Well over a century ago, the very first Michelin Guide was published in France and given away free to motorists. It was 1900, there were only about 3,000 cars in the country, and the guide covered everything from locations of gas pumps to instructions for changing flat tires. In the 1920s it began to cover dining more extensively, employing full time inspectors, and by 1931 had created its now famous One to Three Star rating system.
The same year, the cover color was codified as red, and ever since, the Michelin Red Guide has been the world’s most important arbiter of culinary excellence, though it has some newer competitors of note, including the Forbes Travel Guide (previously Mobil Guide), and the World’s 50 and 100 Best Restaurants lists (formerly San Pellegrino 100 Best Restaurants).
The Michelin guide was created specifically for French cuisine, and while there are now editions worldwide, the French critiques are considered the most accurate and unrivaled. But grabbing a copy won’t exactly make planning your vacation dining much easier – there are more than 4,300 eateries listed. Unlike American 1-5 star systems, where a single star is a failure of sorts, the Michelin method starts at zero, mere inclusion in the guide is a compliment, and even a single star is a huge accomplishment, creating a “Michelin-starred chef.” From over four thousand entries, only 600 are blessed with stars, and only 26 achieve the elite 3-Star rank. But this overlooks some amazing “must eats” that can fall short for reasons as trivial as choice of flatware. So, to make your vacation as delicious as possible, here is the short list of essential fine dining restaurants of France, by region. Before we begin, the star ratings have remained unchanged in terms of definitions for more than 85 years:
1-Star: “A Very Good Restaurant in Its Category.”
2-Star: “Excellent Cooking, Worth a Detour.”
3-Star: “Exceptional Cuisine, Worth a Special Journey.”
More than a third of France’s 3-Star establishments are in the City of Lights, and you cannot really go wrong, as several of the nation’s most famous chefs are represented with eponymous spots, including Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy, and Pierre Gagnaire. If you had to pick one from this vaunted trio, the can’t miss would have to be Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athenee, which the Guide calls “a culinary Holy Grail,” and obtained its current rating a year after opening back in 2000. But remarkably, Ducasse recently closed his flagship, renovated it, and reopened with an entirely new focus on “naturalness,” celebrating the fish, vegetable, cereal trinity, and in doing so, not only kept his stars, but was also just named in 13th place in the 2017 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. If you did not think a celebratory, world class, fine dining experience could be light and clean, Ducasse proves you wrong, and he is not alone: another Parisian 3-Star, Arpege, comes in at 12, and also focuses on vegetables and even has its own organic gardens.
For a more traditional calories-be-damned French dining event, it is hard to beat Le Cinq. For years, this stunner in the Georges Cinq hotel languished with two stars to the consternation of fans and critics, in part because as a hotel restaurant it also served breakfast. But after renovations that made the hotel the only one in Europe with three different Michelin-starred eateries, the venerable spot (the wine cellar was camouflaged with fake plaster walls to keep the Nazis from raiding it during WWII), is where it belongs, atop Paris’ fine dining scene. For sheer opulence, the top spot goes to Le Pre Catalan (pictured right), set in a historic one-of-a-kind building in the famous Bois de Bologne. In a jewel-like interior by famed architect Pierre Yves Rochon, lengthy and equally artistic meals are unwrapped one course at a time from beneath silver domes for an unforgettable experience.
Where to stay in Paris
The region of Provence is gorgeous, from its medieval hilltop towns to the endless fields of lavender, but it has not traditionally been an epicenter of French cuisine. That is changing fast however, and for 2017, nine new restaurants here gained Michelin stars. The most notable newcomer is Mickaël Feval in Aix-en-Provence. The namesake chef has a reputation as a prodigy, worked at legendary Parisian seafood specialist Antoine, and focuses on the nearby sea, though he features a lot of interesting surf and turf combinations, using almost exclusively local producers and fishermen. The new eatery is also acclaimed by the Gault Millaut guide and will probably win additional stars in years to come.
One thing Provence is legendary for is its extra virgin olive oil, and at the 1-Star La Bastide Saint Antoine in Grasse (pictured right), they make their own from on-site groves, and it is so important to the cuisine that the chef co-authored a definitive book on cooking with olive oil with the founder of Oliviers & Co. the gourmet bottler out of Nice. The menu focuses on seasonality and the spot is also famous for its exquisite wine pairings, course by course from a list of over 1,600 labels.
The area’s premier 3-Star is Le Petit Nice in Marseille, (a Relais & Chateaux hotel), overlooking the Mediterranean. As befits a famous seaport, the focus is extremely heavy on local seafood, using up to 70 varieties a season, from sea anemones and urchins to crabs and offbeat finfish. Chef Gerald Passedat once famously said, “My cuisine is like plunging into the Mediterranean.”
Where to stay in Provence
French Riviera Restaurants
Seafood is the specialty on the Mediterranean coast, but at the highest levels, French cuisine is never one dimensional, and there is a lot of variety. Perhaps the most important Michelin 1-Star in the nation is Le Cap (pictured below right) in Cap Ferrat, where chef Didier Anies won the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France, the nation’s highest culinary honor and France’s food equivalent of knighthood – or sainthood (the handful of recipients include Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon). The honor allows him to wear the red, white and blue tricolors on the collar of his chef’s jacket, and on top of that, Le Cap’s headwaiter recently was named best in the Riviera. The small restaurant specializes in lengthy multi-course tasting menus with wine parings, and is only open seasonally, spring to fall.
La Vague d’Or in St. Tropez focuses on seafood, as is appropriate for an eatery whose address is on the Plage de la Bouillabaisse, although its chef comes from the opposite coast of France, the cold waters of Normandy. This is the place to eat in the region, and as the latest Michelin guide put it, “It is impossible not to be won over by so much inspiration. Exhilarating pairings, rare ingredients that are the very essence of the region, and remarkable service. The restaurant of a chef who is passionate about his art!” It is the Riviera’s only 3-Star, unless you count the neighboring principality of Monaco, which you must – food lovers simply cannot ignore it.
The small city of Monte Carlo vies with Spain’s San Sebastian for the most Michelin stars per capita, and has more than a dozen top restaurants within walking distance of each other. The top two are Alain Ducasse’s 3-Star Louis XV, where unlike Paris he sticks to old world French classic tradition, and Joel Robuchon Monte-Carlo. While this last earns “only” two stars, it is the top European outpost of the world’s most successful chef ever. Nicknamed Chef of the Century, Robuchon is a legend who has accrued more Michelin stars than anyone else, along with every other award and superlative, and while his 3-Star flagship is in Las Vegas, this is simply not to be missed. He is famous for simplicity and coaxing the most out of the finest ingredients, rarely combining more than three or four elements in a dish, while wowing with intense flavors.
Where to stay in the French Riviera
French Alps Restaurants
While many visitors think of Alpine cuisine as simply fondue and raclette, the mountains are flush with Michelin stars, especially around tony ski towns Courchevel and Megeve, which boast a trio of destination-worthy 3-Stars. Le 1947, in one of Le Trois Vallees’ prominent ski villages, Courchevel 1850, is named for a mythical vintage of Cheval Blanc. The guide does not always reward cutting-edge contemporary cuisine and neoclassic creativity, but that’s what Chef Yannick Allneo is known for in his sparkling white, sleek space.
The opposite is the case at nearby Flocons del Sel (Flakes of Salt) which serves elevated mountain inspired cuisine, with lots of veal, beef and mushrooms, and also offers cooking classes. Le Bouitte (pictured right) is the most rustic of the 3-Stars here, specializing in flavors of the Savoy region and using locally picked herbs and choice ingredients such as Savoy fresh pastas, local sausages and young pigeon. The focus is on the freshest ingredients daily, and a list of menu options is recited to each diner, the nightly menu custom-made based on availability and personal preferences, for a very intimate experience in a beautifully rustic wooden building. Also a member of Relais & Chateaux, the restaurant just celebrated its 40th anniversary, and the father-son chef team has been working side by side for more than two decades.
Where to stay in the French Alps