The Washington food scene’s decade of dramatic transformation has brought us artisanal toast, $22 cocktails and numerous accolades. Now, the city’s foodscape will be recognized by one of the world’s highest arbiters of culinary taste: the Michelin Guide.
Michelin announced Tuesday that it has already deployed its famously anonymous inspectors throughout Washington restaurants — news sure to strike fear in the hearts of chefs and servers — in anticipation of the city’s first Michelin Guide, which will go on sale Oct. 13. Once it does, Washington will join the ranks of such culinary destinations as Paris, London and Tokyo. It will be only the fourth American city to be the subject of a current Michelin Guide, after New York, San Francisco and Chicago. (Michelin previously published guides in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but it ceased evaluating both cities in 2010 for economic and geographical reasons, a Michelin spokesman said.)
“D.C. was a logical choice. It’s a very cosmopolitan city. It has a growing and thriving food scene,” said Michael Ellis, international director for the Michelin Guides. Other criteria that contributed to the decision were the diversity of cuisines and the city’s stature — which Ellis said makes it “of interest to the Michelin group.”
To local chefs and restaurateurs, the move is a vote of confidence that could spark even more growth.
“I’m delighted about it,” said Ashok Bajaj, who owns Rasika, the Oval Room and other top-
rated fine-dining restaurants. “I think it puts us on the map. The worldwide name recognition, I think it helps the city.”
The tire manufacturer introduced its guide in 1900 as a way to encourage people to take road trips (and wear down their Michelin tires). The company catalogued hotels, mechanics, gas stations and restaurants, introducing the star system in 1926. The guides cover 27 countries, and there are only nine individual city guides, with Washington, Shanghai and Seoul to come. Restaurants are evaluated for their creativity, personality, ingredient quality, value and consistency, among other factors, to determine their star rating.
Ellis said the District has been on his list of cities to expand into for several years, although he declined to say which other cities were considered. As for the L.A. and Las Vegas snubs, “I do think that those cities remain very interesting,” he said. “Los Angeles and Las Vegas remain on our radar.”
Michelin inspectors, who are trained in France, have been surreptitiously dining in Washington restaurants since last fall. And restaurants in the city will be on high alert, because reviewers still have more eating to do — they will continue making visits throughout the summer, so the newest buzzed-about additions to the city’s fine-dining scene, such as Aaron Silverman’s Pineapple and Pearls and Eric Ziebold’s Métier, still can be included.
Inspectors are “kind of like undercover agents,” Ellis said. Most are trained chefs. The bulk of the inspectors in the District have been Americans, although Ellis says he has flown in inspectors from around the world, too. To maintain their anonymity and objectivity, all of them pay for their meals and never eat at a restaurant more than once in the same year. For restaurants that are being considered for stars, Michelin sends multiple inspectors throughout the year to test a restaurant’s consistency and creativity.
Ellis says that the inspectors are conservative in their approach and can be reluctant to give stars to new restaurants from untested chefs. He would not say whether any restaurants in Washington have achieved the coveted three-star rating. Fewer than 120 restaurants in the world have that designation, and most of them are expensive and exclusive. Michelin also rates “Bib Gourmands,” or affordable restaurants.
“What we don’t want to do is have seesaw decisions where we give a star out and find out six months later that the wheels came off and it’s not up to quality,” Ellis said.
Another group that won’t be getting any stars this fall: suburban and rural restaurants. The first edition of the Washington guide will include only restaurants within the District’s borders. That means that one of the region’s best fine-dining restaurants — the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va. — will be shut out for at least another year. Subsequent editions of the guide will expand to include the suburbs.
“The closer we got a look at the D.C. metro area, we realized there was quite a bit to cover,” Ellis said. As for the Inn, Ellis called it “one of the great restaurants of the United States” and said that “we certainly look forward to incorporating” chef Patrick O’Connell in following years.
D.C. chefs greeted the news with surprise and enthusiasm.
“Are you serious? That is crazy,” said Silverman, the James Beard Award-winning chef of Rose’s Luxury. Chefs “always talk about it. People ask me [when Michelin will come], and I’m like, ‘Maybe one day.’ ”
Earning Michelin stars is “something that a lot of people think about and dream about,” Silverman said.
It was a Michelin-starred chef from France — Jean-Louis Palladin, who opened his eponymous restaurant at the Watergate Hotel in 1979 — who is credited with kick-starting the Washington food scene. But even after the city’s recent culinary renewal, there’s still some wariness about where it stands from a national perspective. The Washington Post’s food critic, Tom Sietsema, ended up including Washington in his ranking of America’s 10 best food cities, but he wrote that when he began the project, he wasn’t sure whether the District would make it.
Michelin’s recognition is “certainly, in my opinion, not later than it should have been,” said Mark Furstenberg, the Beard-nominated baker behind Bread Furst and a longtime Washington restaurateur. An article he wrote for The Post in 2013 argued that Washington was not a great food city, but he acknowledges that much has changed since then.
“I think the Michelin recognition comes at a very good time,” he said. “Washington is poised to become a very, very good restaurant city, with lots of diversity that we didn’t have before, including a number of young chefs doing wonderful things.”
Palladin, who at 28 was the youngest chef to win two Michelin stars, died in 2001. If he were here to hear the news, “He would be so amused,” Furstenberg said. “He would say, ‘They’re following me across the ocean.’ He really disapproved of them.” Despite his accolades, Palladin had a contrarian streak, Furstenberg said.
For chefs who are awarded stars, the pressure to maintain them will be intense. European chefs who have feared losing stars have killed themselves. The death in December of Benoît Violier, the French-born chef of Switzerland’s three-star Restaurant de l’Hotel de Ville, raised questions about the pressures that chefs with Michelin stars face.
But that won’t happen here, where the competition is less cutthroat, Silverman said.
“The D.C. chef community has a really good camaraderie,” he said.
“We [chefs] do a lot of social things together. That’s a style of Washington that is not common in the food business nationally,” said Furstenberg, who attributes that gregariousness to Palladin, known for his big personality.
Besides, while the Michelin Guide once stood as the singular global ranking of the world’s great restaurants, it is now surrounded by rivals — both from the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, a list originated by the British magazine Restaurant that has, in some estimations, eclipsed Michelin, and from crowdsourced restaurant reviews from Yelp and TripAdvisor.
“I don’t think [Michelin] carries the same cachet as it does in Europe,” Furstenberg said. “They’re never going to be the definitive guide to America as they have been in France.”
But chefs are going to be hungry for those stars anyway. And when they’re handed out in October, it could have a big impact on current and future restaurants.
“We don’t pretend to transform a dining scene,” Ellis said. But “I think that chefs will up their game.”
The change could be mostly in outsiders’ perception of Washington. For decades, the city’s restaurants had a fusty reputation for catering to lobbyists and power brokers at a series of indistinguishable steakhouses — a reputation the city still fights . The Michelin guide is recognition that Washington is, at last, a fully formed food city. Restaurateurs hope that other cities — ahem, New York — will begin to think of us that way, too.
“A lot of people have been working hard for five to 10 years, and whether or not they intended to change the scene, they have,” Silverman said. “It’s the beginning of big things for Washington, D.C.”