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In depth: The Michelin myth

A lack of Michelin awards has led to suggestions that Cardiff should rethink  some of its ingredients. But, as Tom Carter discovers, dining in the city is more than just fine.

Take one cosmopolitan city, add a good handful of great restaurants, mix in a dash of variety and there you have it: one tasty culinary destination. And yet attention remains focused squarely on what isn’t on Cardiff’s menu.

It’s becoming an annual question: why don’t our restaurants have any recognition from Michelin? Staggeringly, Cardiff hasn’t ever received even a single star. 

But whilst it can be a struggle to find a contemporary restaurant which really pushes the culinary boundaries, the outlook isn’t as dark as the city’s starless nature would suggest.

First caption will go here. It will match this lovely bit of pigeon.

Dirty Bird: Does fine dining have a home in Cardiff?

Despite gaining neither stars nor the Bib Gourmand (awarded for good food at moderate prices) in this year’s recently announced listings, many of our top restaurateurs remain grounded and point to a burgeoning food scene that is very much on the rise. 

Misguided by the Stars?

Of course, an absence of Michelin stars doesn’t necessarily point to an absence of great cuisine. Tapas kitchen Bar 44 is an excellent example of the great food available on our doorstep. Co-founder Owen Morgan is passionate about seasonal Welsh produce and all things Spanish. He believes that a lack of accreditation from Michelin shouldn’t have any bearing on whether Cardiff is seen as a culinary destination. 

“I definitely don’t think one guide is the be all and end all to judge culinary success” he opines, “it’s just one publication, it just happens to be a very well-known one!”

They’re thoughts that are echoed by Cai Pritchard, owner of the gourmet burger restaurant Got Beef. “Stars can bring notoriety to a city but they’re not a necessity” says Pritchard, “cities need variety to be true culinary destinations. Customers are more likely to visit somewhere off a recommendation rather than its awards.”

“Forget your crisp white dining cloths and expensive wines; it’s all about big wooden tables, calorific guilty pleasures and loads of good quality beer!”

Recognition from Michelin does not ensure financial success nor does it guarantee regular covers. Chefs including Tom Aikens have seen starred restaurants go bust . So what does success look like in the restaurant trade?

Morgan believes that a successful restaurant is one that builds a strong, regular and loyal customer base, interacts with their diners and gets to know them and what they like.

“To give good value you must use great, well sourced produce, be knowledgeable about it and talk to your customers about it,” he explains, “most people don’t mind paying good money for something they know is good and had been handled with care.”

Food_Feat_Trio2Main_TC Dinner Conversation: Is casual dining the way forward?

A similar ethos is held by The Potted Pig. General manager, Georgina Heffernan, explained that the meaty, modern-British establishment makes every effort to keep its menus seasonal, sourcing much of its produce from independent and local suppliers. “If it isn’t fresh” she states, “it isn’t on the menu that day.”

Local, fresh, quality ingredients seem to be the order of the day throughout the city, none more so than at Pontcanna based Bully’s. The restaurant has built a reputation for top class dining in a relaxed atmosphere and was named by the AA as this year’s best in the Wales. Owner, Russell Bullimore, recently told Wales Online that customers not only wanted a focus on quality but on value as well. 

Michelin Tires

It’s that focus on value which underpins much of the food scene here. The rise of informal dining experiences, such as those presented by street food and popup culture, are indicative of a city where cheap and cheerful is often favoured over more adventurous gastronomy. Could this casual vibe be Cardiff’s ticket to the top table?

Morgan believes so. “Michelin seem to be loosening up a little”, he claims, highlighting the star recently gained by London tapas bar, Barrafina. “It could be a sign they’re awarding for quality” he adds, “perhaps everything doesn’t have to be stuffy and formal after all.”

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHCQ-sPWw0o[/youtube]Newly launched Street Food Cardiff is indicative of the city’s less formal food scene. Credit: Something Creatives

A more pertinent question then might be to ask whether Michelin’s rankings are themselves tired and in need of reinvention. 

“I think people’s acceptance of high quality food has widened” says Heffernan, “but I don’t necessarily think that means Michelin rankings need to change as there will always be a market for that.”

Heffernan suggests that rather than a reinvention of the Michelin rankings, informal diners need to be recognised for their own quality and visions. “They aren’t to the Michelin guidelines but this doesn’t mean they are of a lower quality”, she states.


Cardiff remains starless but would casual dining rankings be a better guide to the city?

Got Beef’s Pritchard agrees that taste buds are changing. “This new way of dining is here to stay” he declares, “forget your crisp white dining cloths and expensive wines; it’s all about big wooden tables, calorific guilty pleasures and loads of good quality beer!”

Our food scene has plenty of stars despite a lack of Michelin awards. From tapas to gourmet meats and craft ales, our city is cultivating its own unique food scene. All the necessary ingredients are there: great local produce, good value and a focus on making the customer happy. So forget what Michelin think, Cardiff has its own recipe for success.


Photos: Tom Carter

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