PARIS — For 15 days at a time, the men nicknamed the "monks of gastronomy" take to the roads of France, whatever the weather, whatever the season. Twice a day, they sit down in restaurants and bistros, sample the food and wine, pay their checks and, in most cases, vanish out the door.
The anonymous, waistline-challenged customers are inspectors for the celebrated Guide Michelin and, each year at this time, the French culinary establishment nervously awaits the verdict of their taste buds.
For nearly a century, the narrow red-covered guide, whose 1997 edition goes on sale today for 145 francs, or about $26, has been the traveler's bible in what is arguably the most demanding, finicky restaurant market in the world. (In the U.S., the guide will be available later this month.)
In its pages, a restaurant is marked with a star if the inspectors find it to possess a "very good table in its category" and 423 were so judged in the 1997 guide (down from 437 in 1996).
Two stars mean "excellent cooking, worth a detour" (74 places rate such praise this year, down from 76 in 1996.)
And three stars, the supreme endorsement that just 18 restaurants in all of France are now deemed to merit signifies "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey." (There were 19 three-stars in 1996.)
Can Michelin be more specific?
"That means that even if you are in America, you must come," guide director Bernard Naegellen said in an interview. "You will always eat very well, sometimes marvelously. Great wines, impeccable service, an elegant environment, prices in consequence. C'est le top du top."
"Getting three stars is the supreme consecration. We all try," says chef Pierre Gagnaire, who held the grade from 1993 to 1995 in Saint-Etienne and was awarded two stars this week for the restaurant he opened in Paris as he attempts a comeback.
Bernard Loiseau was a raw kitchen apprentice of 17 when his master, Pierre Troisgros of Roanne, was awarded Michelin's highest honor. "Since that day, getting the celebrated third star became my life's goal," Loiseau recalls. "Every day when I put on my socks, I told myself, 'I will get those three stars.' " When the happy day came in 1991 for the Burgundy restaurateur, he got sozzled on Champagne.
The Michelin guide, which lists 5,965 hotels and 3,850 restaurants, sold more than half a million copies in France last year. Rival guides like the GaultMillau, the runner-up in sales, offer much more mouthwatering prose.
In fact, Michelin gives only bare-bones information even for the establishments to which it awards stars: the cook's surname, a few trademark dishes, vintages from the wine list, and a series of figures and glyphs conveying such vital data as phone numbers, prices, hours, which credit cards are honored and whether pets are allowed.
So why is a French cook's driving ambition to garner at least one of the guide's stars (actually, Michelin's typesetters use bumpy six-pointed rosettes)? Because nothing else on the market compares with the guide's authority and reputation for probity.
"It's totally independent, serious," said Gagnaire. "It's an endorsement of quality that is a must."
Michelin's independence? Naegellen remembers a Paris restaurant owner begging him for a star, saying he would go bankrupt otherwise. "I told him, 'But Monsieur, if we gave the star to anybody and for any reason, you wouldn't be here now asking me for it.' "
And seriousness? In one case, Michelin inspectors anonymously visited a two-star restaurant no fewer than 17 times before deciding to give it a third star. Most places, said Naegellen, are inspected once every 18 months to two years.
Tasters for the competition, many French restaurant owners will tell you, accept free meals, promote favorites and lack the rigor and method of Michelin's full-time inspectors. For all that, critics of the little red book contend that Naegellen and his "monks" are too conservative and chauvinistic in taste, overly wowed by posh settings and tardy in recognizing new talent.
"Despite what people here and there say, what counts above all is what is on the plate and not the decor, the silverware, the china or the check," Naegellen answered.
Michelin, France's largest tire company, began printing the guide in 1900, when the French were just beginning to travel by automobile and there were only 4,000 of the newfangled voitures in the whole country. The earliest editions of the guides mentioned a hotel or two by city and their prices ("5 to 7 francs, candles included") and gave the addresses of bakers, hardware dealers and any other merchants who sold gasoline in the pre-service station age.
The first stars were doled out in 1926, and the first three-star restaurant, the legendary La Pyramide in the Rho^ne Valley, was so honored seven years later.