Where have all the (Michelin) stars gone?

By Elizabeth Atkinson

Restaurants close all the time in Chicago, but what about when several of the best close in succession?

It’s almost like losing a friend. “Oh no! They closed? I loved that place! I remember when I went there last year with my friends from out of town!” The memory plays through your mind’s eye.

Senza, L2O, Takashi and Graham Elliot have all closed in the last two years. All had one or two Michelin stars. And receiving a Michelin star, let alone two or three, is like winning an Oscar.

But one thing’s for certain, earning a Michelin star is not a guarantee that a restaurant will stay open. Michelin – yes, the tire company – started creating restaurant guides for motorists in 1900. Later the star system caught on, with anonymous reviewers sampling eateries across the  Americas and in Europe, Asia and Australia.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Restaurant
Courtesy of Elizabeth Restaurant

Chicago currently has only 21 restaurants open that have been awarded stars, and is home to two of the nation’s coveted 12 three star restaurants – Alinea in Lincoln Park and Grace in Fulton Market. Michelin heralds three star restaurants as places with “exceptional cuisine where diners eat extremely well, often superbly. Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients. Worth a special journey.” In the U.S., only San Francisco and New York have more three star restaurants. Here’s a map of all the Michelin star restaurants in Chicago.

Four shutters and some reshaping

Graham Elliot, the River North restaurant named for its famous chef, was the first of the four restaurants to close, serving through New Year’s Eve in 2013.  According to Chicago magazine, the two star restaurant opened as a t-shirt and rock music enclave but transitioned to fine dining and earned the two stars.  Soon after closing,  Elliot announced he was launching a new restaurant,  the Graham Elliot Bistro on Randolph Street.

The new bistro features entrees under $30 and Elliot’s “casual-concept dream was reborn,” wrote long-time Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel in 2013.

Entrees at Graham Elliot the first ran from $33 to $41, with tasting menus available starting at $95. “Perhaps fittingly, for a restaurant owned by such an overt and polarizing personality, Graham Elliot likely is not for everyone,” Vettel wrote in the Tribune in 2012. “Tasting menus began with a dollop of smoked oyster cream and black pepper, sharply contrasted with a mignonette gel so puckeringly tart it’s like biting into a sour lime.”

One star Takashi and two star L2O both served their last meals this New Year’s Eve, but L2O owners Lettuce Entertain You has already reopened this month in the same space in Lincoln Park with a unique concept for Intro , a fine dining restaurant that introduces a new chef every few months.

Chef Yagihashi Takashi, the owner of Takashi,  told the Chicago Tribune that he closed because he wants to work on different projects. For seven years, he created what he describes on his website “contemporary French-American” cuisine “with Japanese influences.”

Takashi, a restaurant entrepreneur as well as a chef, also operates two locations of Slurping Turtle (in downtown Chicago and Ann Arbor) and Tabo Sushi at 1233 N. Wells.

The fourth restaurant, one star Senza in Lakeview, closed Jan. 17 with chef Noah Sandoval also telling Eater Chicago that he’s looking for “the right opportunity.” Wheat’s End Artisan Foods serves up Sandoval’s gluten-free confections  on Broadway in Lakeview.

Curses and comparisons

Given Chicago’s lower numbers of Michelin star eateries overall, Chicagoans may value the one star rating more than New Yorkers do, Vettel said.  One star Michelin restaurants are nearly a dime a dozen in New York. Vettel said that a two star rating in Chicago probably has about the same impact as a three star in New York, though the three stars are bringing people from abroad to places like Alinea.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Restaurant
Courtesy of Elizabeth Restaurant

“The very odd thing is that the truly cursed number seems to be two,” said Vettel.

The closing of Graham Elliot and L20 took away half the two star restaurants in Chicago. Two Michelin two-star restaurants still operate here – Sixteen and 42 Grams.

So, some may believe in “the curse,” but others scoff. Mary Chapman, the senior director of product innovation at Technomic Inc., a company that focuses on food and food industry data analysis, doesn’t think much of curses.

“People see trends where they want to see trends,” she said.

A clear probability

The other obvious explanation is money. When a Michelin star restaurant closes, the finances probably aren’t what you would expect for restaurants, Vettel said. The higher end restaurants typically are in higher rent districts, so they’re working on an “impressively thinner margin” than lower end restaurants.

Because they could have investors and probably more staff, they likely need more capital to make profit. This shrinks profits. But a high end restaurant with much acclaim must pay chefs well.  When chefs are the owners and not getting the returns they want, that can lead them to close and try something else, Vettel said.

“The bottom line is the bottom line, you have to put keisters in the seats and all the accolades won’t save you” if business begins to slip, Vettel said.

Chapman disagrees. She said the restaurants are all closing for different reasons. Think of it like a TV show. Sometimes, a show ends just when it should after nine seasons, and sometimes they’re canceled and you’re left wondering, “why?”

So, can we point the finger at customer’s expectations and subsequent pressure? Here’s a scenario –

Restaurant makes exceptional food. Michelin reviewer tries exceptional food. Michelin gives exceptional restaurant exceptional award. Food lovers seek out exceptional restaurant. Expectations skyrocket. Restaurant feels pressure it may not want.

An unusual explanation

Chef Julio Biosca of Casa Julio in Spain is a case in point. In a 2014 Fortune article, Biosca said the Michelin star he was awarded threw a spotlight on him. He asked Michelin to remove the star, a choice that very few make. He said that the award is for a kind of product that he didn’t feel comfortable making and he needed to move away from that and work on something simple.

While Biosca’s decision to remove the star is one that many would call odd, it’s what worked for him. Chapman said for foodies or industry followers, a star might be what gets people to walk in the door.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Restaurant
Courtesy of Elizabeth Restaurant

But a 2012 study showed that restaurant goers wanted better service and décor instead of better food at Michelin starred restaurants. This made restaurants spend more on service and décor, which led to price increases for food, according to the study from the Bordeaux management School & Univerity of Reims.

Experience plus food, the whole package?

The new trend in online ticketing for restaurants falls into the experience category. People pay in advance for a set menu and a reservation at posh restaurants such as Alinea.

Vettel said that ticketing eliminates waste and, because of growing popularity, it will continue to be a trend – but only for high end restaurants. After all, he said, most people wouldn’t just drop in at Alinea or Elizabeth Restaurant, which offer ticketing.

Next, 953 W. Fulton Market, opened with a ticketing system in 2011 and Alinea quickly followed. Ticketing is the brainchild of Chicago restauranteur Nick Kokonas, co-owner of both restaurants and The Aviary, a cocktail lounge with ticketed reservations that serve food but not full meals. It’s right next door to Next.

The ticketing system is creating a platform for restaurants to hold one single-seating meal for an entire night of a predetermined number of courses with optional drink pairings. For example, Elizabeth Restaurant will have single-seating meals for the month of April and other dates in May and June, with a Game of Thrones theme.  The popularity of the April tickets, at $55 each, made way for the May and June seatings.

Kokonas said that the ticketing system is working well for Alinea, making it easier for international customers to book reservations online. Fifteen percent of the customers at Alinea are from outside the U.S. and another 40 percent are from outside the Chicago area, which is higher than before they implemented the ticketing system, Kokonas said.

While the ticketing system is working well for the restauranteur, he said that Michelin star restaurants closing does “reflect poorly on the system itself.” Kokonas also suggested that the guide should “be a national guide and more rigorous than it currently is.”

“Michelin is a printed guide and, as such, is always behind the times these days,” said Kokonas.

But travelers revere them, at a cost of $14.84 for the 2015 Chicago guide on Amazon, for instance. A 2014 Kindle edition costs $9.99.

The thrill of getting that ticket

Courtesy of Elizabeth Restaurant
Courtesy of Elizabeth Restaurant

“Exclusivity is all a part of it, whether you’ve got an 8 o’clock table at Next or a third row ticket at Foo Fighters, you got it,” Vettel said. “And you know that you got it.”

But Chapman said that no one wants to put the experience over the level of food at a high end restaurant because the two are so intertwined. “The experience is fantastic, but the food has to be on par with it,” she said.

Star or no stars.

Photo at top: Courtesy of Elizabeth Restaurant, 4835 N. Western Ave.