In the late 1800’s, Edouard and André Michelin ran a rubber factory in the small town of Clermont-Ferrand, France. Among their first products were bicycle tires, later supplanted by automobile tires. At a certain point they adopted the American system of assembly line production – with one new characteristic: they felt that American tire manufacturers used inferior rubber and other lesser materials. They embarked on a journey to become the premium tire producer in the world. (Based on their later dominance of the tire industry, it seems they succeeded.)
The brothers, in 1894, while attending a trade fair in Lyon are said to have spotted a stack of tires that resembled the form of a man.
Thus their humanoid official mascot was created. And they named him BIBENDUM (Latin for “Now is the time to drink”). How he got that name, I’m not entirely sure. At any rate, the world came to know their masic simply as “The Michelin Man.”
The Bibendum character was refined over the years from a cigar-smoking bicycle rider to a jovial paunchy Michelin cheerleader. In the meantime, around 1911 in London, the Michelin Building was built, with offices upstairs and a one-stop Michelin shop for all your automotive needs on the ground floor.
The iconic building remains intact, sporting a unique blended aesthetic style of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, redolent with stained glass and decorative tile work. It’s located in the heart of Kensington about a dozen walking blocks west of Harrod’s, where Fulham Road and Pelham meet.
However, in late 1980, as the tire and automotive business evolved, the building became obsolete for the retail tire business.
So it was that in 1987, designer and restaurateur Terrance Conran stepped up and converted the building, part of which included his new BIBENDUM RESTAURANT. This smart, two-level restaurant featured British-influenced French cuisine on the upper level and an oyster bar on the ground floor. While receiving lots of press from the London newspapers, the restaurant was viciously expensive, and by 2015 it had faded and was no longer relevant.
Enter Claude Bosi, the cheerful French bruiser of a chef fresh from the world-acclaimed, two Michelin-starred HIBISCUS restaurant in London’s Mayfair neighborhood.
Although Bosi was never one to hew to tradition, he chose to retain some Bibendum classics, including garlicky, butter loaded escargot, langoustines with mayo, gnocchi with wild mushrooms, and smoked salmon roll-ups, alongside palate-stretching dishes such as rabbit with langoustines.
Bosi has also brought the prices back to the real world. Joanne and I noted recently that a Prix Fixe lunch was featured at about $46.
Joanne and I have dined at Bibendum on several occasions, although never in the expensive upstairs dining room. Our preference was – and still is – the more affordable ground floor OYSTER BAR. Maybe it’s because we are continually searching for ideas on behalf of the oyster bars at both SALUT restaurants.
On our visit last June, we noticed that the Oyster Bar had been refitted with a sleek and modern flavor, all in a “very Chelsea way – i.e. laid-back luxury, with Michelin tire-like chairs designed by Eileen Gray and upholstered in supple saddle tan leather.
Maybe it’s age, but I preferred the previous look. It felt more workman-like…less decorated. But no matter. The food is still superb.
On our dining occasions (always for lunch), Joanne typically opts for the spinach salad with fresh figs, goat cheese and toasted slivered almonds, or she’ll choose the Tuna Nicoise salad with the canned Italian tuna (yes, that’s the right way: using high-quality tuna canned in olive oil. We could never get away with that in Minnesota, where the expectation is seared fresh Ahi tuna). We shared Oysters Rockefeller, too, and some just-shucked, pristine and briny oysters.
On both lunches we finished with a wonderful cheese plate of British Cheeses including a pungent and spreadable slab of Stilton – a worthy rival to French Roquefort.
So here’s the irony.
The most prestigious, well-respected, famous restaurant guide book on the face of the Earth is THE MICHELIN GUIDE.
And yet….and yet…..
Despite being named for the brand’s mascot, Bibendum has NEVER, EVER been awarded a Michelin Star.
The best they have done is three knives and forks (in red), which means a delightful and comfortable restaurant. Perhaps Claude Bosi will fix that.
After all, in a recent review in the London Guardian, Jay Rayner said, “The sunlight [in the upper level dining room] feels like a room where only good things happen.” And he ended his commentary with, “Welcome back, BIBENDUM. I’ve missed you.”