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Rating restaurants 'worth a special journey'

Nowhere in the world is dining out more dramatic than in the three-star restaurants of France.

And although the three-star system intrigues travelers from all over the world, this Michelin Guide rating, while well respected, is by no means the last word in establishing excellence.

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Nor is it the only guide to good food. The Guide Kleber, not as familiar to Americans, has a good following in France. And there is the Gault-Millau Guide, witty, breezy, and very opinionated, especially when in opposition to the Michelin.

Henri Gault and Christian Millau,who review restaurants in Europe, grade restaurants on a scale up to 20 and from one to four toques (chef's hats) with a top rating of 19 or 20 and four toques.

They praise new restaurants and new cuisine, and they also take credit for inventing the term ''nouvelle cuisine.''

The Michelin Tire Company started around 1900 a guide to auto repair and gas stations, later adding restaurants to help their tire business by encouraging automobile travel to the provincial restaurants outside Paris.

When the guide comes out each year in March, there is much controversy, but the ratings are a tremendous help to travelers and also provide restaurants an incentive that keeps standards high.

How Michelin actually rates the restaurants is somewhat of a secret system that includes inspectors who eat incognito, pay for the meal, then identitify themselves and ask to see the kitchen and cellar.

Restaurants are judged on quality, service, and imagination -- but Michelin will never advise a restaurant how to improve their rating.

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Many symbols are used in the familiar red Michelin guides (Services de Tourisme), but the most famous are the food stars. Here they are.

One star -- Very good cooking.

Two stars -- Cooking worth a detour.

Three stars -- Cooking worth a special journey. Here one will find the best cooking in France.

There is no question that the guides are useful if you're fascinated with food and plan to drive around the countryside.

But don't take the guides too seriously. Remember that France is still the only country on earth where you can eat well and moderately, even in small villages and back roads and country inns.

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