San Sebastian, a beach resort town in Spain’s Basque Country, is famous for its pintxo (the local equivalent of tapas), and its high number of quality restaurants. It is famous for having more Michelin star restaurants per head of the population than any other city in the world. That amounts to 18 stars for a population of 200,000.
Compared to San Sebastian, Macau is doing rather well, then, with its 27 stars, and a population of about 600,000.
Especially when one considers that two decades ago there was no restaurant scene to speak of at all.
But how important are Michelin stars in Macau, and are they well deserved? Here’s all you need to know about Michelin star restaurants in Macau.
Michelin Guide Hong Kong Macau 2019
The results for the Michelin Guide Hong Kong Macau 2019, its 11th edition, were announced at the end of last year, with no significant changes, or surprises, to note.
This was not the case after the release of the first edition when there were many surprises about which restaurants in Macau had made it, and which had been excluded.
Complaints were made that Michelin inspectors did not know how to assess Cantonese food, for example; and anyway, that the criteria for Cantonese food versus French food, for example, would be very different.
This outcry, unfortunately, has created in Macau an aura of suspicion around the Michelin Guide, with several local industry members and commentators contacted convinced that it is easier to get stars in Asia than in Europe.
Jean Alberti, a former restaurant owner in the US, and now a restaurant consultant in Hong Kong and Macau, believes that a small number of stars may have been carelessly distributed at the outset, simply because there had to be a certain amount of stars in order to publish a credible guide in the first place.
The number of stars has tripled in 10 years.
Alberti thinks the Michelin Guide is now highly credible, with almost all the stars in Macau “worth it”.
He takes the view that standards can reach such heights because of the monies available for investment.
Value for money at Macau’s Michelin restaurants
Indeed, of the 18 Michelin-starred restaurants in Macau, only one, the Cantonese restaurant King (1 star), in the AIA Tower, is independent, although Tim’s Kitchen (1 star, Cantonese) was originally a highly regarded independent restaurant in Hong Kong before it was invited to open in the Lisboa hotel.
“Casinos effectively sponsor those restaurants,” Alberti says. “You look at the quality, the service, the wine list… and compare to France. These restaurants are a bargain”.
Where in Paris you could spend 400 euros (US$500) a head, he says, in Macau you can pay as little as HK$1000 (US$130) per head.
In France, you might visit a Michelin-starred restaurant annually, for a special occasion.
“In Macau you can go twice a month. People don’t take enough advantage of this great value”.
Are Michelin stars important?
Lunch at The Tasting Room (French, 2 stars) in City of Dreams is a particular case in point.
Not everyone in Macau is interested in stars.
Gourmet Alan Ho, a relative of Stanley Ho, led the way with Robuchon a Galera, now Robuchon au Dome, with 3 stars; and Lisboa now has four starred restaurants.
Wynn and City of Dreams each have two. But the prestigious casino hotels are not exactly lining up for stars.
Does this indicate that stars are not important? After all, stars should be good for business, and diners are more prepared to pay higher prices in starred restaurants.
Certainly, the captive audience for stars is quite specific and does not include the core tourism group – mainland Chinese.
Although this group has plenty of money to spend, this goes on gambling and shopping.
Spending three hours over an expensive lunch when you can consume a bowl of noodles in seven minutes, is not an option.
The key clients of these restaurants are local bon vivants and Hong Kong visitors.
A piece in the South China Morning Post last November strongly indicated that Michelin stars are not seen to be important for Macau.
Macau vs Hong Kong
Macao Government Tourist Office has nothing to do with the funding of the publication (nor does the Hong Kong Tourism Board, but that’s a different issue).
The guide is in fact supported by a number of sponsors including Nespresso and Evian.
Hong Kong restaurants and Macau restaurants appear in a single volume for publishing economies of scale, but do they fit together in the same Guide?
Standards in Macau have traditionally been seen as being lower because of the necessity to source and import produce via Hong Kong, with subsequent implications around transportation and storage.
Those issues still exist, food and wine importer Haigan Wong confirms, and at least outside of the hotels, Hong Kong dining is generally better. But Macau should no longer be seen as the country cousin.
At Cantonese restaurants such as The Eight (3 stars) and Jade Dragon (3 stars), the quality is at least as good as in Hong Kong.