The Michelin Guide’s Not Entirely Welcome Return to L.A.
In 2008, during a period of global expansion, the Michelin guide, the revered French handbook of great restaurants, launched a new edition dedicated to the city of Los Angeles. The following year, after only two L.A. guides had been published, Michelin withdrew its attention from the city. The organization behind the guide blamed its departure on the financial crisis, but it was hard for L.A.’s gastronomes to avoid taking it personally: in the wake of the cancellation, Michelin’s director at the time, Jean-Luc Naret, declared that “the people in Los Angeles are not real foodies. They are not too interested in eating well, but just in who goes to which restaurant and where they sit.” L.A.’s high-end dining scene was left with a sense of whiplash, unsure of its place in the broader culinary world. In the years since, this uncertainty has simmered into a stew of longing and resentment. The guide may have been, as the late critic Jonathan Gold put it, “ignorant of the way Angelenos eat, reading as if it was put together by a team too timid to venture further than a few minutes from their Beverly Hills hotel.” But at least Michelin had cared enough to show up.
On Monday night, after a decade of studied inattention, the Michelin guide again rained its stars on starry Los Angeles. The timing is remarkable. The city, which has always been an excellent place to find a meal, has in the past few years become an exceptional one. The inventiveness, skill, and beauty of its restaurants (and street carts, food trucks, and back-room dining clubs) arguably makes it the great American food city, a title that once indisputably belonged to New York, or San Francisco, or Chicago, depending on whom you ask. The flourishing of L.A.’s food scene has made its lack of Michelin approbation all the more glaring and, to many of the city’s chefs, restaurateurs, and other fooderati, infuriating. For the past four years, Eater Los Angeles has published an annual “Hypothetical Michelin Guide,” filling in where the actual organization was missing. Now, at last, Michelin is back in L.A.—and also in the rest of California. The new guide, which made its début at a glitzy beachside gala at a hotel in Orange County on Monday night, covers restaurants all over the state, replacing (and absorbing) Michelin’s long-running guide for the San Francisco Bay area.
The first Guide Michelin was published, in France, in 1900, by the tire company of the same name, as a gambit intended to boost interest in the automobile, a fledgling invention at the time. Early editions of the guide included restaurant listings jumbled with other information useful to the motorist: hotels, petrol stations, road maps. By the mid-nineteen-twenties, the guide had expanded to much of Western Europe and was using single stars to denote particularly good restaurants. In 1931, the system was broadened to include rankings from zero stars to three. The guide is still very much a driver’s manual, emphasizing that its stars indicate a restaurant’s quality relative to the effort required to get there. A two-star restaurant “mérite un détour” (is worth a detour). A three-star restaurant “vaut le voyage”—is deserving of a journey for its own sake.
For more than a century, Michelin stayed within Europe; the first guide outside the continent, covering New York, was published in 2005, followed by editions for Tokyo, Las Vegas, Hong Kong, and Los Angeles. Of the guide’s twenty-eight editions, only two, for Los Angeles and Las Vegas, have ever ceased publication. Several, including the Taipei and Singapore guides, and now the California guide, are produced in conjunction with the regions’ tourism boards.
The Michelin guide is a powerful economic force. For a certain kind of well-heeled traveller, its recommendations are biblical writ, especially in Europe and Asia; inclusion in the guide—even at the one-star level—can insure a restaurant’s livelihood for years. In certain corners of the fine-dining world, Michelin stars have become synonymous with professional excellence, and many chefs will go to extremes to attain and defend their rankings. When Del Posto, a grand Italianate dining room in Manhattan, lost its second star, in 2009, the restaurant’s owners at the time, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, invested half a million dollars in upgrades, in the hopes of winning it back. (To no avail: the restaurant has hovered at one star for a decade.) In 2003, the French chef Bernard Loiseau, who had struggled with depression, shot himself dead after learning that his restaurant, La Côte d’Or, was likely to lose its third star. Some chefs, overwhelmed by the pressure of Michelin’s standards, have been known to refuse or “return” their stars. The chef Skye Gyngell, who received one star, in 2011, for her British restaurant Petersham Nurseries Café, eventually stopped mentioning it in the restaurant’s promotional materials. “It’s been a curse,” she said in an interview. “If I ever have another restaurant I pray we don’t get a star.”
Michelin is a travel guide, not an award; as such, every restaurant within its designated areas is eligible for stars, like it or not. Michelin’s small army of inspectors—the grand title bestowed on the guide’s staff of professional eaters—is beholden to strict critical guidelines, intended to insure consistency across the various guides. As a result, restaurants pursuing Michelin’s approval tend to implement features that are known to earn high marks: generously spaced tables in the dining room, finely textured napkins, hushed music, white porcelain dishware, finely choreographed service, a French-inflected haute cuisine tasting menu daubed with regional spices and accents and punctuated by gastronomic stunts. The result is a whole class of three-star restaurants that feel, more often than not, like they belong to a global franchise—the Cheesecake Factory with a caviar supplement.
I’ve spent the past few years travelling to Los Angeles as often as possible in order to eat at the city’s brilliant restaurants. It’s occurred to me, more than once, that, as much as the city’s fancy chefs grumble about the lack of Michelin attention, the ultra-high-end restaurants that stand out most in the city are ecstatic departures from the rigid formula that Michelin tends to reward. I’m thinking of a restaurant like Vespertine, a surreal operation housed in an architectural folly in Culver City, where the chef Jordan Kahn serves a four-hour tasting menu that embraces the artistic notion of “difficulty”—a meal that’s intellectually and aesthetically thrilling, even if (by design) not always pleasurable. Ditto n/naka, a California kaiseki restaurant run by the chef Niki Nakayama (whom I profiled earlier this year), which is both exacting and soft—a casual, intimate room in which diners participate in meals of ritualistic formality tempered by bursts of improvisation. Both restaurants are, by my estimation, among the most artful, innovative, and exacting in the world, in large part because they didn’t build themselves specifically to the imposed standards of Michelin, or of anyone else.
Vespertine and n/naka are the two Los Angeles restaurants that Eater’s hypothetical Michelin guides have awarded three stars. The actual Michelin guide found them each deserving of two—worth a detour if you’re nearby, but not a dedicated trip. In fact, no restaurants in Los Angeles were deemed worthy of a dedicated trip—nor were any newly eligible California restaurants. The only restaurants that received three stars were seven Bay Area establishments, none of them new to the honor. Only one restaurant in Sacramento earned a star; the same goes, bafflingly, for San Diego, home to some of the most phenomenal Japanese and Mexican food in the United States. This uneven distribution of honors might speak less to the quality of restaurants outside the Bay Area than to the challenges of assessing an entire sprawling state. It also highlights the limits of Michelin’s mode of evaluation. Though Southern California is famous for its Mexican and East Asian food, the new state-wide list introduced no starred Korean restaurants to the guide, only one starred Mexican restaurant, and no starred Thai restaurants outside of San Francisco. Despite a precedent set by Michelin’s Singapore guide, which has awarded stars to exceptional street-food venders, the California list consists entirely of traditional brick-and-mortar establishments.
In L.A., Michelin gave six restaurants two stars. Apart from Vespertine and n/naka, all of them are consistent with Michelin favorites elsewhere: refined, moneyed, and taking their culinary cues from Europe or Japan. All of them are reverential, referential, and luxuriously bland. “Today we did not find additional restaurants at the three star level,” Michelin’s current director, Gwendal Poullennec, said on Monday, after the new guide was released. “But obviously the destination still has a lot of potential at all the levels.” Michelin is known for holding back three-star ratings when it first enters a new region. The San Francisco guide launched with just one three-star establishment. Michelin seems to relish the narrative that restaurants must labor to greatness over a period of years, eking out their stars one by one. Some chefs have no intention of playing along. “Los Angeles has become the best food city in the country in large part because we aren’t cooking for stars,” Royce Burke, the chef of the vegetarian café Yarrow, told Eater L.A. when the new guide was announced. “We cook for our neighbors, our communities, and ourselves.”