Michelin stars return to California. Here are this year’s winners
After a year of pandemic hiatus, the Michelin Guide and its authoritative but divisive star rating system have returned to California. On Tuesday morning the international restaurant guidebook revealed its 2021 selections, including five new two-star designations — two of which can be found in Los Angeles.
Michelin stars are bestowed upon restaurants by a team of anonymous inspectors. One star signifies “a very good restaurant in its category,” two stars denotes “excellent cuisine, worth a detour,” while the highly coveted and elusive three-star rating represents “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” (There are still no three-star restaurants in Southern California.)
This year Josiah Citrin’s lauded Santa Monica tasting menu restaurant, Mélisse, has rejoined the Michelin star system with two stars. Mélisse was not awarded stars in 2019, although it earned two of them in the 2008 and 2009 guides to L.A. Brandon Go’s Hayato, an intimate Japanese kaiseki restaurant in the Arts District, also earned two stars in the new listings, up from 2019’s one-star designation.
They join four L.A. restaurants with ongoing two-star ratings.
For Go, the honor is a little surreal — last year, he was worried that he might need to close his restaurant.
After shuttering Hayato for most of 2020, the chef-owner realized he needed to offer some form of service to stay afloat and to retain his highly trained staff. The restaurant began offering its artful takeout bento again until May, then paused to prepare for a mid-June reopening when California would allow indoor dining at full capacity, and the seven-seat dinner service could resume. Even after reopening the dining room, Go wasn’t sure that Hayato could recover; two stars from Michelin, he says, might attract more customers and provide more long-term stability.
“Just thinking about where we were last year — a year ago I didn’t even know if the restaurant was going to make it,” he said. “But we made it through, and it’s just an unbelievable gift to go from that low point to this high point.”
Hayato and Mélisse join n/naka, Providence, Sushi Ginza Onodera and Vespertine on the list of two-star restaurants in the L.A. area. Other new two-star ratings in California include Addison in San Diego, Birdsong in San Francisco and Harbor House in Mendocino County.
Twenty-two restaurants in California were awarded one star for the first time, six of them in the L.A. area: Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura in Beverly Hills, Morihiro Onodera’s Morihiro in Atwater Village, Dave Beran’s Pasjoli in Santa Monica, Phillip Frankland Lee’s Pasta Bar in Encino, Minh Phan’s Phenakite in Hollywood, and Yasuhiro Hirano’s Sushi I-Naba in Manhattan Beach.
Other new one-star designations in Southern California include Jeune et Jolie in Carlsbad, Knife Pleat in Costa Mesa, Soichi in San Diego, Sushi Bar in Montecito and Sushi Tadokoro in San Diego. New Central Coast one-star restaurants include Bell’s in Los Alamos, and Six Test Kitchen in Paso Robles. In Northern California, the honors went to Adega, Avery, Marlena, Niku Steakhouse, O’ by Claude Le Tohic, Selby’s, Sushi Shin, and the Shota, all in San Francisco, as well as Barndiva in Sonoma.
For Phan, 2021 has ready been anniversary-worthy: It’s been 20 years since the Phenakite chef-owner left film and advertising to pursue work in the restaurant industry. As of Sept. 28, it also marks the year she earned her first star.
Upon hearing the news, she says she immediately thought about her team. She believes the accolade recognizes her staff and the tasting-menu restaurant’s ethos of behind-the-scenes patience and positivity. She calls Phenakite’s practices “human-sustainable” and sees the star rating as proof that humane, sustainable kitchens can be just as decorated as traditional, highly regimented and award-driven establishments. The recognition, she explained, could also provide encouragement and direction for younger staff members who aren’t sure how or even whether to navigate a career in the demanding industry.
“It’s important to our team members, who I think will use this as a universal currency,” she said, adding: “I think for my team, who’ve been trying to put together these pieces of how to be a more human-sustainable kitchen, it says we can build a better system and be recognized to do excellent work.”
Accolades aren’t limited just to star ratings. Jon Yao’s Taiwanese tasting menu restaurant, Kato, in West L.A. has held a one-star rating since 2019’s guide, but this year, he won Michelin’s statewide Young Chef Award.
Historically, Michelin’s star ratings — in the U.S. and Europe, especially — tend to reward fine dining, tasting menus and omakase formats, often eschewing street food, casual restaurants and more price-accessible restaurants for its top honors. Michelin’s Plate awards, introduced in 2016, incorporate broader cuisines and price points and signify “very good food.” In 1997 the guide introduced Bib Gourmands, which recognize restaurants serving high-quality cuisine at a more affordable price point; in most U.S. cities, these meals are often three courses for $40 or less.
In 2021’s California guide, 45 new restaurants garnered the Bib Gourmand accolade. Among those that made the list: Bee Taqueria in West Adams, Chifa in Eagle Rock, Colapasta in Santa Monica, Jiang Nan Spring in Alhambra, Kazan in Beverly Hills, Konbi in Echo Park, La Azteca in Belvedere, Luscious Dumplings in Monrovia, Tumbi in Santa Monica and Woodspoon in downtown Los Angeles.
Michelin’s 2021 guide to California can be found at guide.michelin.com/us/en/california.
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