There are more than 16,000 Michelin-starred restaurants worldwide. About 1,500 of them are in the United States — in California, Florida, New York, Washington D.C. or the city of Chicago.
“I get asked, minimum five times a week from guests, ‘Why don’t you guys have Michelin?’” said Bobby Stuckey, co-founder and master sommelier at Boulder’s Frasca Food and Wine.
His answer: Michelin had never ventured into Boulder or any city in Colorado — until now.
Michelin announced on June 14 that Colorado restaurants in Denver, Boulder, Aspen and Snowmass Village, Vail and Beaver Creek are now Michelin-star eligible for the first time. The recognition would brand them as the finest in the state, thanks to the company’s prestigious reputation.
The first Michelin Guide Colorado will be revealed later this year, according to the company. Already, Michelin Guide inspectors are “in the field,” it said, booking reservations anonymously to ensure they receive the same treatment as any other customer.
Boulder boasts several fine-dining establishments that may be worthy of a place in the upcoming internationally renowned restaurant guide. Think Corrida, Flagstaff House, Frasca, Oak at Fourteenth and Steakhouse No. 316. But there are no guarantees that any Boulder establishments will make the guide.
Meanwhile, city and state tourism boards have to agree to shoulder significant marketing costs to promote a new Michelin Guide before it’s released — without knowing which cities’ restaurants will be included.
If selected, Michelin’s reputation is often worth the cost for the new visitors it can bring to a city.
“It becomes a tourist attraction in and of itself,” said John Tayer, president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber, of a city’s Michelin stars. “There’s a great deal of foreign tourists who will travel to a community to experience that one Michelin star restaurant. But they are going to stay in the hotels, they’re going to eat in other restaurants.”
It affects restaurants in other ways, too, he said. “When you have a community with a Michelin star, that becomes a draw for culinary talent.”
“It’s priceless,” Stuckey of Frasca agreed. “Those communities that have Michelin have a big advantage on staffing over the communities that don’t.” He called it the “Michelin effect.”
The Michelin method
The Michelin Guide wasn’t initially intended to be a status symbol for fine dining.
In 1889, Andre and Edouard Michelin, two French brothers who started their own tire company, created a free booklet with names of gas stations, lodging and restaurants around France. With fewer than 3,000 cars in the country at the time, they hoped the guide would encourage more driving — and thus, tire sales.
By the 1920s, the Michelin Guide cost seven francs and grew to cover cities in Algeria, Belgium, the British Isles, southern Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain and across the Alps. By then, the brothers had hired “inspectors” to anonymously dine at restaurants in European cities and review them with a star-based system.
In 2005, Michelin arrived in the U.S. to review New York City restaurants and hotels. Today, there are 425 Michelin-rated restaurants in New York City, and another 41 throughout the state.
In 2020, Stuckey said he and Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association, contacted Michelin to learn what it would take to get the guide to Colorado — and Boulder specifically. They learned that Michelin doesn’t accept submissions to review cities.
But soon after, Michelin chose to come to Colorado.
Over the past few months, Michelin Guide inspectors carried out a location study of Colorado, according to Andrew Festa, a Michelin Guide spokesperson. They then compiled a list of restaurants they think warrant an upcoming visit.
“Michelin Guide inspectors enjoy complete independence in choosing the restaurants they visit,” Festa told Boulder Reporting Lab. “Only their knowledge of the local gastronomic scene — through research, monitoring and documentation — helps them find their way around.”
“Anybody can be in the running,” for Michelin recognition, Stuckey said, not just fine-dining establishments. “You could be a really great bakery and get recognition.”
While the Michelin stars are reserved for fine dining, Michelin also awards Bib Gourmands to spots with moderate prices and green stars to those with sustainable practices.
Once inspectors amass a list of restaurants they deem worthy of Michelin stars, or Bib Gourmands, they visit them anonymously. Restaurants that meet the marks are included in an official Michelin Guide. But before the guide can be published, Michelin works with destination marketing organizations, or DMOs that promote city and state tourism, like Visit Boulder or the Colorado Tourism Office.
“DMOs cover some of the costs incurred in establishing the Michelin Guide in a new location,” including marketing costs, Festa said. He wouldn’t disclose how much it typically costs. (Questions about Boulder’s involvement were also directed to Festa, who said he couldn’t disclose the details.)
Michelin released Florida’s guide in June 2022. In 2021, the state’s tourism boards in Tampa Bay, Orlando and Miami agreed to pay Michelin a reported $1.5 million. But that didn’t guarantee those three cities got any stars. Tampa restaurants only received Bib Gourmand recognition, according to Festa.
‘Everyone ups their game’
Michelin awards stars based on five criteria: the quality of products, harmony of flavors, mastery of cooking techniques, chef’s personality in the cuisine, and consistency between visits. (Different Michelin inspectors will visit a restaurant several times before bestowing a star.)
Now that Boulder restaurants have the potential to earn Michelin stars, Tayer expects the quality of cuisine to increase, too. “Everybody ups their game who has interest in some recognition.”
“One of the things that attracts so many of us to Boulder — attracts residents, attracts businesses — is its culinary environment,” Tayer said. “A Michelin star would be a nice affirmation.”