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The Michelin Guide: Is it still the food bible?

The fabled red guide used to be the essential diner's companion, but now we use word of mouth to choose a restaurant, says Alice-Azania Jarvis
  • @aliceazania

For a certain type of chef, Tuesday is D-day.

As the kitchen gears up for the lunchtime rush, their minds will be on other things. Because tomorrow, at midday, the Michelin winners are announced. At the strike of 12, the publishers of the world's most famous restaurant guide will reveal who, among the country's chefs, is to be rewarded with one (or two, or three) of their famous stars.

To those in receipt, these stars mean a lot of things. They are, says William Sitwell, editor of Waitrose Kitchen and presenter of last year's documentary Michelin Stars – The Madness of Perfection, "the pre-eminent form of recognition, the thing that can strike terror into chefs' hearts".

They place the chefs among a skilled elite, and they allow restaurants to jack up their prices.

But what of the rest of us – the average paying punter? When the guide goes on sale on Wednesday, will we be buying it? And more than that – will we be buying into it?

Possibly the greatest restauranting success of the past year has been the dual opening of Polpo and Polpetto in Soho, central London. Declining to take evening reservations, the staff of each establishment are inundated with would-be diners every night of the week. Arrive too late, and you've no hope; arrive at any time and an extended drink at the bar is to be expected. Yet all this happened without a single restaurant guide – or even restaurant reviewer's – endorsement. Those came later.

Success was instant, taking place long before any publishing houses could book themselves a place – let alone record their opinion in an annually released book.

"Word of mouth was enormous," explains Russell Norman, the restaurants' founder. Of course, by word of mouth Norman means the conventional, person-to-person recommendations that are the lifeblood of many restaurants.

He also, however, means the thoroughly modern word-of-mouth enabled by the internet. "Social networks – Twitter primarily– have been crucial." Along with several others, Norman's establishments have spear-headed a new kind of online buzz-building. The restaurants' own Twitter account has several thousand "followers"; more potently, its presence encourages diners to name-check their experience in public.

When someone you admire tweets in its praise, the prospect of going suddenly becomes that much more attractive. "Personally, I would always dine out based on a personal recommendation," explains Norman. Of course, it's not just Twitter which has facilitated a culture of recommendation – the internet is littered with blogs devoted to dining out.

Far from being an amorphous mass of information, the food blogging network has assumed a definite, reputation-based structure. The website urbanspoon.com acts as a kind of umbrella, ranking individual blogs. Meanwhile bloggers themselves cross-reference vigorously, so it only takes a little browsing to discover the most respected. And, unlike guidebooks or newspaper reviewers, food bloggers tend to upload pictures of every dish they eat. Readers can look at a plate, decide if it takes their fancy, and pick up the phone. "That's how I discovered one of my favourite restaurants," agrees Niamh Shields, author of the influential Eatlikeagirl.com.

"Someone uploaded a picture from the Ledbury. I booked a table then and there." Ironically, the Ledbury in Notting Hill, west London, boasts two Michelin stars – but that in itself would not, says Shields, have prompted her to go. "That's just an aside."

Away from the dedicated blogs, sites like ViewLondon and Yelp allow diners to log on and leave their comments. In the same way TripAdvisor lets would-be hotel guests learn from others' mistakes, these forums encourage diners to base their restaurant choice on the experience of others. Unlike blogs and Twitter recommendations, though, the verdicts come from unknown entities.

"That's why I don't use those sites," explains Shields. "I prefer recommendations from people I know."

Indeed it is this factor which may explain the ever-growing appeal of the restaurant critic. Quasi-celebrities, when the leading critics – like the tastemakers on Twitter, or guests at a dinner party – offer their endorsement, it is almost as if it as come from the mouth of a friend, albeit a particularly clued-up well-versed one. "People pick one who they trust in particular," notes Sitwell, "They offer a judgement that readers respect."

By contrast, Michelin inspectors are anonymous. It wasn't until 2009 that any had granted an interview; when one did, not only did her identity remain secret, but she revealed a peculiar method of assessment: meals aren't enjoyed, only a few bites of each dish are consumed, and companionship is frowned upon. It bore little resemblance to what most people seek in a night out. "The question," says Sitwell. "Is whether that is who you want advising you on your meal?"

To all intents and purposes the answer of the general public sounds increasingly like a "no". The decision to launch a Tokyo Guide was blamed, largely, on the books' declining influence in their home continent.

And, for the first time, the buzz surrounding the latest edition – the 100th in the UK – has been somewhat muted. "No one seems to be talking about it," says Sitwell. "The usual gossip isn't there. It's just whether Gordon Ramsay will keep his stars or not – the same story as last year."

In an age when countless alternatives are available across newspapers, magazines and the internet, the self-described "foodie bible" suddenly looks a lot less biblical.