Expectation is our worst enemy but there is nothing we can do, apart perhaps to try our best in controlling it. Given the price, given the prestige, most do naturally expect a 3 Michelin star dinner to fulfill the expectation of excellence of a lifetime memorable dining moment. But since more and more people are dining in restaurants , chefs recipes losing more and more of their exclusivity, culinary trends provoking clashes between traditional and modern fares … we are going to experience less and less of those once in a lifetime memorable meals. It is like when we were discovering our first candy store: that was magic. Not anymore, with time and omnipresence of candy stores. Still, let’s walk through some basics of what might need to be expected at such level of dining:
–The decor: for a long time, most diners would expect nothing less but sumptuous decor at a michelin starred restaurant. Especially at the 2 and 3 star ones. If that is your case, you might need to inform yourself in advance about such since this is not necessarily the case anymore. You still have the classic luxurious establishments like Le Meurice, Le Louis XV who can reach out to your requirement, but lots of 3* restaurants have a more humble decor (L’Astrance, the Fat Duck, many of the 3* Japanese ventures, etc). I personally do not consider the decor in what I seek in a 3* dining event , although I can’t deny that is pleasant to — once in a while — indulge in a bit of luxury.
–The service: some 3 * restaurants provide a quality of service that simply sets the bar. Think of Guy Savoy Paris, most of the 3* in NYC. Most need to provide a service that is at least very professional though. The debate over what type of service to expect at a 3 star Michelin can vary from people expecting spectacular warmful service like the one you get at Guy savoy, to those — like me — who believe that professionalism (absence of hostility, do what you have got to do with seriousness, care) suffices. I am very open minded in my expectations towards services at a 3 star restaurant: if it is in a remote location for ie, I do not mind a laid back very friendly and down to earth level of service. In facts, do expect professional service at most 3* restaurants but stay open minded (we should not always define ”service” from our occidental perceptions).
–The food: It is here that I had the more expectations. Still do. At such level of dining, I needed the food that do match. Not a lifetime dining moment (a simple grilled lobster in front of the ocean + a perfectly roasted hedgehog enjoyed over 15 yrs ago in Africa remain my personal lifetime best dishes ever), but food that will somehow show exceptional talent. I learned with time (my 1st experience with Michelin star restaurants started with the Louis XV in 1997, since numerous of them have been explored) that I had to see things differently: some expect their 3* dinner to be classical magic , others think it should be packed with lots of creativity and / or philosophical incentive (redefining textures and taste with molecular cuisine à la Blumenthal/Adria, or the profound reverence to nature as seen with Passard, Redzépi). What you should expect though is a cuisine that is haute (refined, beautifully plated, with luxurious ingredients like lobsters, caviar … although you should not be surprised by the presence — at times — of less luxurious ones). This is where it matters a lot to understand and get to know the way your food critic sees things. Some food writers value new trends, redefining food: those will find traditional cuisine to be too tired. Sometimes, some will tend to over rate a dish simply for its trendy nature. And this also happens the other way around with some of those who tend to favor classic food. Where do I situate myself in all this big scheme? I focus a lot on the depth of taste, so wherever you see my higher marks, just think “”rich, savourish, vibrant taste “‘ regardless of the type of cuisine. I am more into classic French rather than molecular — which btw does not mean that there are no delicious items on the molecular scene / or that I do not appreciate molecular — so do not expect me to run back at Alinea, WD-50, El Bulli or the Fat Duck anytime soon. I am opened to re-visit those establishments eventually and have enjoyed some great molecular dishes at some of them, with many even ranking among the best food I ever tasted at the upper fine dining level, but what I am looking for in the first place is a variety of classical and contemporary 3* where molecular is not the focus.
Bottom line, there is no definitive answer to what a 3* should be. There will never be one. Your best 3* will be the one that better suits your needs (know what you want, know what you like and customize your 3* dining accordingly), not the one that I or anyone else finds the best.