Toby Young Toby Young

Status Anxiety | 24 January 2009

My guide to the horrors and awesome indignities of Michelin-starred restaurants

My heart goes out to the compilers of the 2009 Michelin Guide to Great Britain and Ireland which was published earlier this week. Not since 1929, the first year of the Great Depression, can an edition of the famous red handbook have been looked forward to less. In the current climate, the prospect of going out for an expensive meal is about as appealing as buying a new house.

I spent five years working as a food critic and some of my most miserable evenings were spent in Michelin-starred restaurants. A typical experience would begin with being put on hold when I called to make a reservation and end with the arrival of the credit card slip on which the waiter had helpfully left room for a ‘tip’ even though the total included 12.5 per cent service. In spite of the difficulties of booking tables, Michelin-starred restaurants are almost never full. Indeed, I remember one place in which I was the only person in the dining room. Even when operating at full capacity, they are notoriously lacking in atmosphere — the inspectors would do better to award tumbleweeds rather than stars. They are holy places in the gastronomic universe and the customers dare not raise their voices.

As a general rule, Michelin-starred restaurants cater to the rich, the famous and the beautiful and if you don’t fall into one of those categories, you will be treated as a nobody. I’ve been told by maître d’s that I have to be in and out in 90 minutes and then made to wait over an hour for my starter. I’ve been seated so close to the kitchen that when I sneezed I was worried that the whole restaurant would catch a cold.

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