The Difference Between 1-Star and 3-Star Dining

Michelin’s famous guide to fine dining isn’t exactly generous when it comes to describing the categories into which they classify the world’s fanciest restaurants.

One star is “a very good restaurant in its category.” Uh-huh. Two stars are “excellent cooking, worth a detour.” Right. And three? “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” What does any of that mean? Only the Michelin Man himself knows.

It’s a great ploy on Michelin’s part. Why tell them if you can keep them guessing? So where Michelin ironically lacks guidance, we must make our own deductions. Personally, I’ve made two of them this year.

The first is that one-star dining is about reintroducing you to the familiar. When you eat a lasagna that tastes and feels like a lasagna despite looking nothing like it, you’ll appreciate your everyday home-cooked pasta a lot more. You’ll also see that it only takes a few tweaks and twists to turn what most stores sell as a frozen slab for $3 into a dining experience out of the ordinary.

My second observation is that where one star is indeed “a very good restaurant” that’s nonetheless clearly recognizable as one “in its category,” three-star dining is about pushing the limits of food.

I went to a three-star restaurant once. It was three years ago. I still distinctly remember some of the dishes — mostly for how odd they looked compared to how great they tasted.

There was a scallop tartare served in a huge shell filled with consommé, served on a massive bed of leaves. It felt like eating seafood straight from the ocean. There was a “lamb carrot” that was served — and tasted like — a fine piece of meat even though the meat only made up 5% of the dish. And for dessert, there were black and golden grapes sitting on a real piece of wood. Except they weren’t grapes at all but finely crafted, liquid pralines.

At a three-star restaurant, when the staff tells you which ingredients have been combined in what way, the only possible reaction you can have is: “Yeah, right, this cannot possibly work.” Then, when it inevitably does every time, you get to have your real reaction: “Wow. I had no idea food can do that — and that we can do that with food.”

In that sense, despite being anything but revealing, Michelin’s category designations still hit the mark: Whereas you could comfortably eat at a one-star restaurant every day, each three-star restaurant is truly exceptional in its own right. “Worth a special journey” — and therefore not a journey you’d want to, or even could, take every day.

If you can afford to visit a three-star restaurant a few times in your life, do it but choose your venue wisely. Make sure you can stomach the theme your elected chef is pursuing — literally. And if you don’t? That’s fine too.

Most of us will never go to space, and for the few of us that do, it’s less about the view than it is about pushing humanity forward: It sure is a noble endeavor, but those never happen in our comfort zone — and when it comes to food, leaving said zone behind is nice on occasion but rarely quite necessary.