D.C. restaurants may be good enough to catch the eye of the Michelin Guide, but its inspectors didn’t find any quite good enough to merit its top rating of three stars.
The company released its first-ever Washington guide today, potentially elevating the 12 restaurants that received its coveted stars into international renown. Though no restaurant was awarded three stars, three restaurants — José Andrés‘ Minibar, Aaron Silverman’s Pineapple and Pearls, and Patrick O’Connell’s The Inn at Little Washington — received two stars.
“I used to be a 14-year-old kid who walked in front of Michelin star restaurants in Barcelona trying to get a glimpse of what was going on inside anytime they opened the kitchen door,” Andrés said in an interview this morning. “I could live my life without the Michelin star, but life would not be the same. You can say whatever you want about Michelin, but Michelin is the dream of so many chefs like me. I am very proud of my team.”
For Silverman, getting the call this morning from Michelin about two stars for Pineapple and Pearls and one star for his first restaurant, Rose’s Luxury, was “overwhelming.”
“I don’t even know what to think of it,” he said. “Hopefully we get a little bit busier, and we can do more for our staff, and cooler, better things for the city. That’s the whole reason we’re here.”
Besides Rose’s Luxury, eight other restaurants — The Dabney, Blue Duck Tavern, Kinship, Plume, Tail Up Goat, Masseria, Fiola and Sushi Taro — earned one star, which Michelin classifies as “a very good restaurant in its category.” If you don’t already have a reservation at these restaurants, you might consider making one now: It may be significantly harder to get a table in the coming months.
The absence of a single three-star rating may come as a surprise to cheerleaders for our dining scene. But it is not unprecedented. Michelin never awarded three stars to any restaurant in Los Angeles before suspending its guides there in 2010. In the 28 countries Michelin evaluates worldwide, 127 restaurants have three stars.
“In our 100-plus years of history we tend to be a stickler about making sure we’re confident about our decisions,” said Michael Ellis, international director for the Michelin Guides. Though his inspectors did not deem any restaurants worthy of three stars, “The two-star restaurants had dishes that flirted with three-star level. We are convinced that the D.C. area is going to continue to evolve.”
But even a two-star rating is difficult to achieve. Only 13 restaurants in America have three stars, and, excluding Washington, 20 other restaurants have two. Washington has the same number of two-star restaurants as Chicago. “It’s very difficult,” said Ellis.
Others will see some notable omissions: No stars were awarded to Komi, Little Serow, Marcel’s or Rasika, restaurants that regularly rate highly among critics here.
With Komi, “We found that there was not a lot of harmony between the different courses. We did not find the level of consistency throughout the menu,” said Ellis. Anne Marler, co-owner of Komi, declined to comment.
As for Rasika, “We found that we couldn’t confirm the star this year. That in no way means that we cannot confirm a star next year,” said Ellis.
Restaurateur Ashok Bajaj, who owns Rasika, Bombay Club, the Oval Room and other fine-dining restaurants, said he was “shocked, honestly,” by Michelin’s exclusion of his restaurants from the star list. “It’s a disservice to the community, a disservice to their own readership,” he said.
At the same time, he expressed his happiness for the winners, and for Washington. “I’m happy they’re in town. It’s good for the city,” he said, adding that he just planned to keep his head up. “We’ll continue to strive every day to do the best we can do.”
Bad Saint, another critical darling, made Michelin’s Bib Gourmand list of affordable restaurants, which made it ineligible for stars. Also absent from the list: Women. No female chefs were awarded stars, though several of the restaurants have female co-owners.
Few will be surprised to see Andres’ Minibar among the selections. The restaurant got off to a rocky start, earning a tepid 2012 review from Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema that Andres called “unfair.” But Sietsema now considers the restaurant to be among the best in the city: “Think of the 30-course (or so) show as vacation or time travel,” he writes in this year’s Fall Dining Guide.
Andres said the first call he made after he heard the good news was to his mentor, Ferran Adrià, of the former Spanish restaurant elBulli, which received three Michelin stars before it transformed into a culinary laboratory.
“He was like, ‘Okay, one, two or three?’” said Andrés. “He was super happy for the team. He said, ‘Now let’s work hard to get the third one.’”
The Inn at Little Washington was a surprise addition. Not because people didn’t expect it to score well — it’s one of the finest restaurants in the region — but because Michelin had earlier said it would focus only on restaurants within the District this year. Michelin ended up making an exception for O’Connell’s Inn, a longtime spot for elegant engagement and anniversary dinners.
“The impact that Patrick O’Connell has had on a whole generation of chefs,” factored into inspectors’ decisions, said Ellis. “It’s an iconic restaurant.”
O’Connell got the call from Michelin this morning, just as he was about to step into the shower.
“In our situation, never being sure if we would be included or not until the actual moment increased the suspense,” he said. He already has his sights set on getting that third star.
“It keeps us very invigorated to work toward a goal for next year, and we will,” said O’Connell. “You can put it into print: Stay tuned, world! Our rating will be higher.”
Other restaurants outside the city were still shut out. Michelin says it will expand the reach of its guide in coming years.
The little red book was introduced by the tire company in 1900 as a way to encourage people to take road trips and wear down their Michelin tires. It is still one of the most powerful arbiters of culinary taste in the world, though it faces steep competition from other sources, such as the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, as well as Yelp and TripAdvisor. Critics of the guide say it is more useful in Europe, where it has a deeper history, but that American restaurants can get lost in translation. (Naysayers especially love to point out that Michelin is a tire company.) And in Washington, where the restaurant renaissance has been relatively recent, there have been fears that we would be misunderstood.
For some, those fears were validated by the company’s announcement last week of the 19 restaurants it designated as Bib Gourmand, or good-value restaurants. Those included such critical darlings as Bad Saint, which was named the second-best restaurant in the country by Bon Appetit this summer, the Red Hen and Kyirisan, as well as four Jose Andres restaurants: Oyamel, China Chilcano, Jaleo and Zaytinya. Because Bib Gourmand restaurants do not receive stars, some locals — including Sietsema — griped about the perceived snub to Bad Saint. Other selections on Michelin’s list left locals scratching their heads: Bidwell, one of the selections, has gotten sub-par reviews since it opened. And because many of the selections were small-plates or tapas restaurants, some locals might be hard-pressed to classify them as a “good value.”
These restaurants may, in due time, “graduate” from the Bib Gourmand list and get stars, as New York’s Pok Pok did.
“To get a Michelin star is something that some people work their entire lives for, so I’ve still got some time,” said Tim Ma, chef of Kyirisan, when he learned of the Bib Gourmand designation.
Michelin deployed its inspectors last fall, and announced the arrival of the guide in May. The anonymous inspectors, which came from elsewhere in the United States as well as abroad, are famously secretive, and never go to the same restaurant twice within the same year. Multiple inspectors dine on separate occasions, though Michelin wouldn’t say how many visits each restaurant gets. Ellis said because Komi was a tough case for his inspectors, it got more visits than usual, but he declined to say how many (“More than one and less than 10,” said Ellis). They always pay for their own meals, and they evaluate American restaurants according to the same standards they uphold worldwide, judging them on creativity, personality, ingredient quality, value and consistency, among other factors.
Washington is the fourth American city to be the subject of a current Michelin Guide, after New York, San Francisco and Chicago, all of which boast three-star restaurants. It’s also the smallest American guide — in part because the District is much smaller than the aforementioned cities. Though our restaurant scene is still growing, Ellis said that tourism to the nation’s capital, as well as the tire company’s business interests, played a role in its choice.
The guide, which costs $12.95, will be available in bookstores and online. And starred restaurants aren’t the only subjects of the book: Michelin also reviews and categorizes notable restaurants throughout the city — Komi and Rasika make appearances in this section — as well as brunch spots and cheap eats under $25. There are 33 types of cuisine represented in the 107 restaurants featured in the guide, and with the inclusion of Barracks Row restaurant Ambar, Michelin says Balkan cuisine is making its first-ever appearance in a guide.
In other countries, the pressures of getting and maintaining Michelin stars can drive chefs to madness. But many local chefs think Michelin won’t rock the foundation of the D.C. restaurant scene, which enjoys a particular camaraderie among chefs.
“We’re all competing against each other for the same customer in a city that’s saturated with restaurants. I’m not sure how much Michelin is going to change that,” said Ma. “I hope it doesn’t.”
It should, however, change outsiders’ perceptions of Washington dining, which suffers from an outdated reputation of offering only fusty steakhouses. Chefs strive to train under Michelin-starred chefs, so the guide could lead to an influx of young culinary talent in the city.
“I think D.C. punches above its weight,” said Ellis. “D.C.’s got a real signature.”
Tonight, that’s what the chefs and staff at 12 restaurants will be celebrating. Like Andres, who planned to open some good bottles of wine, and have a meal with his staff.
“I guess we will need to decide if we cook, or we order fried chicken or pizza,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that there were 14 three-star restaurants in the U.S. There are 13.