How are Shanghai restaurants dealing with the ‘Michelin curse’? A look at the post-award dining scene

How has the Michelin Guide to Shanghai affected the favoured restaurants? We talk to the owners and operators who were awarded stars and bibs

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 December, 2016, 1:03pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 December, 2016, 5:31pm

On September 21, 2016, the inaugural awards for the Michelin Guide to Shanghai were announced. Stars were bestowed on 26 restaurants, with another 25 places receiving the Bib Gourmand award, denoting good food at a reasonable price. After the initial highs of the ceremony and the media storm that followed, what happened after the dust settled?

Michelin announces first China restaurant guide, covering Shanghai

T’ang Court, China’s only three-star Michelin restaurant, experienced a surge of reservations following the announcement (the branch in Hong Kong also has three stars). They have enjoyed a steady increase in affluent customers with high spending power, particularly those from other Chinese provinces, says Lazio Zuo, food and beverage manager of The Langham Xintiandi. “We have a lot of guests from Beijing and Nanjing.”

Michelin Guide to Shanghai, its first in China, dishes out stars to 26 restaurants

After winning a Bib Gourmand award, staff at East Eatery have spent time educating local guests about the Michelin ratings. “People don’t know the difference [between stars and Bib Gourmand],” says Yoshi Stiller, who, with her husband, owns East Eatery and Taian Table.

Her Chinese staff found a way to explain to local diners what the award means. “They call it the ‘baby star’, not the Bib Gourmand,” she says.

For many in Shanghai, Michelin is synonymous with quality, regardless of rating. Épices & Foie Gras was listed in the guide, although it didn’t receive any stars or a Bib Gourmand rating. Soon after, a local company hosted a dinner at the restaurant.

“The guests spent 10 minutes in front of the door taking pictures,” says owner, Hugues Heng. “They thought, ‘Wow, the manager brought us to a Michelin selection restaurant, we are really proud to be here’.”

Local dining experts may have differing opinions on the individual awards, yet they all agree on one point: the Michelin Guide is good for Shanghai.

Betty Richardson, food and drink editor at That’s Shanghai, notes the anticipation before the release. “To my mind, the impact of Michelin in Shanghai was probably greater before they published their first guide. Many of those who thought they’d be in with a chance of a star went to extra lengths to improve their restaurants running up to the release.”

Crystyl Mo, academy chair for China and Korea for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, has a global take on Michelin, saying, “China has been underrated for fine dining and now it’s getting some well-deserved international recognition. I would love to see this help raise Shanghai’s profile as a gastronomic destination.”

Rachel Gouk, digital content manager and dining editor at City Weekend Shanghai, echoes Mo’s sentiments: “It’s important for Shanghai, and it will attract people from around the world to the city. It’s a talking point for chefs internationally – hopefully it will bring more talent here.”

Winning Michelin approval is a double-edged sword. While it is an honour, it can also create problems. Michelin launched in Hong Kong in 2009, and last year included its first street food guide to the city. Landlords at several food stalls took the increase in business as an excuse to raise rents dramatically, forcing the stallholders to close or change locations. Others felt the pressure to expand their businesses, often to detrimental effect.

In Shanghai, the “Michelin curse” has taken different forms. The most notorious example is Taian Table, which made international news when it was shut down one day after winning a Michelin star. “We took a bit of a gamble choosing that location,” says Stefan Stiller, chef and owner of Taian Table and East Eatery.

Shanghai restaurant shuts day after being awarded Michelin star in first China guide

After quickly realising that obtaining the proper permits would be impossible, they found a new space and started construction. They struck a verbal agreement with the industry bureau, allowing them to operate within limited hours until the new space was ready.

“We hoped we could have a seamless transition, maybe with a week or 10 days closure,” says Stiller. However, once the awards were announced, the authorities reneged on the deal. After a two-month hiatus, Taian Table opened its new space last week.

Kenneth Boon, the owner of Canton 8, knows the highs and lows of a Michelin nod. Boon recalls the “magic moment” at the Michelin ceremony, when they told him that he would be awarded two stars. “I was really shocked. I went to the toilet and actually cried.”

Sadly, the euphoria was short-lived. Billed as the world’s cheapest two-star Michelin restaurant, within hours of the ceremony, Canton 8 was inundated with guests, some waiting up to four hours for a table. Neither Boon nor his chef, Kan Chit Ming, ever dreamed Canton 8 would win a star. “It’s a very small restaurant, using everyday ingredients, not shark’s fin or things like that,” says Kan.

After three weeks of chaos, Boon put his foot down. He limited the number of bookings, in order to regain control and maintain quality. “We are not going to overload ourselves. I only want quality,” says Boon.

Canton 8 is planning a 500 yuan (HK$560) set menu to appeal to customers looking for a more high-end experience.

Unlike Hong Kong food stalls, many Shanghainese restaurants have managed to escape the Michelin curse. Hai Jin Zi and Lan Xin, two noodle shops on Jinxian Road, were awarded Bib Gourmand awards, which hasn’t affected their business.

Hai Jin Zi is in a more favourable position than most, as they own the property and don’t have to worry about rent increases. The proprietor has noted a few customers asking about Michelin, while business retains the same brisk pace. They’ve been approached with proposals to expand, but with three branches in Shanghai, they aren’t interested.

The proprietor of Lan Xin, which has been in business for more than 20 years, brusquely dismissed the Michelin rating as irrelevant. With dinner guests lining up from 4pm, it’s easy to see why he is unconcerned.

The initial recognition has encouraged some restaurants to aim higher. Wujie, a local chain of upscale vegetarian restaurants, three of which were ranked Bib Gourmand, has taken the awards as a jumping-off point. Yuan Bo Song,Wujie’s chairman and founder, is aiming for two stars. They are also planning a new concept set to open next year, that will feature more exclusive, high-end dining.

The release of the Michelin guide has also motivated some local restaurateurs to chase the prestigious award. One example is Caesar Liu, co-owner of Mott 539. Liu was influenced by his time working with chef Mauro Colagreco (from the Michelin two-star Mirazur in France) when he opened Unico in Shanghai in 2011.

Since taking the reins at Mott 539, Liu has set his sights on creating a Michelin-worthy venue. Liu is focusing on creating a unique dining experience serving Huaiyang cuisine with an emphasis on seamless service.

This year’s Michelin awards have set the bar for Shanghai restaurateurs. We look forward to seeing the city’s chefs go above and beyond in the years to come.

Canton 8

Room 101, 457 Jumen Rd (63 Runan Jie), Huangpu,
tel: +86 21 3165 8198

East Eatery

155 Middle Jianguo Rd, No 39, Tianzifang,
tel: +86 21 6467 0100

Épices & Foie Gras

301 Hankou Rd, Huangpu,
tel: +86 21 5169 0989

Hai Jin Zi

240 Jinxian Rd, Xuhui,
tel: +86 21 6255 0371

Lan Xin

130 Jinxian Rd, Xuhui,
tel: +86 21 6253 3554

Mott 539

539 Fuxing Middle Rd, Xuhui,
tel: +86 21 3356 6575

Taian Table

465, 161 Zhenning Rd, 101-102, Bldg No 1, Changning, taian-table.cn

T’ang Court

5/F The Langham, 99 Madang Rd, Xintiandi,
tel: +86 21 2330 2430

Wujie (SWFC)

3/F Shanghai World Financial Centre, 100 Century Avenue, Lujiazui,
tel: +86 21 6877 7716

Wujie (The Bund)

4/F, Bund 22, 22 Zhongshan Dong Er Rd, Huangpu,
tel: +86 21 6375 2818

Wujie (Xujiahui Park)

392 Tianping Road, Xujiahui,
tel: +86 21 3469 2857