Who did Michelin dub the world’s top dining city this year? The capital of its native France? The culinary nexus of New York?
No—once again, it’s Tokyo.
The Japanese capital stunned the world last year when the 2008 Michelin Guide, the first-ever devoted to an Asian city, issued Tokyo an astounding 191 stars—with eight three-star restaurants among them. This year, the city adds 36 more stars, cementing its worldwide lead.
What is it about Tokyo that commands such culinary respect? Of course, the unsurpassed quality of its classic fare—the freshest fish, the most highly-trained Japanese chefs, and a proud culinary tradition—plays a role. But more than 40% of the 227 stars come from non-Japanese cuisine, and three of the now-nine 3-star winners are, in fact, French.
Part of Tokyo’s victory is undoubtedly due to its culinary openness; a number of respected international chefs have opened wildly successful restaurants there. Joël Robuchon now boasts seven Michelin stars in Tokyo alone—three for his eponymous restaurant
, and two each for his L'Atelier
and La Table
. Gordon Ramsey
and Alain Ducasse
also have Michelin-noted restaurants. Amazingly, Tokyo has nearly as many stars for French cuisine as Paris does.
That said, Tokyo has an estimated ten times as many restaurants as the French capital, according to Michelin. Many of the most acclaimed Japanese restaurants are quite small, seating as few as 12 or 15 diners, and 60% of the stars issued this year are awarded to more traditional establishments. While the larger three-star Genyadana Hamadaya
has been serving seasonal Japanese fare in tatami rooms for nearly 90 years, the three-star newcomer Ishikawa seats only sixteen. And the three-star Sukiyabashi Jiro, despite Michelin’s consideration of service and décor, is in a tiny space without an independent bathroom. With so many restaurants of such a small size, the sheer number inevitably earns a city more accolades.
Furthermore, the guide has been met with a great deal of controversy—chefs claiming that Western standards cannot be applied to Japanese restaurants, or that Michelin critics unfamiliar with the cuisine were unduly impressed. Indeed, in protest, a number of Japanese restaurants declined to be listed in the guide. This year, the team consisted of one French and five Japanese judges, aiming to alleviate some of these concerns. Whether or not the guide is an accurate measure of a restaurant’s worth, however—or whether Tokyo truly is the world’s greatest dining city—there is no question that its Michelin ranking has brought the city to the forefront of attention, recognizing its vibrant culinary culture.
How else does the Tokyo guide stand apart? With symbols denoting restaurants where shoes must be removed, and those with a notable sake selection. Despite the invasion of culinary influences, some things are still uniquely Japanese.