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Did the Michelin Guide snub Los Angeles by choosing D.C.?

Steven Papa meets with other chefs before dinner service at Petit Trois in Los Angeles. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

When Michelin announced Tuesday morning that it would launch its famed and feared dining guide in Washington, the news was met with cheers — and grumbles.

D.C. diners and chefs were proud, of course. But some — both in D.C. and elsewhere — wondered if it was an acknowledgement the city didn’t yet deserve. “No knock on D.C., but it gets into current Michelin Guide while L.A. doesn’t? As 4th U.S. city in guide? Nuts,” tweeted New York Times columnist and former food critic Frank Bruni.

To that, Washingtonians replied:  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Sorry. Gloating is unbecoming. Besides, it’s a totally valid criticism, because by many standards and rankings — including, we must point out, the Post’s own — L.A. is a better food town than the District. It also has a longer history with Michelin, which is worth examining, because it says something about what Michelin looks for, and what Washington can expect once the guide launches here on Oct. 13.

In addition to New York, Chicago and San Francisco, Michelin used to publish guides in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. But the company’s inspectors ceased evaluating both cities in 2010 for economic and geographical reasons, a Michelin spokesman said. It was shortly after the economic crash, and the nearly 500 square miles of L.A.’s greater metropolitan area proved difficult for their inspectors to cover. But that’s no excuse, said Bruni in an email:

I’m hard pressed to say that D.C. is a superior restaurant town to L.A. Much of that’s about depth of bench, to borrow a sports term, and a city of L.A.’s greater population tends to have a greater variety and number of distinctive, ambitious restaurants. But also, California has long been a dependable cradle of incredibly talented chefs, and that includes L.A. as well as San Fran. And both cities and their restaurants benefit from the incredible access to ingredients that California provides. Anyway, I’ve long thought that L.A. is an unfairly overlooked and denigrated restaurant town, due to stereotypes—some of them deserved—about how much movie people do and don’t care about food. But there are fantastic restaurants at every price point in L.A. It deserves a place in the Michelin Guide, period.

One prominent Angeleno food critic doesn’t quite see it that way. Michelin and L.A. weren’t a good fit, said Pulitzer-winning Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, the subject of a recent documentary. He wrote in an email:

I suppose I should be miffed about the insult to the honor of my city, but in their two editions here, the Michelin ratings seemed uniquely ill-suited to evaluating Los Angeles restaurants, which tend to aspire to different things than the restaurants in Paris. Some of our most imaginative chefs use the same farmers market ingredients, top-rank seafood and sustainably raised meat as the expense account restaurants, but put their creations on tortillas instead of fine china and serve it from the back of trucks.  Others serve brilliant tasting menus in barely converted mini-mall pizzerias, or in the back of convenience stores, or in untranslated Chinese. I think Michelin is fairly useless outside France — in Italy you actively want to stay away from starred restaurants, which tend to be more notable for their napery than for their cooking  — but in Los Angeles, it was just wrong.

Chefs who got stars were fine with Michelin, but “there are definitely a lot of chefs that were dismissive of it here,” Gold said in a follow-up phone conversation. There’s no love lost between Gold and Michelin, either, except in one aspect: “It was always a great column every year when they brought out the guide, to be able to sneer at it,” he said.

When Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema set out last year to rank America’s best food cities, he initially wasn’t even sure that Washington would make the cut. But after some meals at new restaurants that could dazzle Michelin inspectors, like Convivial and the Dabney, as well as fine-dining gems like Marcel’s, he emerged with a newfound faith in the District’s culinary strength. It wasn’t strong enough to place us any higher than ninth on the list, though — behind several cities that don’t have a Michelin Guide, like Houston, Portland and New Orleans. Los Angeles, on the other hand, came in third. After eating a taco, Sietsema wrote that “the snack represented a lot about what makes the second-largest city in the nation a top-tier place to eat: sun-kissed ingredients, chefs’ willingness to buck convention and an audience open to eating just about anything, just about anywhere.” And: “If L.A. is missing one thing in its mouthwatering offerings, it’s the experience of fine dining, rare as a necktie.” We are sorry to inform Las Vegas that no one has raised a similar outcry about their exclusion from either guide.

Washington makes sense to Michelin for other reasons. It is, first and foremost, a tire company — one that is based in France, but that employs many Americans. You can be sure that they have business relationships with politicians here. And the District is a top tourist destination for foreigners, more so than some of the other food cities that ranked above us on Sietsema’s list.

“It doesn’t surprise me that they haven’t gone to a place like Portland, because it’s little,” said Mark Furstenberg, a longtime D.C. restaurateur and the baker behind Bread Furst. “New Orleans is a very important restaurant city, but it’s gone through a cataclysmic change.” Washington makes more sense than L.A., he added, because, “The greatness of Los Angeles is small Asian, Latin, Persian restaurants. But not grand or fancy restaurants.”

Gold doesn’t think that Michelin needs to change its methodology — “It’s silly for them to lower, bend or do backflips on their standards in order to fit the particular aesthetic of a city they are reviewing” — but he does think it tends to reward restaurants that operate within the French framework for haute cuisine. A city of casual dining, like Los Angeles, is just lost in translation. As for our fair city, “I think [Michelin] is probably a better fit in D.C.,” Gold said. “That kind of expense-account dining is so much more an important part of the restaurant scene than it is here,” and that’s not exactly a compliment. Yes, we have cool pop-ups and underground supper clubs and casual fare — “Looking forward to Michelin’s take on half smokes and jumbo slice,” tweeted Matthew Yglesias — but we also have a lot of chefs with classical training, opening restaurants that cater to people with a lot of money, even if they don’t have tablecloths.

Though Gold said he doesn’t know the D.C. scene well, he has some predictions, based on L.A.’s experience.

“I assume there is going to be a certain kind of stuffy restaurant that will end up doing extremely well, and an experimental restaurant that won’t do as well,” he said. People will be disappointed, but not surprised, that fancier restaurants get rewarded. “Is Minibar going to get three stars?” said Gold. “It might, because it aspires to that system. But is there anybody on earth that likes Minibar more than Jaleo?”

And once the guide comes out, if it’s anything like what happened in L.A., everyone will debate Michelin’s selections for a day or two and then get on with their lives.

“The city, as a whole, shrugged. I have a feeling that one of the reasons they stopped doing it was nobody cared about it here,” he said. “I think there’s going to be that top tier of restaurants where people are going to take it extremely seriously. I’m assuming that outside of those 10 to 12 places, it won’t matter.”

Start placing your bets on that dozen now.