Restaurant critics take Chicago in secret

By Meghan Keyes

The first little red book was published in 1900 as a reference for travelers in France. Today, the Michelin Guide reports on 23 countries and more than 45,000 establishments, including restaurants and hotels.

This year marks the first year of a Chicago guide. Anonymous inspectors visit restaurants and hotels in a city multiple times to get a full experience of the place.

Jean-Luc Naret, worldwide director of Michelin Guides, said Chicago is a global player in the culinary arts and Michelin decided to expand to the city after New York City and San Francisco.

“[Chicago] is quite open-minded to creativity, and the chefs are pushing the limits and really working outside of tradition,” Naret said. “The chefs and the restaurants don’t take themselves too seriously, and it’s infrequent to come across pretentiousness or stuffiness.”

The rating system is one to three stars, and a separate “Bib Gourmand,” or Inspector’s Favorite, rating is given to restaurants that offer two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for less than $40.

“While our inspectors are expertly trained food industry professionals … the goal of the Michelin Guide is to provide comprehensive choices to accommodate consumers’ comfort, taste and budget,” Naret said in an e-mail.

According to the Michelin Guide, “One star indicates … a place offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard. Two stars denote ‘excellent cooking, worth a detour.’ Three stars reward ‘exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.’ Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients.”

Forty-six restaurants received a “Bib Gourmand,” and 342 restaurants are featured in total. Two restaurants, Alinea, 1723 N. Halsted St., and L2O, 2300 N. Lincoln Park West, earned a three-star.

A total of 93 restaurants worldwide hold that rating.

One of the restaurants to receive a one-star rating was Longman & Eagle, 2657 N. Kedzie Ave. The restaurant serves American food, has an extensive bar menu and is developing an inn upstairs. Bruce Finkelman, co-owner of the restaurant, was thrilled to learn of Longman & Eagle’s star.

“We were honored and extremely happy,” Finkelman said. “It wasn’t something on our radar but to be included in such a wonderful group of fine institutions, we were completely overjoyed. People were really happy for the accolades we had gotten. We have quite a few fans and friends … who were just ecstatic.”

Victor Mahan, catering manager at Ann Sather, was equally thrilled when the restaurant was awarded a “Bib Gourmand.”

“We are very honored by the award,” Mahan said.

Ann Sather operates two cafes, the Southport Cafe, 3416 N. Southport Ave.; Broadway Cafe, 3411 N. Broadway; and two Ann Sather restaurants at 909 W. Belmont Ave. and 5207 N. Clark St.

“We’re hoping for a good effect,” Mahan said. “We think it will bring in more tourist traffic.”

A rating puts a restaurant or hotel on a global scale, Naret said, and businesses are always positively affected.

“When you receive a star, you become among only 2,800 restaurants in the world with this designation,” Naret said. “A restaurant with two stars is among only about 300 restaurants with this designation, and a restaurant with three stars is among the 93 best restaurants in the world.”

Businesses that receive a star, or gain an additional star, report a 25 percent increase in business, according to Naret. Finkelman expects the same at Longman & Eagle.

“It’s just starting to come on people’s radar … my mom doesn’t even know about it yet,” Finkelman said. “We do expect it to add a little bit for us. I think a lot of people read the guide and use it as a … guidebook. It certainly will give us more attention than we’ve had in the past.”