The Michelin Guide is back in Southern California, following tonight’s awards ceremony down in Huntington Beach. For a full list of starred winners you can head over here, but for a look at what the guide got right and wrong (hint: a lot) keep reading below.
A Missed Opportunity
Boy oh boy, what a non-surprise. The much-hyped return of the Michelin Guide to Southern California came nearly a decade removed from the company’s bitter words of departure after three years here, with the then-director saying on the way out the door that “the people of Los Angeles are not real foodies... they are not too interested in eating well.” The return to greater LA, as part of Michelin’s new all-California guide, seemed for a brief moment as though it could actually land its own fanbase of diners who know the name from elsewhere and wanted to see it applied locally. Except, well...Michelin didn’t actually seem to care much about how Angelenos actually eat here.
Check this out: There were no Thai restaurants awarded any stars this year. There were no Korean restaurants awarded any stars, either, or Filipino restaurants. The only Mexican restaurant, Taco Maria, is in Orange County (Californios has stars up in the Bay Area, however); the only San Gabriel Valley restaurant to make the list was the upscale Bistro Na’s in Temple City.
Where were the Mariscos Jaliscos of the world, or the Bestias for that matter? No Chengdu Taste or Sichuan Impression or even Triniti or Destroyer? What about slightly more elevated (but still California casual) names like Felix, Bavel, Republique, or Lukshon? Even Silver Bough, Phillip Frankland Lee’s pricey tasting menu restaurant up in Montecito, seemed built for a star or three, but apparently didn’t actually impress Michelin this year.
Now, let’s be clear: There are plenty of deserving names on this new list of starred restaurants in and around Los Angeles, including Jon Yao’s Taiwanese tasting menu hit Kato and the new Hatayo at the Row in Downtown. Rustic Canyon, Le Comptoir, and Kali helped to keep the California cooking ethos alive with one-star wins, and kudos to newcomer Somni for cracking the two-star barrier. But really, when restaurants like Vespertine and n/naka can’t earn a three despite being among the most engaging meals anywhere in America, something is wrong with the system, not the city.
So what’s next? For the Michelin Guide, don’t be surprised if they move very few copies of their red book here in Los Angeles, given the company’s lack of depth in reaching real LA dining consumers where they’re at. But for those restaurants on the cusp of a star — or looking to add one or two more — there is likely a long year ahead. Now that the guide is officially (again) a part of the dining conversation in Southern California, restaurants will have a full year to plot and prepare their menus and dining rooms, which all leads to the inevitable next question: What will Michelin Guide 2020 look like? —Farley Elliott
More of the Same, But Room to Grow
What’s the purpose of the Michelin Guide? For the guide itself, it’s to get the funding (in this case, from Visit California and Visit Sacramento the tune of $600,000) to do guides like the one announced today. Michelin cuts deals with cities and tourism boards from around the world to fund its pricey dining guide. This happened in Seoul, Singapore, Taipei, and Bangkok.
So here in California, and by extension, Los Angeles, Michelin wants to maintain a semblance of relevance in one of the world’s great dining cities. It gets to flex its authority in Southern California after reviewing the Bay Area and its environs for the past fifteen years. When the Michelin Guide reviewed LA for a two-year period back in 2008 to 2010, it awarded stars to predictable fine dining bastions. Places like Melisse (now closed), La Botte (now closed), and Providence (which maintained its two-star rating after nearly a decade). Then the Guide supposedly left the city because, as its former director said, “the people of Los Angeles are not real foodies.”
That was ten years ago, but LA’s dining scene has developed and evolved since then. The restaurants are stronger, more varied, and better operated than ever before. But Michelin’s recipe hasn’t changed. Though the guide has awarded one star to ramen shops in Tokyo, a hawker stall in Singapore, and a street stand in Bangkok, LA didn’t land any Michelin star taco trucks. No Korean restaurant received a star. Only one single SGV restaurant, Bistro Na’s, got a star (though a good number did receive Bib Gourmand designations).
A lot of LA’s star recipients look familiar: Providence, Urasawa, Osteria Mozza, and Mori Sushi, all of whom received stars ten years ago. Other recipients look like a short list of fancy dining picks: Dialogue, N/Naka, Vespertine, Q Sushi, Trois Mec, Rustic Canyon, and Maude. Michelin isn’t in the business of getting people to know and understand a city’s food scene from top to bottom. It’s just trying to keep its authority of being an aspirational guide for chefs and big money restaurants.
As long as people understand those intentions, it helps contextualize the guide for Angeleno diners, who clearly aren’t the target audience. What LA residents can consider is, which restaurants received attention for their work? At a time when the LA Times critics aren’t awarding stars, or when trust in Yelp is at a low water mark, local diners are looking for recommendations and suggestions. The Michelin Guide put some big spotlights on beloved local places like Kato, Kali, Le Comptoir, Hayato, and Shin Sushi (the last of which was probably the least heralded and expected of the bunch). Bistro Na’s, a high-end Chinese restaurant in Temple City, gets to boast to the hundreds of its restaurant neighbors that it received the Michelin accolade. And six LA restaurants that received two stars get to try and aim for the coveted three star award, which seven establishments now hold in the Bay Area.
Assuming the Michelin Guide will continue to reap some financial benefit from reviewing California restaurants, LA, Orange County, San Diego, and Santa Barbara restaurants have something to reach for, something to attain, and something to boast about. It means more tourist dollars in Los Angeles, bolstering jobs, careers, and reputations. And finally, it places LA on the international dining map. Cooks, chefs, and front-of-house professionals can now compare their experiences to the rest of the world. Angeleno diners can check the list and see how it compares to their own favorites, but they will ultimately spend their dollars where they always have — at taco stands, noodle spots, Korean barbecues, and fried chicken shops that reflect the colorful intersection of flavors and cultures in LA. —Matthew Kang