In an 1898 advertising poster, a man made of rubber rings hoists a giant champagne coupe full of broken glass and nails (garnished with a horseshoe) and toasts “Nunc est bibendum” — Latin for “Now is the time drink.” Michelin tyres, the ad implied, were tough enough to digest everything the road had to offer.
Advertising metaphor was a bit heavy-handed in 1898, but the idea of eating up the road (as delivered by that rotund rubber spokesman, formally known as Bibendum) would become the guiding principle of that fledgling French rubber company. And while durable tyres made them money, another marketing gimmick would change the world of dining.
In 1900, brothers Édouard and André Michelin released the first Guide Michelin. To the 3000 or so motorists in France who bought their tyres, they handed a slim book containing maps, basic maintenance instructions, and lists of mechanics, petrol stations, hotels, and — as information no more vital than the nearest gas pump — suggestions for restaurants along the routes. They were keen to make motoring a recreational hobby for the few well-to-do who actually owned cars, and realized that giving them places to go and advice on getting there would result in more wear (and the occasional hobnail puncture) on their flagship products.
France was the perfect place to do this. Barely a century earlier, the first modern restaurants (which featured individual tables and a menu of choices, rather than communal tables serving whatever a tavern owner had handy) had popped up in Paris. The word “restaurant” itself, slyly French, translates best as “restorative,” and though that initially indicated the supposedly healthy soups served at the establishments, no wealthy getabout punishing his kidneys with an automobile ride over rutted donkey paths would fail to appreciate the restorative value of a glass of Bourgogne at a stationary table.
The red guidebooks were soon vital automotive equipment, living in glove boxes long after gloves were passé. As more and more cars entered the roads, the addresses of service stations became less necessary, and the guides began to focus exclusively on hospitality. In 1926, stars were added to establishments of special note, and a three-star system was implemented in 1933. To create the ratings, the company sends out an army (or more aptly, a secret police) of anonymous critics (who, continuing a theme, are called “inspectors”). They visit each restaurant several times, and then issue pronouncements that earn biblical reverence, a sort of Chow’s Little Red Book. The Guide Michelin’s genius may be its parsimony; unworthy restaurants are simply not listed, and three-star establishments are few and far between. Stars make or break both culinary careers and profit-and-loss reports, and chefs have driven themselves to madness and suicide in the quest to gain — or in the heartache of losing — a third star.
It seems odd that the greatest gastronomes in the world live and breathe by a book produced by an auto parts supplier.
Those Michelin stars, so coveted, still refer obliquely to drives through the country. A one-star listing recommends a table as excellent in comparison to its peers — the place you should go should you be travelling nearby and have to choose. A two-star ranking indicates that a restaurant is worth a detour, while the lofty height of three-stardom indicates that an establishment is “worth a special journey.” It is somewhat ironic that the Michelin Guides, particularly those of places outside of Europe, tend to focus on cities such as New York, Shanghai, Singapore, and Seoul — hardly places you’d pile into the Peugeot for a drive to a surprising little brasserie. In the public mind, Michelin’s business of gastronomy has become almost fully separated from the business of driving (due in no small part to the effects of Bourgogne), and were it not for the smiling face of Bibendum on the books’ covers, few today would associate the tyre company with the restaurant rating system. It seems odd that the greatest gastronomes in the world live and breathe by a book produced by an auto parts supplier.
The guides are not as indispensible as they once were, now that everyone is a critic. Some chefs have opted not to compete in the quest for stars, insisting that the things that Michelin inspectors find important — technical mastery, consistency, and an undeniable Gallic sensibility — are simply not things that modern diners care much about. And whatever people keep in their glove boxes these days, it is certainly not printed guidebooks.
Still, three-star restaurants are rarer than Nobel Prize winners, and the latter don’t have to pass yearly exams. There is no surer guarantee of culinary quality than that found in the pages of an institution founded as a giveaway promotion by a couple of rubber barons more than a century ago.
On 5 December, collectors of motorcar and culinary history may bid on a complete collection of the guides (France editions), which spans 108 volumes representing 1900 through 2016. The auction house Christie’s estimates the value of the lot between €20,000 and €30,000. For that, you could actually dine at a few of the legendary three-star locations, and maybe have enough left over for a set of tyres.
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