High-end restaurants add star quality to Macau’s IRs

Nineteen. That’s how many Michelin-star restaurants Macau has racked up to date, firmly establishing the former Portuguese colony as a gastronomic powerhouse on the world’s culinary stage. 

In fact, the 30 stars awarded to these 19 properties makes Macau, which is home to more than 600,000 people, one of the leading cities for stars per head of the population. For the leading IRs, a lavish Michelin-starred restaurant serving up cutting-edge dishes and a world-renowned chef installed at the helm has almost become the ultimate status symbol in the Special Administrative Region.

Filipe Senna Fernandes, catering sales manager for MGM Macau and VP of the supervisory board for MISE (Macau Meetings, Incentives and Special Events), says: “From an hotel perspective, a fine dining experience – somewhat similar to a shopping experience – is not only a way to differentiate from competition, but is also a non-gaming offering to attract and retain the VIP segment, which has become smaller in size, but has grown to become more sophisticated.” 

Taipa’s Grand Lisboa houses two of Macau’s three restaurants to be awarded a coveted three Michelin stars: The Eight with its mix of Cantonese and Huaiyang, and the Robuchon au Dôme with its French contemporary menu. The other establishment in this elite club is the Cantonese-inspired Jade Garden at Cotai’s City of Dreams. Those holding two stars are Tasting Room at City of Dreams, Golden Flower and Mizumi at Wynn Macau, and StarWorld Macau’s Feng Wei Ju. Legendary French-born Monegasque chef Alain Ducasse’s eponymous restaurant, situated on the third floor of the Morpheus Hotel, rounds off the list.   

Another 11 restaurants in the world’s largest gambling hub have been bestowed one-star status by the esteemed Michelin Guide. “It is certainly special and rare to have 19 Michelin-starred restaurants in a city of just 30 square kilometres,” says Desmond Lam, professor of integrated resorts and tourism management at the University of Macau. “I think Michelin-starred Chinese restaurants are popular as they brought out the uniqueness of dining in this part of the world. But all 19 Michelin-starred restaurants are good in helping to create special experiences to our visitors.”

 Meanwhile, Shaun McCamley, managing partner of Euro Pacific Asia Consulting, says Macau offers not only the “very best in fine dining for high-end VIP players” visiting from the Mainland and elsewhere, but also unique flexibility. “If a VIP player walks into the property’s headline fine dining outlet and asks for noodles and rice soup, he gets it without question or raised eyebrows. I’m not sure that would happen in a Michelin-starred property in Europe or the US.”

 With its distinctive fusion of Asian and Portuguese flavours, which gave birth to Macanese food more than 400 years ago, the city has long been synonymous with cuisine, whether that be upmarket restaurants or mom-and-pop eateries. Indeed, for years many Hong Kongers have taken the one-hour ferry ride to Macau solely for a meal out. Yet with the influx of tourists from Mainland China and further afield, the authorities have made a concerted effort to elevate Macau’s standing into a premier destination for high-end cuisine. “In the past few years, the Macau government has deliberately positioned Macau as a city of gastronomy,” Lam says.

Moreover, it is another step towards diversifying Macau from being a gaming-focused destination. The Statistics and Census Bureau recently announced that gaming and junket businesses accounted for over half (50.5 percent) of the city’s GDP. For the resorts, each unveiling of a glitzy restaurant generates headlines and a real buzz of excitement for their respective properties. And each resort tries to outdo the competition with ever-more dazzling interiors to impress their diners. A case in point is Morpheus, designed by the late renowned architect Dame Zaha Hadid, which opened at the City of Dreams in June 2018, with over 600 Lasvit-designed crystal chandeliers suspended from the ceiling of Ducasse’s restaurant.

So, just how important is fine dining, and dining more generally, for these properties from a revenue standpoint? Most agree they are not major contributors.

“These fine dining restaurants are subsidized and supported by casino gaming, so their price points are fairly accessible if you compare to Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe, for instance,” MGM’s Senna Fernandes says.

McCamley adds, “Unlike Europe or the US, food and beverage in Asia is viewed very much as a support function to the gaming department, which means most, if not all, either run at breakeven, or some even at a loss.” 

“Headline high-end western brands don’t generate any real interest or excitement; what the VIP players here want are top-of-the-line exotic dishes prepared by top Asian chefs who know what the market’s tastes are and, importantly, what the market craves.”

 While gourmet dining is now a must-have element of any IR, not just in Macau, Lam wouldn’t go as far to call these restaurants ‘loss-leaders’ for the city’s properties. “I would not consider them as loss-leaders but an added attraction to our visitors, expanding and diversifying our customer base beyond just gaming customers. Their continued presence will only add value to Macau’s economy. These lavish restaurants help provide more unique experiences to our visitors, other than gaming and I believe they will continue to excel and help Macau to achieve its aim of diversifying out of a gaming-centric economy.”  

 In 2017, Macau underlined its culinary credentials when it joined 25 other cities to hold the coveted “UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy”. It shows that this gaming hub no longer plays second fiddle to Hong Kong in the dining-out stakes and has gained a reputation for attracting some of the world’s top chefs producing experimental, cutting-edge food.