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2019 Michelin Guide California
Carlos Salgado of Taco María in Costa Mesa hugs the Michelin Man mascot at the star selection for the 2019 Michelin Guide in Huntington Beach on Monday, June 3, 2019.
Photo by Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

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What the Michelin Guide Got Right (and Wrong) in Los Angeles in 2021

No street food, missing cuisines, and some love for the Central Coast

The Michelin Guide is back (again) in greater Los Angeles, following a one-year pause as a result of the ongoing global pandemic. Still, those anonymous diners must have managed to make it out to many of California’s restaurants over the last year-plus, as the Michelin team awarded a bunch of new stars across the state today. For the full list of new star winners, head here. Below, find Eater LA’s editorial team discussion about what the Michelin group got right, and wrong, for 2021.


Upscale still matters ... to Michelin

One thing is clear: small, intimate sushi and kaiseki restaurants are basically the highest form of dining for Michelin. That, and decadent French or Italian food; those are often the only players Michelin allows to compete for its star designations. It’s inherently a European and Western-centric view of what good food is, and I think by this point, most seasoned Angeleno diners know that the best kind of dining doesn’t rely on those strictures. That being said, I’m happy for the winners here. Let’s run down each of the new local star designations.

Winners

Hayato: An esteemed Japanese destination in Downtown LA’s ROW DTLA gets a second star. Well deserved it seems, and it’ll be even harder now to get a reservation at Brandon Go’s culinary temple.

Mélisse: Josiah Citrin was smart to angle his Santa Monica space into two sections — one for the more casual Citrin, which isn’t actually that casual but still retains a lot of the chef’s stellar execution, and the more formal, intimate Mélisse that only serves a tasting menu. This is a two-star dining destination that seems on par with Michelin’s sensibilities, with the price to match. It’s great to see a legacy fine-dining restaurant like this continue to adapt and serve compelling food.

Gucci Osteria by Massimo Bottura: I haven’t eaten here yet because I haven’t allocated two months of my dining budget for the eventual bill, but I can totally understand why it gets a star here. A restaurant owned by a luxury European fashion brand and operated by a world-famous chef from Italy receives a star. But its Michelin designation shows a complete lack of understanding of what Angeleno diners care about. Michelin has never really cared about representing local food culture, only seeing which places fit into its own constructs of good food. Gucci Osteria barely making a cultural impact on the LA dining scene yet earning this star is evidence of that.

Sushi from Sushi Inaba.
Sushi I-Naba.
Sushi Inaba website

Phenakite: Fantastic award for a chef who has earned every accolade. A great story for LA.

Pasjoli: Certainly one of the top new entries in LA’s dining scene since it opened in 2019. Dave Beran has shifted his focus to Pasjoli after closing Dialogue, which earned one star in the Michelin Guide’s first year back in LA. Well deserved.

Sushi I-Naba: This is Manhattan Beach’s first-ever Michelin star and it goes into a tiny omakase place that, when it first opened a few years ago, went almost completely unnoticed. The prototypical Michelin spot.

Pasta Bar: No one on the planet has wanted a Michelin star more than Phillip Frankland Lee, and now he has two: one for his Encino pasta tasting menu place and another for Sushi Bar in Montecito. Now the mountain has been scaled.

Morihiro: Morihiro Onodera gains a star in his first year of operation, no easy feat. His former restaurant, which still bears his name, retains its Michelin star as well.

Knife Pleat: Former LA chef Tony Esnault takes the upscale French-ish formula to Orange County, and it works.

Question marks

Why do Maude and Le Comptoir still have stars when they haven’t been open basically throughout the duration of the pandemic?

Closures

Trois Mec, Somni, Urasawa. The closures of Trois Mec and Somni were well documented, but it’s interesting that no one (including Eater) really covered the sudden and quiet shutter of the enigmatic and semi-hidden Urasawa, one of LA’s finest temples of Japanese food, and one fraught with legal issues. The $400-plus experience in Beverly Hills had a long history, operating previously as Ginza Sushi-ko under chef Masa Takayama. Hiroyuki Urasawa was Takayama’s apprentice before taking over the spot in 2003. — Matthew Kang


A new lens

While it remains true (and likely always will) that Michelin overlooks some of the best dining destinations in greater Los Angeles — from street food to Korean restaurants — I am heartened to see the inspectors branch out juuuuust a bit, if only geographically. Kudos to Pasta Bar, located in an Encino strip mall; congrats to Phenakite by Minh Phan, housed in a creative co-working space in Hollywood; and a round of applause to Knife Pleat by chef Tony Esnault, who plies his trade inside an Orange County shopping mall.

In that same vein, I’m really pleased to see some of the Central Coast’s most vibrant restaurants earn the recognition that they have long deserved. Bell’s in tiny Los Alamos has been pulling in weekending Angelenos for a few years now, enticing them with wide-open spaces and fine French bistro food (plus some of California’s best barbecue that pops up on weekends). The Bell’s team, fine dining vets who hail from New York City, certainly know how to turn out a winner, and they just recently turned on the lights for their second project, Bar Le Côté in Los Olivos. Now they’ve got their own star to add to the coast’s open skies.

Crackers and anchovies from Bell’s.
Crackers and anchovies from Bell’s.
Farley Elliott

It’s also easy to root for Six Test Kitchen, the diminutive Paso Robles fine-dining restaurant from chef Ricky Odbert, who himself hails from nearby Arroyo Grande. The 12-seater is flush with Central Coast flourishes and luxury ingredients, a nod to Odbert’s past experience cooking at a high level across San Francisco. It’s a rare day when a restaurant that began as an experiment inside of a literal garage can earn itself a new home, and a new star, all in a city with a population that’s less than half of Redondo Beach. (Of course, the two-Michelin-starred Harbor House in Northern California is located in Elk, CA, with a population of around 200).

As for the rest of it, well ... Michelin is going to do whatever it thinks is best. There’s certainly room in LA for more diversity (of cuisine, of people, of price point, and of geographic location) when it comes to these annual guides, but asking year after year for the tire company to address its own inequities isn’t likely to amount to much. Instead, congrats to all those who earned a star or two today for the hard work and achievement, assuming they’ve even worked toward this moment as goal in the first place. For the rest of LA, it’s back to doing what we do best: eating well, without worrying much about awards handed out from on high. — Farley Elliott


Dear Michelin Guide,

I feel like we’ve been in a complex relationship. You ghosted me. Actually, you ghosted all of Los Angeles for over a decade, awarding restaurants in the Bay Area, Northern California, or even outlying areas for a long time, pretending that we don’t exist. But now you’re back. And this time, just like the last one, you’re playing nice and not really offering an explanation about what happened. Why did you leave us so abruptly, only to return to Los Angeles with a bouquet of Michelin stars and a smile?

I am grateful that you awarded Knife Pleat, Sushi I-Naba, Hayato, Melisse, Pasjoli, and Phenakite this year. These restaurants maintain loyalty from regular diners who adore their food. But every single winner is either Japanese, French, Italian, in addition to fine dining from chef Minh Phan. Italian chef Mossimo Bottura is barely two years into his rooftop osteria in Beverly Hills (mostly during the pandemic), while Morihiro’s new menu is a pricey and unusual add to Atwater Village. Also unusual is keeping Le Comptoir’s Michelin status, but no one, as far as we know, can make a reservation at the acclaimed restaurant. From my perspective, this is all a largely Eurocentric view of what you consider notable.

Though a formidable list, the 2021 awardees barely scratch the surface of what Los Angeles represents. I always look at what’s missing as well as the snubs, which amount to the qualities and food genres that span Mexican, Taiwanese, Thai, much of the Middle East, Korean, Black- and Latino-owned eateries, Chinese, plant-based, and many more cuisines this city excels at.

Grilled meats, rice, beans, farofa, and salsa at Wood Spoon on a flower-decorated plate.
Grilled meats, rice, beans, and farofa from WoodSpoon in Downtown LA, a recent recipient of the Michelin Bib Gourmand designation.
Wonho Frank Lee/Eater LA

We could make up, but that would mean a lot of couples therapy. But before we have our first session, I would recommend analyzing the vastness of Southern California. In fact, the entire state is massive, yet no three stars awarded to any restaurant in a state that has 40 million people? Is it impossible for Los Angeles or any California restaurant to gain Michelin’s recognition for the coveted award for “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey?”

Speaking of California, why the high concentration of Michelin awards in the Bay Area? No one is saying the awards given to San Francisco, Oakland, and Wine Country were undeserved, but you’ve been concentrating on the Bay Area for some time. Los Angeles needs that same type of rigorous exploration and focus.

As for the Bib Gourmands (“a good quality menu for a modest price”), Los Angeles embodies this. It is entirely possible to locate an incredible meal for under $40 throughout the county. You announced LA’s winners earlier this month, with extraordinary choices like Bettina, La Azteca, and WoodSpoon, but you managed to exclude all ramen restaurants in America’s ramen capital.

We’re a pleasant lot, us 10 million Los Angeles County residents who live in our distinct neighborhoods. Those areas are filled with dining destinations by restaurant owners, chefs, and experienced staff who create conversations around food and impact the culture beyond our borders.

I’m glad you’re back. But we’ve got deep work to do. — Mona Holmes

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