The California Michelin Guide Just Dropped And It's Actually Not Terrible

The announcement of the Michelin Guide California on June 3, 2019 in Huntington Beach. (Elina Shatkin/LAist)

The restaurants in the 2019 Michelin Guide California were announced today and if you go by the numbers, Los Angeles did well. Really well.

More than a good showing for Southern California, this book is a mea culpa of sorts for the French tire company. The Michelin Guide needs Los Angeles far more than Los Angeles needs the Michelin Guide.

The last time the guide was here, in 2009, it slunk out of Los Angeles with its tail tucked between its skinny French legs.

A decade later, amid a world of hyperlocal apps and droolworthy Insta feeds, how does a deeply eurocentric guide with a target audience of wealthy foreign tourists stay relevant? It broadens its POV. Or at least it tries to.

The 2019 Michelin Guide California. (Elina Shatkin/LAist)

The 2019 Michelin Guide California is a vast improvement over its last foray into Los Angeles. How could it not be? Still, some things don't change.

Michelin displayed its geographical favoritism toward Northern California. It also doubled down on its cultural bias toward Japanese and French food. No shade on either of these cuisines but it's almost like the guide's anonymous reviewers don't understand the talent, knowledge or precision required to make superb Mexican food. Or Korean food. Or Indian food. Or Thai or Filipino or Central American food. But hey, at least they didn't highlight a bunch of Beverly Hills expense account restaurants.

Without a dedicated staff based in Los Angeles, can Michelin parachute in and understand the diversity of flavors and cultures that shape Southern California cuisine? Of course not. But they weren't meant to.

Michelin guides have never been for locals, no matter what PR pablum the company puts out. If this new guide persuades one hotel concierge to recommend a taqueria in DTLA or a Thai restaurant in East Hollywood to their wealthy patrons, that's a win.

You can decide for yourself. The entire guide is now available on the Michelin site, and, for the first time, in Spanish and Chinese as well as English.

Chef Niki Nakayama of n/naka, with her partner, Carole Iida-Nakayama, speaks at the announcement of the 2019 Michelin Guide California on June 3, 2019 in Huntington Beach. (Courtesy of Michelin)

BY THE NUMBERS

The 2019 Michelin Guide California guide highlights seven new two-star restaurants, six of which are in L.A. When n/naka was announced at the big reveal, chef Niki Nakayama and her partner, Carole Iida-Nakayama, screamed in delight as they rushed to the stage.

"We are a team of 20 people, 13 women and seven men," Nakayama, near tears, later said. "This could only happen in California."

The guide bestowed one star on 27 new restaurants — 18 in greater L.A. and two in Orange County. That's a huge accomplishment.

About half of Southern California's starred restaurants serve sushi or some type of Japanese food. Only one of them, Carlos Salgado's Taco María in Costa Mesa, specializes in Mexican food. No Korean restaurants. No Thai restaurants. No... we'll stop. You get the gist. Michelin has broadened its culinary point of view but it hasn't narrowed its cultural blind spot.

If you want to see Michelin recognition for "ethnic" restaurants, you'll have to thumb through the Bib Gourmand, where those establishments have been relegated. More on that later.

No Southern California restaurant earned those vaunted three stars. We would've been shocked if they had.

Only 121 restaurants in the world, six of them in Northern California, have three Michelin stars. To earn them, restaurants (and cities) have to play a game of waiting, humility, gratitude and groveling. In its first year back in Los Angeles, the Michelin Guide wasn't going to hand out three-star ratings like candy. Maybe next year, after chefs and city officials have kissed enough rings.

Chef Jordan Kahn of Vespertine dons a ceremonial chef's jacket at the announcement of the 2019 Michelin Guide California on June 3, 2019 in Huntington Beach. (Courtesy of Michelin)

A LITTLE HISTORY

Tire company Michelin published its first dining guide in 1900 to help French motorists find dining spots, mechanics and other roadside amenities. The idea was to make driving more appealing and, hopefully, sell more tires. (Here in the United States, AAA does the same thing with its magazines and maps.) The company introduced a single star rating system in 1926 and added the other stars in 1933.

In 2005, Michelin published its first New York City guide, featuring more than 500 restaurants and hotels. Two years later, Michelin debuted its Los Angeles guide, a collection of boring, expense account favorites. The following year, Michelin did it again.

"No stars for any Korean, Middle Eastern, Central American, regional Mexican or regional Thai restaurants," as the Los Angeles Times says.

The guides were rightfully savaged, by no less than J. Gold:

"Last year's inaugural Michelin Guide to Los Angeles restaurants was appalling, 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. This year's guide, although it is more or less identical, is just boring."

The cartoonish arrogance of Jean-Luc Naret, then-director of Michelin's ratings, was the chef's kiss of idiocy on the enterprise. In 2010, he told Esquire:

"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."

Are you sure he doesn't work for the New York Times?

That same year, in the midst of the global economic crash, the Michelin Guide pulled out of California.

The chefs of many of the newly designated restaurants pose with Michelin Guide's international director, Gwendal Poullennec, and the non-binary Michelin Person at the announcement of the 2019 Michelin Guide California on June 3, 2019 in Huntington Beach. (Courtesy of Michelin)

When the organization announced a few months ago it was coming back, they made a smart decision. They chose to combine all California restaurants into a single guide, something they were able to do thanks to a $600,000 check from the Visit California tourism bureau.

The Michelin Guide's return to Los Angeles has been a Big Deal. It has also been met with suspicion.

Would Michelin finally recognize the blend of cultures that makes Los Angeles, and especially its deep connections to Mexican cuisine, so special? We weren't hopeful.

Besides, why do we need a dining guide aimed at wealthy tourists to validate what we already know?

Fortunately, Michelin Guide's international director, Gwendal Poullennec, seems to have a broader vision than his predecessor. He praised California — its bounty, its diversity, its farm-to-fork ethos, etc. — at least half-a-dozen times at tonight's ceremony.

"California gastronomy has proved to be one of the most diverse and multicultural while at the same time making the most of local and regional produce," he said. "It is one thing having amazing produce. But having the very talented chefs who can work their magic on it, is the key."

Are we excited to see a bunch of deserving restaurants, from strip mall French bistros to innovative taquerias to kaiseki temples, get anointed? Yes, we are. Can the Michelin Guide do better? Absolutely.

The 2019 Michelin Guide California goes on sale June 6 for $19.95.

Chef Michael Cimarusti of Providence speaks at the announcement of the 2019 Michelin Guide California on June 3, 2019 in Huntington Beach. (Courtesy of Michelin)

LOCAL TWO STAR MICHELIN RESTAURANTS

  1. n/naka — Niki Nakayama (West L.A.)
  2. Providence — Michael Cimarusti (Hollywood)
  3. Somni — Jose Andres and Aitor Zabala (Beverly Hills)
  4. Sushi Ginza Onodera — Yohei Matsuki (West Hollywood)
  5. Urasawa — Hiroyuki Urasawa. (Beverly Hills)
  6. Vespertine — Jordan Kahn (Culver City)

LOCAL ONE STAR MICHELIN RESTAURANTS

  1. Bistro Na's — Chef Tian Na makes "imperial court food of the Qing Dynasty." (Temple City)
  2. Cut — Wolfgang Puck's steakhouse. (Beverly Hills)
  3. Dialogue — An L.A. outpost from Chicago chef Dave Beran. (Santa Monica)
  4. Hana Re — Small, upscale sushi spot from chef Atsushi Yokoyama. (Costa Mesa)
  5. Hayato — Brando Go does omakase dining. (DTLA)
  6. KaliSeasonal and contemporary California cuisine from Kevin Meehan. (Hollywood)
  7. Kato — At only 27, Jonathan Yao is already wowing diners with his tasting menus. (West L.A.)
  8. Le Comptoir — Gary Menes serves a vegetable-focused menu at this intimate counter. (Koreatown)
  9. Maude — Curtis Stone does a tasting menu that changes quarterly based on a single wine region. (Beverly Hills)
  10. Mori Sushi — This restaurant from Morihiro Onodera earned one star in both the 2008 and 2009 editions of the Michelin Guide Los Angeles. (West L.A.)
  11. Nozawa Bar — Chef Osamu Fujita presides over this omakase bar inside Sugarfish. (Beverly Hills)
  12. Orsa & Winston — Josef Centeno's amazing omakase spot pulls from a swath of cuisines and techniques. (DTLA)
  13. Osteria Mozza — Nancy Silverton keeps killing it with her Italian cuisine. Mozza received one star in the 2009 Michelin Guide Los Angeles. (Hollywood)
  14. Q Sushi — A sushiya from chef Hiroyuki Naruke. (DTLA)
  15. Rustic Canyon — A vegetable-focused menu from Jeremy Fox. (Santa Monica)
  16. Shibumi — Kappo-style Japanese fare from David Schlosser. (DTLA)
  17. Shin Sushi —Sushiya helmed by chef Taketoshi Azumi. (Encino)
  18. Shunji — Sushiya helmed by chef Shunji Nakao. (West L.A.)
  19. Taco María — Carlos Salgado makes heirloom masa tortillas and fills them with delicious Mexican combinations. (Costa Mesa)
  20. Trois Mec — Ludo Lefebvre's (and Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo's) restaurant marries French technique and contemporary flavors. (Hollywood)
The chefs of many of the newly designated two-star restaurants pose on stage at the announcement of the 2019 Michelin Guide California on June 3, 2019 in Huntington Beach. (Courtesy of Michelin)

LOCAL BIB GOURMAND RESTAURANTS

What about all of L.A.'s fabulous Korean, Middle Eastern, Thai, etc. restaurants? You'll find them in the Bib Gourmand.

This list of "hidden gems" and restaurants that, per the press release, "serve high-quality meals... for $40 or less" is Michelin's way of saying "thanks for playing." In laypersons's terms, these are the restaurants you can afford to eat at. Maybe. In the late capitalist era, who can afford anything?

Michelin revealed its Bib Gourmand picks last week. Of the 151 restaurants it chose, 62 are in greater Los Angeles (although a few have already closed).

Another five — Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen, Garlic & Chives, Horio's Nori Ramen, LSXO and Mix Mix Kitchen & Bar — are in Orange County.

The rest are clustered in San Francisco, the East Bay and Napa/Sonoma with a few outliers in San Diego, Santa Barbara and Sacramento.

Aside from the Bib Gourmand's weird neighborhood designations — "Santa Monica Bay"? labeling a Koreatown restaurant as being in "greater downtown"? — the list is solid, even if it is a crib sheet of Jonathan Gold's greatest hits. (We've used our own neighborhood designations in the list below.)

It's also worth noting that the guide includes a bunch more restaurants — Ma'am Sir, Otoño, Bäco Mercat, Here's Looking at You and Republique, to name a few — that didn't make it into either Michelin's star rating system or its Bib Gourmand.

  • Aburiya Raku (Hollywood)
  • Adana Restaurant (Pasadena)
  • Amor y Tacos (Cerritos)
  • Ayara Thai Cuisine (Westchester)
  • Badmaash (downtown L.A.)
  • Baran's 2239 (Hermosa Beach)
  • Bowery Bungalow (Silver Lake)
  • Broken Spanish (downtown L.A.)
  • Burritos La Palma (El Monte)
  • Cassia (Santa Monica)
  • Chengdu Impression (Arcadia)
  • Chengdu Taste (Alhambra)
  • Chuan's (Temple City)
  • Church & State* (downtown L.A.) — closed
  • Coni'Seafood (Inglewood)
  • Dai Ho (Temple City)
  • Dha Rae Oak (Koreatown)
  • DongLaiShun (San Gabriel)
  • Eveleigh (West Hollywood)
  • Factory Kitchen (downtown L.A.)
  • Father's Office (Culver City)
  • Guerrilla Tacos (downtown L.A.)
  • Holbox (downtown L.A.)
  • Il Pastaio (Beverly Hills)
  • Jaffa (Beverly Grove)
  • Jitlada (East Hollywood)
  • Jon & Vinny's (Fairfax)
  • Katsu-ya (Studio City)
  • Kismet (Los Feliz)
  • La Cevicheria (Crenshaw)
  • Langer's (Westlake)
  • LaoXi Noodle House (Arcadia)
  • Lunasia (Alhambra)
  • Maccheroni Republic (downtown L.A.)
  • Majordomo (downtown L.A.)
  • M.B. Post (Manhattan Beach)
  • Mariscos Jalisco (Boyle Heights)
  • Meals By Genet (Fairax)
  • Meizhou Dongpo (Century City)
  • Mercado Los Angeles (Faifax)
  • Mian (San Gabriel)
  • Mi Lindo Nayarit Mariscos (Huntington Park)
  • Okiboru House of Tsukemen (downtown L.A.)
  • Papilles (Hollywood)
  • Petit Trois (Hollywood)
  • Pine & Crane (Silver Lake)
  • Pizzana (Brentwood)
  • Pizzeria Mozza (Hollywood)
  • Preux & Proper (downtown L.A.)
  • Punta Cabras* (Santa Monica) — closed
  • Rocio's Mexican Kitchen (Bell Gardens)
  • Rosaliné (Hollywood)
  • Rossoblu (downtown L.A.)
  • Salazar (Frogtown)
  • Sea Harbour (Rosemead)
  • Shanghai No. 1 (San Gabriel)
  • Sichuan Impression (Alhambra)
  • Sixth & Mill (downtown L.A.)
  • Son of a Gun (Beverly Grove)
  • Sqirl (Silver Lake)
  • Thai Thing (Hollywood)
  • Tsubaki (Hollywood)

Now, go eat something.


This story has been updated to include a few Southern California restaurants that were inadvertently left off the list.