Following years of rumors, the tire-making gourmands of Michelin have announced their grand return to Los Angeles: 10 years after the last Los Angeles Michelin guide was released, the restaurant-ranking brand announced that a guide to California will hit shelves by this summer, reports the LA Times. The new book will cover Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, the California Coast, and more. It’ll join Michelin’s annual guide to San Francisco, which has been published since 2006, and three other U.S.-based guides that cover New York City, Chicago, and Washington, DC.
This is Michelin’s second foray into Southern California: a guide operated in LA for two years, 2008 and 2009, before being folded in the midst of the recession. In that time, no restaurants were awarded three stars; in the final edition, Providence, Melisse, Spago, and Urusawa each achieved two stars — a pretty expected mix, per Eater LA’s reporting at the time. And Michelin, as Eater LA points out now, left the region with some choice words. In an interview given to Esquire in 2011, then-director Jean-Luc Naret criticized the caliber of LA diners, saying, “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.”
Today, Los Angeles has no shortage of long-format menus that combine technique with pristine ingredients, what many would consider the hallmarks of a Michelin-starred restaurant. But what Los Angeles does remain relatively short on is the accoutrement that Michelin historically favors for its highest three-star ratings: white table cloths, dress codes, and synchronized service. There’s plenty of fine dining in LA, it’s just not always in a fancy dining room. And it’s too soon to say whether Michelin’s inspectors will *get* it.
”I would love it if the future [of dining] was like some Blade Runner mixture of everything, where you can’t really distinguish what’s what,” David Chang told me last year when I asked him to think about what fine dining meant in Los Angeles. “Fine dining in California, particularly Los Angeles, is about exactly that… and LA has been doing it longer than anyone else; there’s a sense of it being more casual. It doesn’t mean it can’t be serious… The effort and the vision and the passion behind it is fine dining, but it comes out in a very casual setting.”
If the guide embraces Los Angeles and, more broadly, the Southern California way of dining, there’s a chance for Michelin to instantly make itself far more relevant than it has felt in recent years. But more likely, many great restaurants will be left out of the two- and three-star heights because the setting and service are just too casual to share the same ranking as other California heavyweights like the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, CA or Benu in San Francisco.
I spoke with several LA chefs last year when rumors regarding Michelin’s return were reaching a fever pitch — fueled, perhaps, by a flurry of openings that would seemingly fit into Michelin’s wheelhouse. James Beard Award-winner Dave Beran had opened his tasting menu destination Dialogue; Jordan Kahn had opened the experimental tasting menu venue Vespertine; even Chang’s downtown LA debut Majordomo had the slick service and the luxury ingredients that could bring a Michelin inspector in. The reasons to launch the guide now, just like last year, remain true: Los Angeles is simply one of the best dining cities in the world, and it’s a city routinely overlooked by major awards programs like World’s 50 Best and snubbed by the James Beard Awards. If Michelin stakes its claim, it can beat its competition to an expertise in the region.
But even before the high-profile openings of Dialogue and Vespertine, luxury dining has long been a part of LA — Michelin won’t deserve the credit for (re)discovering it. America’s love affair with high-end sushi has roots in Los Angeles, where Masa Takayama plied his trade long before running the most expensive omakase in the country.
For veterans of Los Angeles’s white-tablecloth restaurants, both the cooks and diners have changed since Michelin was last in town. Josiah Citrin, the chef/owner of Melisse, which last had two stars in the 2009 Michelin guide and is currently closed for a major revamp, says cooks have gotten more focused, seeking out experience at Melisse specifically to learn fine dining techniques and tenants. “Let’s talk about 20 years ago,” he said on the phone with me last spring. “I don’t think there were other options to learn how to cook good food with great ingredients. You went to these fine dining restaurants, either what we were in LA at that time, or in anywhere in the country. There wasn’t this in between.” Today, the cooks he sees joining the team at Melisse are “really into this kind of dining, this kind of cooking, this kind of plateware.”
Chef Michael Cimarusti and his business partner Donato Poto of Los Angeles’s Providence — which earned two stars 2009 — agreed. Since Michelin left, the partners have opened several casual restaurants, while continuing to hone in on what fine dining means over at their flagship. “The landscape here in LA is just much, much broader than it was before. Obviously, it’s a much deeper pool than it used to be, and by and large, I think that’s a good thing,” Cimarusti said during the last Michelin rumor cycle. “I think people in general are much more informed when they walk through the door.” That means cooks, servers, and, importantly, diners.
Nyesha Arrington, an alum of fine dining kitchens like Melisse and Robuchon in Vegas and the chef of Native in Santa Monica, also noted that some of the highest-touch experiences in Los Angeles aren’t open to the public — or Michelin inspectors — at all. Prior to opening Native she “did pretty much only fine dining, but I took it into people’s homes,” Arrington told me last year. Those home kitchens and on-staff private chefs can be competition to a fine dining restaurant in town. “If you look at it from a black and white perspective, this person’s not going to your dining establishment to do this [tasting menu experience]. But that [private] chef is offering that, and is running their own small [version] of exactly what you’re doing.” To Arrington, it’s simply not true to imply that LA’s culinary talent or diners were ever disinterested in Michelin-style cooking; rather, they just weren’t necessarily doing it in restaurants.
Jordan Kahn, of Vespertine, wondered last year whether LA diners would take offense to the return of the guide. “Maybe people are going to have issues with it because Oh, they left, and now they’re coming back because there’s more restaurants here that they think are worthy,” he said. “And it’s like, we’ve always had worthy restaurants.”
Certainly that’s a possibility if the guide chooses to ignore some of Southern California’s greatest restaurants: the taquerias from Los Angeles to Baja, the entire range of Chinese cuisines available in the San Gabriel Valley, or the Indian restaurants of Artesia.
But in its very design, Michelin is more for out-of-towners than locals. Designed to encourage drivers to drive more (and wear their tires down) by recommending restaurants to visit (and boy is there a lot of driving to do here), a California guide can still help restaurants attract an international clientele that still relies on the red book. Cimarusti and Poto told me they still get first-time guests in who learned about Providence from Michelin.
”If Michelin were to come to Los Angeles, I’d be very happy for them. And we would look forward to serving them as we would any other guest in our restaurant,” Kahn said last year. “Certainly we understand their influence, and that’s just not lost on us.”
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater’s restaurant editor.