Image: Zagat guides
Emmanuel Dunand  /  AFP - Getty Images
Michelin still has a long way to go in trying to overtake Zagat in the U.S. Zagat sells about 650,000 copies of its New York City survey each year, and Michelin expects to sell 150,000 copies of its 2007 New York guide, up from 125,000 in 2006.
updated 10/21/2007 3:18:08 PM ET 2007-10-21T19:18:08

When it comes to dining guides, Americans have long been able to rely on the trusty Zagat Survey. The guides rate restaurants in dozens of cities around the country based on in the input of tens of thousands of frequent diners.

Zagat has flourished in recent years without any true rival, expanding its reach and branching into golf course and shopping ratings.

But that is slowly changing, and its new rival is none other than an esteemed French guidebook that doles out restaurant ratings based on the findings of professional food critics.

Zagat is locked in an intensifying battle with the 107-year-old Michelin Guide, a little red book that intends to crack Zagat’s fierce hold on hotel and restaurant recommendations in the U.S.

Since dispatching its anonymous inspectors to seek out the best places to eat in New York City in 2005, Michelin has quickly expanded. Last year, it produced a new guide covering San Francisco, the Bay Area and the surrounding towns that dot Sonoma and Napa Valley. Next month, Michelin will release guides for Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Jean-Luc Naret, director of the Michelin Guides, said he’s also eyeing guides for Boston, Miami, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

“Our star system is the measure against the world,” Naret says. “The chefs see us as the only independent benchmark.”

But Michelin still has a long way to go in trying to overtake Zagat in the U.S. Zagat sells about 650,000 copies of its New York City survey each year, and Michelin expects to sell 150,000 copies of its 2007 New York guide, up from 125,000 in 2006.

Zagat has more than 100 titles, and the guides have become entrenched in pocket books and briefcases across the country. Subscribers can also get Zagat reviews online and the latest restaurant openings sent to their BlackBerrys.

Michelin sells more than a million books a year that cover 22 countries. In January, it partnered with the Langenscheidt Publishing Group to grow distribution in the hopes of getting the guide into more bookstores and ultimately increasing sales. There are also ViaMichelin GPS products that offer content from the Michelin Guides.

The companies would not provide figures for how much revenue the guides generate.

While Michelin is best known in the U.S. for its tires and the ubiquitous “Michelin Man,” its guides have been a staple in France and overseas for decades. The company printed its first Michelin Red Guide in 1900, providing travelers and diners advice as they ventured out in automobiles for the first time.

While Zagat is based on thousands of surveys done by people who like to go out and eat, Michelin’s inspectors are professional food critics who hand out between one and three stars.

There are only 56 restaurants with three stars in the world, 170 with two stars and 1,300 that garnered one star. Paris has the highest concentration of three stars, with nine restaurants awarded that distinction.

Just earning a single Michelin star is an accomplishment and a matter of pride for chefs. There’s also a “Bib Gourmand” section that highlights inspectors’ favorites for less than $40 and another list of where to eat for less than $25.

But it’s the stars that receive the most attention.

Naret says receiving three stars from Michelin — the equivalent of an Oscar for chefs — can result in a more than 30 percent spike in revenue. Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York City said his restaurant saw revenues rise 20 percent after receiving his three Michelin stars in 2005.

Taking one of those stars away can be a serious blow — French chef Bernard Loiseau killed himself in 2003 when he thought he was going to lose one of his stars.

“It means a lot,” said chef Andre Soltner, who sold his legendary New York restaurant, Lutece, in 1995 and now teaches at the French Culinary Institute. “The Michelin Guide is very important for business.”

The people who rank the restaurants — the inspectors — are elusive and somewhat mysterious. People talk about them, but nobody ever sees them.

Naret says there are 80 inspectors worldwide — 15 in France alone. When Michelin came to America, it received 3,500 applications from those wanting to be inspectors. Michelin ended up with 10 inspectors spread across New York and San Francisco.

Zagat used input from more than 34,000 frequent diners to complete its New York City guide of 2,069 establishments in the five boroughs. The Zagat calls them “savvy local consumers.”

“We’re democratic,” founder Tim Zagat said. “Michelin is oligarchic.”

Both books have their detractors. Cookbook author Michael Ruhlman said Michelin, with only 565 restaurants, “lacks the depth and balance that other guides might have.”

Zagat has also come under fire for being vulnerable to inflated surveys submitted by restaurant staff, but the company says it has devised ways to prevent this.

Food Critic Steve Cuozzo of the New York Post dismissed both books in a recent column.

“Nobody who knows anything about food in New York takes either book (Zagat or Michelin) seriously as a gastronomic guide,” he said.

But Zagat says that its comprehensive and diverse listings represent the city and its diners in a way Michelin does not. He said of Michelin: “It doesn’t answer the daily needs of normal people.”

For its part, Michelin has plenty of work to do before it catches up with the Zagat juggernaut.

Most Americans haven’t heard of the French guide despite the name’s surfacing in recent movies like “Ocean’s 13,” Disney’s “Ratatouille” and “No Reservations.”

But as the brand grows, don’t expect to see Michelin ranking golf courses or shopping like Zagat does.

“We don’t have an ambition to be all things to all people,” Naret says.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

Data: Latest rates in the US

Home equity rates View rates in your area
Home equity type Today +/- Chart
$30K HELOC FICO 4.97%
$30K home equity loan FICO 5.19%
$75K home equity loan FICO 4.58%
Credit card rates View more rates
Card type Today +/- Last Week
Low Interest Cards 13.40%
13.40%
Cash Back Cards 17.92%
17.91%
Rewards Cards 17.12%
17.11%
Source: Bankrate.com