The rise of the ‘gourmet cluster’ – and the small towns with the most Michelin stars per capita

A very cool study by The Telegraph out of the UK looked at small towns around the world that have a relatively high proportion of Michelin star restaurants comparatively to their population.

It demonstrates that you don’t have to be a large urban centre to enjoy fine dining.

Read the Article The Telegraph Website Here

There seem to be two primary reasons why a cluster of Michelin star restaurants would aggregate together in a small town setting.

One, a spectacular natural setting.  Whether that is a mountainside village in the Alps, a seaside resort, or among the vineyards in Napa Valley.  The setting acts as a natural accompaniment to the fine dining experience.  Two, a chef’s primary residence.  A chef may open several restaurants in close proximity to where they either grew up, or where they currently live.  If these restaurants become a culinary destination and draw upon a regional population base (as well as food tourism), other fine dining restaurants may naturally cluster around them.

Telefono Gratuito Restaurante-Martin-berasategui

Restaurante Martin Berasategui (Image credit: Telefono Gratis)


Restaurant Clustering… First Thoughts

Over the next few months, I am going to take time to investigate restaurant clustering and how/why they are formed from a spatial and development standpoint.  When you look at the downtown of a major city such as Vancouver or Toronto, it is standard to find large clusters of restaurants spread throughout the downtown core.  The variety and mix can be staggering; from grab and go to fine dining, and food from many ethnic backgrounds.  These vendors cater to local residents, tourists, office employees, students, as well as those from suburban areas who have made a day trip for shopping, sports, or a cultural event.  The critical mass of various potential consumers in a downtown area allow vendors to cast a wide net throughout the day for customers.

These restaurant clusters become social spaces for the community.  They act as places for lunch meetings, birthday parties, anniversary dinners, a night out with friends.

Downtown settings are systematically different from a built-form perspective across Canada and the United States.  While Vancouver and Toronto have the density of local residents, employees, tourists, students, and day-trippers to allow for very large restaurant clusters to emerge (such as as Gastown or Yaletown in Vancouver, and Queen Street West or King Street West in Toronto), many other cities do not feature such attributes.


Chill Winston patio in Vancouver’s popular foodie destination, the Gastown neighbourhood – Image credited to Scout Magazine

The City of Edmonton has only recently begun to see high density residential development emerge in the downtown core.  The downtown previously has been solely an employment and civic center, thus once 5:30pm hits, it is unable to keep the critical mass required for a restaurant cluster to survive.  Edmonton has their restaurant cluster south of downtown in the Strathcona neighbourhood.  The area has an established residential base, is adjacent to the University of Alberta, and has a strong retail concentration along Whyte Avenue.

What happens as you move outside of the downtown core and into a less dense suburban setting?  For the most part, you lose the connective tissue and critical mass of people required for a restaurant cluster to succeed.  This has allowed chain restaurants and fast food outlets to take hold of suburban markets, which are usually interspersed with strip plazas and power centers.  This type of built form forces local residents to drive directly to the restaurant, rather than walk in a specific area and select from a variety of choices.  There may be no other reason to return to the area aside from that one specific restaurant.

One thought process is that similar or “like-minded” restaurants cluster together.  Another other is that these restaurant clusters emerge when they have a critical mass of people throughout the day.  And another is that the built form is conducive to creating a restaurant cluster.  You must also always consider demographics, and the shifts of age, ethnicity, and local familial structures.

I am going to be using case studies over the next few months to analyse and present various clusters of restaurants, discuss how they have emerged, with a focus on my hometown of Vancouver.