beforehand on how things will be split.

Also note, even in 2024, it is still common at many fine dining restaurants for men to be given menus with pricing, while ladies are given them without–and for men to be handed the bill. However, don’t let that stop you for asking for a menu with pricing should you want one.

How Do I Pair Wine?

Tasting menus will often come with a wine-pairing option–though be prepared to spend an additional $50 to $200 per person for this. Sometimes you’ll just see a standard pairing, and others will have an additional prestige pairing comprising luxurious and rare vintages. Don’t be scared off by the number of pairings, as they’re not full pours. Though even still, at restaurants with at least five courses, should you drink everything you’re poured, there’s a good chance you’ll be drunk by the end.

The wine cellar at Le Clarence, which has two Michelin stars.Clémence Losfeld

Starting with a glass of Champagne is common, and if you prefer to opt out of the pairings and order by the glass or bottle, a sommelier is on hand to make suggestions. 

If you do want to impress the table with your wine knowledge, avoid mainstream labels, and read up on good wine regions, such as Saint-Émilion in Bordeaux. Château Quintus there, for example, produces some of the world’s most sought-after bottles served in the Parisian Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Clarence. Spot and order boutique, and you’ll look like a pro.

It’s not uncommon for wine menus to be shockingly long, so it’s often easier to ask the somm for a few options. A good somm will typically point out bottles at a variety of prices–but if they don’t, it’s perfectly acceptable to mention a price range. Don’t be bashful or feel bullied into spending more than you’re comfortable. You’re there to enjoy yourself, after all.

And that’s really the key to a Michelin-starred experience–even though it can be stuffy, you’re meant to have a good time. So don’t worry about the pomp and pageantry–enjoy the food, the wine, and the company.