As dedicated eaters are digesting, Michelin finally updated the California guide this week, with a fresh round of stars following a long pandemic wait. Michelin awarded stars to 90 restaurants in California, and the majority (54 to be exact) are in Northern California, including all of the state’s three-star restaurants. On the one hand, it’s an exciting return to normalcy, and diners are hungry for a fresh set of destinations. On the other, it’s a surreal moment following a rough year and a half for restaurants, and the list itself is somewhat strange, including restaurants that are still closed, and as is always up for debate, overlooking many essential destinations.
The new adds: The guide announced two new two-star restaurants and 9 new one-star restaurants for NorCal. Especially exciting, Birdsong clawed a second star this year for its wild woodfired seafood (but let’s agree the viral fried chicken sandwich helped). The Shota is another fan favorite, which rocked fatty tuna boxes during the pandemic, and is now back to serving exquisite omakase. And it was good to see Adega Portuguese restaurant come back after a few years off the list, and represent as the lone star in San Jose. Check out all of the new additions here.
A first star was a big deal and well deserved for one-year-old Marlena. Opening during the pandemic and scrambling through picnic boxes, outdoor dining, and shutdowns only made the honor even more gratifying, according to chef-owners David Fisher and Serena Chow Fisher. “It feels very surreal,” Serena says. “And the fact that it was our anniversary week, that was the icing on the cake.” David agrees, adding, “The guide and the stars mean a return to normalcy, which is refreshing, after how hard we’ve worked this past year. It’s great news for the team. There were really tough days. We scraped by.”
The fresh cuts: After sifting through the full guide, inspectors appear to have cut 15 restaurants from two years ago. Most were closures, including the three-star Restaurant at Meadowood, which burned to the ground in the wildfires. And a few have now pivoted beyond recognition: Lord Stanley rotating pop-ups, Nico baking brioche, and Michael Mina flipping into Greek seafood. But a few cut to the bone: Octavia, Rich Table, Hashiri, and Luce in SF, Bouchon in Napa, and Farmhouse Inn in Sonoma. Even though in this writer’s humble opinion, Octavia reopened incandescently, with a fresh corn lasagna that’s been getting rave reviews, and Rich Table remains an essential restaurant in our readers’ eyes.
Some chefs were more gracious than others. Melissa Perello went out like a class act, personally thanking her team. And then there was this guy, chef Bruno Chemel of Baumé in Palo Alto, which lost not one but two stars, and says he couldn’t care less, so much so that he went on a whole rant about it.
Strangely the guide included a couple of restaurants that are still closed. Bar Crenn kept its star even though it has been closed the entire pandemic, and Atelier Crenn is currently using the space as an extension of their dining room. Kin Khao held onto its star even though its dining room within the Parc 55 Hotel remains dark. Kin Khao didn’t exactly close, it temporarily relocated to the Dogpatch, where it was serving a casual menu before closing at that location in August. But while the currently closed Kin Khao kept its star, the dazzling Nari only received a Bib Gourmand.
“I have no idea why. It’s not like they asked me,” disclaims chef and owner Pim Techamuanvivit. But at the end of the day, she says her entire team worked hard across both Kin Khao and Nari this hellacious year. “We’re happy with any recognition,” Techamuanvivit says. “Michelin is like any other review or critic. We don’t have a say. We’re just grateful.”
Also nonsensical is pricing, because at least for their most recent menus, you would think Nari would deserve a fine dining star, whereas Kin Khao Dogpatch might have been the better fit for the affordable Bib, given all the takeout chicken wings. Supposedly, Michelin says it should be “possible to order two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for around $40 or less.” The tasting menu at Nari is $95 per person. But then again, when’s the last time you escaped a restaurant in SF for $40 or less? And scanning the full list of Bib Gourmands, this demonstrably is not a hard-and-fast rule. Case in point: Routier, where the lobster grand aioli is $45.
In terms of representation, as per usual, Michelin skews French, Japanese, and fine dining. The Bibs do seem to be at least attempting to get more diverse, with a trio of new taco spots reaching deeper into the East Bay: Los Carnalitos, Taquería El Paisa, and Tacos Oscar. Then again, the guide also over indexes on big restaurant groups. Bacchus now has three-starred restaurants with Spruce, the Village Pub, and the addition of Selby’s this year. Atelier Crenn and Bar Crenn, State Bird and the Progress, Saison and Angler, and Omakase and Niku all have double stars.
George Chen of China Live openly says he was hoping for two stars, but Eight Tables by George Chen was overlooked again this year. Chen says most of his team came from star kitchens, and as a judge for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, he’s dined at Michelin stars around the world. “They’re biased. To not even recognize us with one star is a joke,” Chen says. “They think of Chinese food with the same perception. You can’t charge that for Chinese. Maybe a Japanese or Korean tasting menu, but Chinese is relegated to a big dog pile of cheap Chinese food in big portions.” He points out that while there are plenty of Chinese restaurants with Bibs, there remains only one Chinese restaurant with a star in San Francisco (Mister Jiu’s). There isn’t even one in New York. There are only two starred restaurants classified as serving Chinese cuisine across the entire United States.