Michelin Shines Star Power on Bay Area Dining Scene

Times Staff Writer

In France, one chef shot himself after rumors that his Michelin stars might be downgraded.

Another grew so weary of the pressure that he closed his elite restaurant to open a homier one and shake the star system. (He couldn’t. Michelin bestowed them on him anyway.)

On Monday, the famed dining guide created by the tire company 106 years ago came to the Bay Area -- only the second North American launch, after last year’s New York debut.

In typical Michelin fashion, the rankings announced in a visit by the French guide’s director were as stingy as some gourmet portions. Just one restaurant -- chef Thomas Keller’s legendary French Laundry -- took the top honor of three stars, making his Napa Valley establishment the 59th in the world so designated. (Four New York restaurants won three stars last year, among them Keller’s Per Se.)


The list of two- and one-star rankings inspired everything from glee to the same sour musings stirred in New York: that the guide misunderstood the true complexity of Bay Area food by being too, well, French.

“It fits into the whole Michelin modus operandi, to show that they are in charge,” said an underwhelmed Gary Danko, whose eponymous San Francisco restaurant has received top honors from the populist Zagat guide but earned one Michelin star. “Michelin is predisposed to rating French-styled and -setup restaurants. It’s just the way they operate.”

Unanimity came only in the form of civic pride: After all, the Bay Area received Michelin’s grueling top-secret analysis before Los Angeles.

“San Francisco is a natural choice after New York City,” guide director Jean-Luc Naret said in an interview Monday, praising the region for birthing the organic food revolution and building the “foundation of California cuisine.”


“When you go to restaurants here, everyone is a foodie,” Naret said. “Everyone talks about the food all the time. In L.A. maybe you have incredible and beautiful movie stars. But here, the celebrity stars are the chefs.”

Naret was mum about when Los Angeles chefs will share similar agony and honor, but it could be now: L.A., Chicago and Miami are among the U.S. cities Michelin floated as its next project, and Naret said clandestine inspectors had already tucked in their bibs at the target location. “We want to keep everyone on their toes,” he said coyly.

News in April of the coming San Francisco, Bay Area & Wine Country 2007 guide prompted plenty of chest puffing. “Neener, neener, neener,” teased Convention and Visitors Bureau spokeswoman Laurie Armstrong, who said San Francisco boasts more restaurants per capita than any U.S. city.

Added Daniel Scherotter, a restaurateur and vice president of the Golden Gate Restaurant Assn.: “The reason Angelenos come to San Francisco to eat is because our food is more about ingredient-driven, organic, free-range, sustainable, fresh-right-from-the-backyard, seasonal food than it is about some chef’s ego and how high he can pile” it.

Los Angeles’ Nancy Silverton, who co-founded Campanile and La Brea Bakery and is poised to open the anticipated Mozza with Mario Batali, called the Bay Area’s prestige recent. It was only after economic depression, riots and fire that the Southland lost its standing, but “Los Angeles is catching up again,” she said. “We may not have as much, but what we have -- it doesn’t get any better.”

“I would prefer Michelin doesn’t come to Los Angeles,” Silverton joked. “It’s easy to say, ‘Who cares about a star or not?’ But the truth of the matter is everyone does.”

For years, tourists have planned European vacations around the guide, and just one star is considered an honor.

“You hear of chefs who waited 18 years to get three stars,” said Ron Siegel, chef of the Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton.


But Michelin’s North American incursion came as the red guide’s stature in Europe took a bruising: Esteemed chefs have criticized the excessive pressures, and scandal erupted after one restaurant was ranked before it opened. In New York, critics sniffed that the three-star picks were French-focused and the one-star picks uneven.

Here, European tourists who flock to San Francisco are likely to understand the guide’s import. But locals may still listen primarily to the San Francisco Chronicle or Zagat, which has fashioned its reviews from the opinions of the dining masses for nearly two decades.

Michelin described the French Laundry’s cuisine as “sheer poetry on the plate.”

For Keller, whose early icons were three-star French Michelin chefs, earning the only three-star stamp on the West Coast is “overwhelming.”

Naret arrived from Paris on Sunday and drove to the French Laundry to deliver word in person. “I don’t want to say that my chest almost exploded, but it was this welling up of pride,” Keller said. “I flashed back on all the work I’ve done for 25 years, and all the staffs that have been in this kitchen for 12 years.”

The selection did not surprise critics: The French Laundry has built an international reputation over the years, booking months in advance for its $210 prix fixe tasting menus, with dishes such as “oysters and pearls” -- a “sabayon of pearl tapioca with beau soleil oysters and Russian sevruga caviar.”

Two-star winners were equally thrilled. Chef and co-owner Douglas Keane of Cyrus, in Healdsburg, said he introduced his champagne and caviar cart, wheeled to arriving guests with warm canapes, after experiencing a similar pleasure at a three-star restaurant in France.

Chronicle executive food and wine editor Michael Bauer said the rankings were “hard to make sense of” and “don’t really give a very good character of our food here.” Alice Waters’ pioneering Chez Panisse got just one star, and a number of strong restaurants got none. The Mission District restaurant Range, a newcomer, won one star, something Bauer applauded. But where were the other restaurants in Range’s range?


“Probably there are a lot of bruised egos,” Bauer said. “We like to think we have it all here. Basically, you’ve got this foreign group coming in and saying, ‘No, you don’t.’ I don’t know if it’s a wake-up call or we’re just going to become even more provincial and say, ‘Screw ‘em!’ ”




Michelin ratings

Michelin inspectors visited nearly 1,000 Bay Area restaurants and listed 356 of them in the guide. Stars were reserved for the top 28.


Three stars, defined as “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey":

The French Laundry, Yountville


Two stars, defined as “excellent cuisine, worth a detour":

Aqua, San Francisco

Cyrus, Healdsburg

Manresa, Los Gatos

Michael Mina, San Francisco


One star, defined as “a very good restaurant in its category,” was awarded to 23 restaurants, including Chez Panisse, Berkeley.

Los Angeles Times