Restaurants know their future rests with the lone diner in the corner

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The Independent Online

The sight of a lone diner, tucked away in the corner of a restaurant meticulously picking out the most difficult dishes on a menu, is an ominous sight for most chefs. For those are the traits of some of the most powerful men and women in the industry - the Michelin guide inspectors.

The sight of a lone diner, tucked away in the corner of a restaurant meticulously picking out the most difficult dishes on a menu, is an ominous sight for most chefs. For those are the traits of some of the most powerful men and women in the industry - the Michelin guide inspectors.

And it is for this very reason - the anonymity and integrity of its judges - that this gastronomic bible has been revered and feared for so long.

The guide is so highly regarded that one chef, Alain Zick, was said to have killed himself in 1996 because he lost one of his two stars.

The tome began humbly in France in 1990 as a way for the Michelin brothers to promote their invention of the detachable tyre. Handed out free, the Michelin Tyre Guide aimed to "give motorists all the information they need for travelling in France, maintaining and equipping a motor car, as well as places to stay and eat, and where to find the nearest post office or telephone."

By 1920, it was being sold in shops and advertising was banned to promote its independence. Within six years it began awarding its famous and now sought-after stars.

It is said that the town plans in the 1939 edition were used by the Allies to plan their routes for the liberation.

Last year, when it celebrated its centenary, it reinvented itself as the Red Guide. Today it has editions across Europe.

In Britain, a band of 10 anonymous inspectors prides itself with having scoured every restaurant in the country, no matter how humble.

Only when an inspector has made four visits to a venue will he or she announce their identity. The guide's editor, who still maintains his anonymity, said: "Sometimes they suspect who we are. If you are in a large industrial town, a single person does not attract attention but on a small Scottish island, you stand out." An inspector may have to visit as many as eight hotels and restaurants a day. The editor has had food poisoning six times, had his Thai meal interrupted by an immigration raid, and been forced to endure bats in his hotel bedroom.

The guide says it is looking for good cooking put together with imagination and flair. It has recently introduced the "bib gourmand" to commend restaurants that offer good food at moderate prices.

But it will always be the stars that inspire the greatest awe. This year's Red Guide Great Britain and Ireland awards two three stars, 13 two stars and 88 one stars.

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