We would not be dedicating a whole page to this subject if it wasn’t worth it, but Belgium has one of the highest densities of Michelin starred restaurants in Europe, and by extension, the world. The Belgian food and hospitality industry at almost all levels is superb and one of the country’s greatest assets.
There are several (international) stages where top chefs are offered the chance to compete and compare their skills with their peers.
However, Michelin remains the 'Champions League' of professional cookery and the scale by which to judge the top end of the business.
The French company behind the guide started up business as a major tyre-manufacturer and known in motoring history as the developer of the first interchangeable pneumatic tyres.
So maybe it will come as a surprise to many that Michelin does more than just award stars to restaurants.
They’re still in that business, but Michelin is also synonymous with maps, tourism guides and above all the (in)famous red restaurant and hotel guides listing some of the best food found across the globe.
Michelin In Belgium
True foodies will have an abundance of top gastronomy to delight them in Belgium. The province of West Flanders, for instance, is simply littered with Michelin stars. Bruges, the capital of the province, is the Michelin epicenter of Belgium. The metropolitan area has about 120,000 inhabitants but boasts no less than nine starred restaurants. Brussels has more stars than Berlin or Amsterdam.
The other provinces are no slouches either; there are Michelin ambassadors spread across the country.
Most of the restaurants that get star spangled appreciation, serve the more refined style of French-Belgian cuisine. However, you can also find some representatives of more exotic cuisines on the list. Quite a few of Belgium’s decorated chefs also offer accommodation, work as caterers, run a bistro alongside their restaurants, write books and appear regularly on television.
Last but not least, our aficionados should not fear, Michelin chefs in Belgium are not afraid to use or serve their nation’s specialty beers.
Birth Of A Travel Guide
The Michelin brothers André and Edouard presented their first guide at the Paris World Fair in 1900. It was the first of its kind and quite a revolutionary idea at the time. The guide skipped over the traditional extensive historical and cultural sections and focused instead on listing post offices, local businesses offering lodging or food and garages where you could fuel up and change your tyres – Michelin of course.
Cars were a new means of transport and there were very few of them on the road, so the infrastructure supporting motoring was thin on the ground. Back then, going out for a drive was quite an adventurous endeavour and not to be taken lightly.
As Michelin were in the business of selling tyres and clients were scarce, there was no harm in directing drivers to their product by handing out free practical guides showing where to find them. It’s safe to say that the Michelin guide started out as nothing more than a clever marketing gimmick.
The concept of awarding stars to restaurants as well as the elaborate system of symbols to replace text was only added much later, about ten years after the First World War, this to keep the guide compact and easy to store while on the road. This use of icons was groundbreaking and is still used in nearly every modern travel guide.
Michelin and Gastronomy
At first the stars only indicated the cost of a room, but soon Michelin began using them to designate the quality of their listed establishments and the level of cuisine and service. In the 1930s Michelin really started to focus on the culinary, the second and then the third star were added and the guide was split into a red edition for hotels and restaurants and a green edition for tourist information.
It is still not a purely culinary publication like today’s GaultMillau-guide. Michelin is globally acknowledged as the ultimate authority on cuisine and gastronomy.
Some chefs see the stars as the ultimate recognition, others as a burden on their industry, pretentious and exclusive. In the past a couple of chefs have even refused stars or turned them back in after having been awarded them. It’s not completely fair to dismiss Michelin as a guide to exclusivity and bling. A three star restaurant isn’t going to be the most economic place to wine and dine, but serving the best of the best isn’t cheap.
Exquisite quality always comes at a price, whatever the service or product is. Remember, you can control your bill - nobody expects you to order a €350 bottle of wine.
Most Michelin starred restaurants offer a 'cheaper' menu alongside the more expensive à la carte options. Michelin has a secondary rating system for those restaurants and hotels not in the same galaxy as the stars. These cheaper restaurants also get their share of appreciation and attention in the guide with the allotment of Bib Gourmands or cutlery-symbols (a fork and a spoon).
The awarding of stars takes no account of the price of the menu, but a Bib Gourmand stands for a quality meal and good service at a reasonable cost. To a lot of foodies a Bib is considered half a star.
The term “Bib” comes from 'Bibendum' the name given to the iconic Michelin man.
The brand’s fat, friendly mascot was created in 1898 and his image marks a Bib Gourmand; he is certainly one the most well-known company logos ever. All differences aside, one cannot deny the importance of Michelin to the international gastronomy scene. The yearly presentation of their newest star restaurants is the Oscar ceremony of the restaurant business.
The Hit List
According to Michelin, their inspectors visit the starred restaurants at least once a year and keep a close watch on their quality by regularly checking up on them. This, of course, is all done anonymously. Three stars is the very top of the major league of gastronomy, to see three stars is extremely rare.
Restaurants of this caliber are without doubt world class in each and every way. Belgium has three, of which two are found in Bruges.
Michelin describes them as “Une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage” or ‘exquisite cuisine worth making a journey for’. Expect exceptional food and drink immaculately served in very luxurious and stylish surroundings.
Two stars is less rare and not quite an intergalactic gourmet super star, but maybe heading there. Nevertheless they are highly acclaimed and offering fantastic food, wines, service and décor.
The guide’s designation translates as 'refined cuisine that is worth a detour’ or “Table excellente, mérite un detour”. Don’t expect budget dining because a restaurant “only” has two stars. Last on the list is one star considered as “Une très bonne table dans sa catégorie” meaning ‘excellent cuisine in its category’.
One star guarantees unpretentious fine dining and indicates the awarded establishment as a good place to stop on your planned route.