We have dined at enough Michelin-starred restaurants over the past few years to accumulate a total of 77 Michelin stars. And, we are still eager to try for more. Here’s a quick breakdown of our statistics so far:
- Three Michelin Stars: 16
- Two Michelin Stars: 11
- One Michelin Star: 7
- World’s 50 Best Restaurants (2017): 17
- Elite Traveler (2017): 20
- Countries: 11
Yes, it does take time, energy, a sense of adventure, and money to do all this. The obvious constraints are time and money.
Of course, it takes time to travel the world to dine at these restaurants – actual travel time and vacation time, which, for most of us, I’d say is a finite resource. But, once you’re at the restaurant, it also takes time to eat the food and enjoy the experience – sometimes north of four hours. We’ve learned that these marathon-like dining experiences need to be carefully planned so as to not interfere too much with our sightseeing and other activities while traveling. When we first started traveling, we were anxious to squeeze as many reservations at top restaurants – including reservations for both lunch and dinner at different restaurants on the same day – into our plans as possible. Now, we try to do a better job of balancing our dining quests with sightseeing.
Money is also an important consideration and constraint. Our first three-star experience was at Alinea in Chicago and, as you can read about, cost $1,300 for two people. That remains our most expensive meal, but, giving it a little perspective, Alinea was ranked by Elite Traveler as the number one restaurant in the world at the time and we had the higher-tier wine pairing.
That brings me to one big recommendation: Skip the wine pairing if you are looking to save money.
While we’ve had some truly memorable wine pairings, it is not uncommon for the cost of the wine pairing to approach or exceed the cost of the food itself. A recent example is Restaurant Andre in Singapore – the wine pairing cost $185, while the tasting menu cost $250. And, as you can read, we didn’t enjoy the wine pairing very much.
Another approach that others recommend (and we would too on a case-by-case basis) is going for lunch. Many restaurants offer shortened versions of their tasting menus – or a la carte options often lifted from their tasting menus – for a reduced price at lunch. This is a great way to get a taste and feel for a restaurant while saving a bit of money.
Also, the location of the restaurant can affect the price. While prices trend higher in Europe and the U.S., they are very reasonable in Mexico (Pujol) and Thailand (Gaggan & Nahm). Finally, while there is some correlation between price and the number of Michelin stars a restaurant holds, it’s not absolute. We’ve had one- and two-star meals where the price exceeded a comparable meal at a three-star restaurant (Restaurant Andre, Yan Toh Heen).
Since we dine at world-class restaurants with some frequency, our friends and family have come to ask the inevitable question: “Which one is your favorite so far?” As you might suspect, the answer is “it depends.” One big difficulty in choosing a favorite is the inherent difficulty in comparing meals across different types of cuisine – basically apples to oranges. This is a constant struggle for food critics. How does one compare the pure sushi experience at Harutaka (two stars, Tokyo), avant garde preparation at Atelier Crenn (two stars, San Francisco), and adapted classic Chinese at Yi Long Court (two stars, Shanghai)? I can (and will – later) tell you what our top experiences have been, but I’ll first try to explain what we are looking for when dining at top restaurants and what we believe makes for a great experience.
Our methodology and rating isn’t too far removed from that of the Michelin Guide. For reference, their categorization is as follows:
- One Star: A very good restaurant in its category.
- Two Stars: Excellent cuisine, worth a detour.
- Three Stars: Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.
For us, when we sit down at a restaurant, we are looking for something that makes us say “wow!” This response can be elicited from presentation, preparation, taste, or any combination thereof. We’d like to think this metric is blind to the type of cuisine. Our rating, then, is normally based on the number of “wow” dishes we encounter. We are no Michelin inspectors, but it’s only natural to have a post-meal chat about a restaurant’s ranking and stars – and where we think the restaurant should stand. For what it’s worth, here is our very rudimentary categorization:
- One Star: At least one “wow” dish.
- Two Stars: Several “wow” dishes.
- Three Stars: Mainly “wow” dishes.
But, it’s not all about the food: While atmosphere, décor, and service are not the primary concern (and shouldn’t be), each aspect can tip the scale. In fact, it’s not uncommon for us to comment to ourselves after having great food at a restaurant that if the atmosphere and service were better, we believe that restaurant would be awarded another star. The opposite is true, as well.
In fact, we’ve dined at several Michelin-starred restaurants where we believe they are retaining their star(s) not necessarily based on the food, but more so on the beauty of their surroundings (Mistral on the tip of Bellagio, overlooking Lake Como), the room and property in which they are located (The Eight, located in a beautiful dining room at the Grand Lisboa Hotel in Macau), or the international reputation of the chef (Le Bernardin, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay). Regardless, we’ve never had a bad experience at any top-rated restaurant we’ve been to (with the rare exception of Le Bernardin – review forthcoming). That’s a pretty good success rate and an indication that ratings and rankings aren’t totally worthless.
It might not be fair to some restaurants and chefs, but the final aspect that sways our opinion of a restaurant is whether the chef makes an appearance at some point during the meal.
Having a Michelin-starred or top-rated chef stop by our table for even a few seconds really solidifies the experience.
While it’s fun for us to briefly meet a renowned chef, it’s more important for us to know that the chef cares about his/her guests and wants to ensure our experience was nothing short of perfect. One of our most memorable encounters was when chef Martin Berasategui came out during our meal at the restaurant bearing his name (Martin Berasategui, three stars, San Sebastian). It was the first night the restaurant was open after its winter break, and he was at the helm with a few new dishes on the menu. We chatted for no more than a few minutes about the dishes (he was surprised I spoke Spanish), but we felt as if he truly cared that a meal at his restaurant was up to his guests’ standards (and his). It’s simply a nice personal touch that we appreciate.
So, after 77 Michelin stars and numerous top-rated restaurants, which are our favorites? Here are the standouts so far, with our comments:
- Atelier Crenn:
- Male DINK: Every dish was fun, inventive, and delicious.
- Female DINK: The food was both artistic and delicious. Inviting/comfortable atmosphere.
- Eleven Madison Park:
- Male DINK: Absolutely impeccable food and service. A special meal.
- Female DINK: Wide variety of excellent dishes in an elegant dining room.
- Male DINK: Beautiful plating and great flavors. Almost all “wow” dishes.
- Female DINK: Great food and presentation with a view of the kitchen.
- Le Calandre:
- Male DINK: A wonderful overall experience. Felt like we were special guests.
- Female DINK: Inventive dishes using traditional flavors. Intimate setting.
- Martin Berasategui:
- Male DINK: Excellent food and great atmosphere.
- Female DINK: Every dish was “wow.” Great fireplace.
- Per Se:
- Male DINK: Delicate flavors and excellent traditional preparation. When most people think of fine dining, this is probably it.
- Female DINK: Traditional French preparation. Exceptional service.
We don’t think you can go wrong with any of the six restaurants listed above.
While this post is a bit more reflective than most, it hopefully sheds some light on our experiences and illustrates how we arrive at our conclusions about a restaurant. It has been fun to witness our palates evolve over the years and become more discerning. Dining at these restaurants is as much of an experience for us as is traveling itself, and, lucky for us, the two go hand-in-hand.
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