It was just past 8 p.m., and the air in the Rialto Center for the Arts was so thick with anticipation that you could have whipped it into culinary foam.
Onstage, the evening’s hosts paused dramatically, waiting to announce which Atlanta restaurants had been awarded a coveted Michelin star — one of the highest honors in the glamorous, competitive world of haute cuisine.
From their seats, eight hundred guests leaned in — restauranteurs and sommeliers, food critics and photographers, your correspondent tucked among them — hungry to learn who among Atlanta’s talented culinary set would claim the city’s inaugural stars.
Michelin Communications Director Elisabeth Boucher, co-hosting the event with local emcee Mara Davis, let the drama build for a few more moments before announcing, with all the flourish of an Oscars presenter, “Atlas!”
The crowd erupted as Chef Freddy Money, culinary director of the famed Buckhead restaurant, took the stage with his team, fists pumping. While ceremony assistants helped Money into a custom Michelin jacket, Davis called out another star: “Bacchanalia!” The audience roared again, ecstatic to see another beloved Atlanta restaurant take its place among the world’s finest dining.
All told, five Atlanta restaurants earned a Michelin star, with Mujō, Lazy Betty, and Hayawaka rounding out the group. A total of 45 Atlanta eateries received Michelin awards, including 10 Bib Gourmands, which honor excellence in more moderately priced dining, two Green Stars for restaurants leading in sustainability, and 29 recommended restaurants; individual honors were also awarded for superlative service, cocktails, and sommelier, and Chef Jarrett Stieber of Little Bear took home the prized Michelin Young Chef Award.
“The famously anonymous inspectors of the Michelin Guide were absolutely amazed by what they found [in Atlanta],” Boucher told guests before announcing the winners. “They felt the spark that Atlanta has.”
The glittering, invite-only event was a gourmet spectacle in its own right, featuring canapés from General Muir, Whoopsie’s and several local pop-ups, craft cocktails made with Basil Hayden whiskey, and non-alcoholic bubbly from Kally.
While a string quartet in black tie played instrumental pop, a master carver in a sharp suit sliced a leg of acorn-fed Cinco Jotas ibérico ham into wafer-thin strips. In another corner, a server doled out pearly spoonfuls of Parisian Petrossian caviar, harvested from an ancient line of sturgeon.
“Enjoy,” said an in-the-know passerby with a wink. “It retails for $18,000.”
The heady atmosphere reflected the triumph of Michelin Guide’s arrival in Atlanta. The city’s culinary scene has evolved in recent decades into a dining heavyweight, bursting with creative chefs and a dizzying array of ethnic cuisines, but its success has been largely overlooked on the world stage. Not so now, co-host Mara Davis said after the ceremony.
“Atlanta’s been really chugging along, and our diversity was really reflected [in these awards]. From Buford Highway restaurants to classics like Homegrown–this really puts Atlanta on the map as a global destination.”
The Michelin imprimatur may not change local opinions of Atlanta’s best restaurants: foodies here have long extolled the city’s culinary treasures. But the Michelin Guide is intended more for outsiders than insiders, designed to draw curious travelers to a city with promises of inventive cuisine and luxurious hotel stays. “The Michelin Guide stands next to epicurean explorers,” Boucher said.
Epicurean adventures traveling by car, ideally: Michelin, a French tire company, originally launched the guide in 1900 to entice new car owners to drive longer distances (and wear down their tires). But earning a spot in the book became a vaunted accolade in its own right, and Michelin soon developed a spinoff brand adjudicating major cities’ best restaurants and hotels.
As if to illustrate the wonky provenance of the world’s most elite dining awards, the Michelin Man still represents both tires and gastronomy — the puffy white mascot was a hit at last night’s event, posing for photo after photo with jubilant guests. For context, the first generation of car tires was white, which is why the Michelin Man, who is a stack of tires, looks like a close cousin of the Pillsbury Dough Boy.
In some ways, the Michelin Guide is still fodder for the tourism industry: the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau allegedly paid Michelin $1 million to bring its anonymous inspectors to town, and studies show that having even one Michelin-star restaurant in a city can drive tourists to stay longer and spend more. But it’s not simply pay-to-play, as Boucher explained after the ceremony.
“It’s not because a city or state wants the guide to come that it happens,” Boucher said. “Michelin decides whether or not to come depending on the potential of the destination, the quality of the restaurants.” Michelin Guide added its first U.S. destination, New York City, in 2005, and Atlanta is only the seventh in the country to be included.
Regardless of their roots in tourism, Michelin awards have become the apex marker of international culinary excellence, and winning one can be a defining career moment for any restauranter.
“My dreams are pretty high, and this was one that was beyond my dreams,” said Chef Deborah VonTrece, whose Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours won a Recommended Restaurant award. “I’m so ecstatic, not just for myself, but for the food we create and for the staff I have that believes in us.”
Most chefs launch restaurants never imagining they could one day attract the attention of the Michelin Guide. Growing up in Venezuela, Lis Hernandez helped her mother sell arepas on the street. She opened Arepa Mia in Atlanta to keep her family’s legacy alive, never expecting it would one day earn her a Michelin Bib Gourmand.
“It feels like winning an Oscar!” Hernandez laughed. “In my whole career as a chef, my thirty years in the U.S., this has been the most exciting moment of my life.”
After the ceremony, servers swapped out savory bites for tiny ube and pumpkin cheesecakes and coffee. The quartet struck up the music again, and an ebullient crowd packed the lobby, in no hurry to leave.
Everywhere, Atlanta’s newly minted Michelin Guide winners clapped one another on the pack, as thrilled with each other’s success as with their own. Michelin Guide reviews its honors yearly, and there’s no telling what the future will hold for these and other restaurants. But with the 2023 inaugural awards, the entire Atlanta culinary scene has officially joined the world stage.
“It’s a gold stamp of approval that what we’re doing here in Atlanta is super special,” said Chef Freddy Money of Atlas, who was grinning ear to ear, holding his Michelin star in one hand. “We’ve got the movies, we’ve got the sports — now we’ve got the food.”