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Where Are the World’s Best Restaurants? A Look at the Changing Landscape of Michelin Star Winners

The Michelin 2014 restaurant guides are out. But, before you run to book a table at all the best new restaurants, take a look at which countries are winning the restaurant wars, and which need to step up their game. Hint: Japan is on a roll.

At the beginning of October, the 2014 Michelin Guides for New York and San Francisco hit the shelves... and 105 exclusive American eateries began basking in the glow of the tire manufacturer's coveted stars. Next month, the exclusive award will round out its U.S. coverage with an updated guide to Chicago's dining scene.

The Michelin Guides' world-renowned three-star ranking system is the go-to bible for gastronomic gluttons. While the importance of the Michelin stars has been hotly contested in recent years, with complaints ranging from the murky criteria for the ratings to the perceived favoritism of the newly discovered East, restaurants and diners alike still eagerly anticipate each yearly update to tell them which restaurants are in this year, and which are not quite up to snuff.

What began as a giveaway to sell tires to French motorists in 1900 has become the authority on taste. A super-secret cabal of inspectors reviews restaurants in 23 countries each year. Their opinion granting even a single star is enough to propel a restaurant's sales up 25 percent, a fact capitalized on by chefs around the world. The desire to win stars and the pressure that comes with maintaining current ratings can be extreme: for France's Bernard Loiseau, the chef who inspired Pixar's 'Ratatouille,' an obsession with maintaining his restaurant's three stars was a well-known factor in his 2003 suicide.

Whether or not it makes sense to designate a French tire manufacturer the authority on fine dining, the power of the Michelin guides looks like it's here to stay, and may even be growing. Since Michelin added guides to the United States and Japan in 2006 and 2007, respectively, the number of restaurants in the world that can boast a three-star status has more than doubled.

Japan's meteoric rise in ratings—its restaurants surpassed France's last year with 775 stars after only earning 191 total stars in 2008—led some critics to claim Michelin's high marks were a result of the country's expanding commercial market (tires, anyone?) rather than a measure of the quality of Japanese cuisine.

But food writer Andy Hayler says the praise is earned. And he should know; Hayler is one of the few people who can claim to have eaten at every three-star Michelin restaurant in the world. "Personally I think the food in Japan is of an extraordinarily high level," he says. "The focus on ingredient quality there is second to none, and the technical skills of the chefs are extremely high."

This year's ratings for New York City and San Francisco are consistent with other recent reviews. But, Hayler says, the U.S. accolades might be assigned with too heavy a hand. Whilst singling out a few as "world class" exceptions, he thinks knocking a star from many American restaurants would give a more accurate appraisal of their true quality: "There are a number of U.S. places where, if you magically transported them to, say, Paris, I feel [they] would not get the same number of stars as they currently get in the U.S."

Love them or hate them, the Michelin ratings are still the most coveted award in the food world, and Hayler thinks it would be hard to improve them. "I think that the methodology of Michelin, with anonymous inspectors who pay their own bills, and no hidden fees or advertising in the guide, is hard to fault," he says. "If you were to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and design the ideal inspection system that would be it."

So, with a grain of salt—it's only food, after all—take a look at how the Michelin Guide has expanded over the years and how their anonymous inspectors have handed out those enviable gold stars. Then, go make some dinner reservations and make up your own mind.

With reporting by Alice Robinson.