“I was hoping we could find a third star,” said Michael Ellis, the international director for the Michelin Guides. “We sent the inspectors back several times to all of the restaurants. We just couldn’t confirm it. We’re definitely moving up there. I’m optimistic that the culinary scene will continue to develop.”
The Inn at Little Washington, Minibar and Pineapple and Pearls kept their designation of two stars for a second year. And two restaurants — Komi and Métier — were awarded one star, joining the ranks of Blue Duck Tavern, the Dabney, Fiola, Kinship, Masseria, Plume, Rose’s Luxury, Sushi Taro and Tail Up Goat, which all maintained their stars from last year. No restaurants slipped down in the ranks. It is the first Michelin star for Komi chef Johnny Monis, and the second one-star restaurant for chef Eric Ziebold, who also co-owns Kinship with his wife, Celia Laurent.
While Komi and Métier were both included as selections in the guide last year, it was their consistency and creativity that bumped them up to star level this year.
Monis “really hit the ball out of the park. He’s a very gifted chef . . . he’s very creative, he has a kind of Mediterranean touch that’s unique.” Ellis said. At Métier, “It came together this year. That was a tribute to Eric and his team’s skill. He’s got a real signature.”
“I’m very proud. We got two, I think that’s good and fair. I hope one day that it will be three,” he said. Emotional, he recalled a moment in Puerto Rico when he was inspecting meals to be served to hungry hurricane victims — meals that mattered just as much to him as the ones he serves in Minibar, Washington’s most expensive restaurant.
“I was inspecting the rice to make sure it was a good rice,” Andres said. “You do the best you can with $2 or $3, and you do the best you can with $300 or $400. In the end, it’s the same thing.”
For chef Patrick O’Connell of the Inn at Little Washington, learning that he had maintained his two stars brought “personally, a secret sense of relief that now we could get back to normal.” A third star has always been his dream, but he reminded himself of an old French adage: “It takes three generations to get three stars.”
“Life is a waiting game,” he said. “We’ve very patient people. We’re only at year 39, moving into 40. We have time.”
It is not uncommon for restaurants to maintain the same rating from year to year. The Michelin Guide values consistency, and seeks to avoid yo-yo ratings that bounce back and forth. This means that once chefs get a star, if they remain consistent and work hard, they can maintain it for years — sometimes generations, in the case of certain family-owned European restaurants. But it also means that Michelin is conservative about handing stars out in the first place. The list continued to omit Rasika, the elegant Indian restaurant from James Beard Award-winning chef Vikram Sunderam and restaurateur Ashok Bajaj, in what many Washingtonians will consider a major omission. Ellis said that the restaurant didn’t meet the standards set by Michelin-starred Indian restaurants in other cities.
“We have Indian stars in different parts of the world — in London, of course, in China and Hong Kong,” Ellis said. “We have to find it on the same level. Rasika is very good. We couldn’t confirm a star this year, but it’s very much on our radar.”
When Michelin arrived in Washington last year, it was a sign that the District had finally become a serious food city.
“It indicates and designates the true arrival of Washington, D.C., as an international culinary destination,” said chef Patrick O’Connell of the Inn at Little Washington. “No matter who gets what [stars], the entire restaurant community should celebrate.”
“I think it’s an investment in Washington, D.C., and in the chefs to grow a restaurant scene — every year, to become better and better,” Plume chef Ralf Schlegel said.
But the D.C. guide has not grown very much this year, despite being little over the size of a pamphlet last year. There are 108 restaurants included in the guide, as opposed to last year’s 107; new additions to the general, non-starred selection include the Bird in Shaw, and the Smith, the Art Deco-inspired restaurant near Gallery Place. And, despite being the favorite restaurant of President Trump, the pricey steakhouse in his hotel, BLT Prime, was not good enough to make the cut, a Michelin spokesperson confirmed.
Last year, Michelin had promised to expand further into the D.C. suburbs, but this year’s guide hasn’t stepped out of the District except for the Inn at Little Washington.
“We did not have the resources to go beyond the areas we covered last year,” Ellis said. “I think as time goes on we’ll be able to do that. We only have so many boots on the ground in terms of the inspection team.”
The Michelin Guide was introduced by the tire company in 1900 as a way to encourage people to take road trips on their Michelin tires. It is still a major force in the culinary world — especially in Europe — though other sources, such as the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and even Yelp and TripAdvisor, may exert a similar clout, if not prestige. Critics of the guide (who love to point out that it comes from a tire company) allege that it is more suited for fusty European tastes, and that the cuisine and atmosphere of American restaurants can get lost in translation.
“If you have a star, you agree,” with Michelin’s decisions, Schlegel said. “If you don’t have a star, you don’t agree.”
In some cases they may be right. Last week, Michelin announced its list of Bib Gourmands, a designation given to excellent restaurants where you can get two dishes and a drink for less than $40. The list was the same as last year, with three additions: Sfoglina, Fabio Trabocchi’s Van Ness pasta place; Ivy City Smokehouse, a casual spot for fish; and Hazel, the New American restaurant from chef Rob Rubba. But the Bib Gourmands have been particularly tricky for Washington — many of the restaurants that are selected serve small plates, so if you only paid $40 for a meal, you certainly wouldn’t leave feeling full. There’s also the idea that these restaurants — including Zaytinya, Kyirisan, and China Chilcano, among others — are not what many people would consider to be as budget friendly as Michelin implies.
Another addition to this year’s book is the introduction of a new designation, L’Assiette Michelin, or Michelin Plate. The symbol will indicate “restaurants where the inspectors have discovered quality food,” and is intended to clear up a common confusion about the guide: Not every restaurant in a city is good enough to be listed in the little red book, but because many entries aren’t decorated with a symbol, it makes it look like Michelin doesn’t recommend them. The Michelin Plate will now be affixed to any entry in the book that does not have a star or a Bib Gourmand — so it’s essentially a participation trophy.
“It’s difficult to explain to the general public that just being in the guide is in and of itself a sign of good food. We wanted to give a tangible, visible symbol that being in the guide is important,” Ellis said. “We want chefs to feel part of the Michelin family.”
The guide is famously secretive, and sends multiple inspectors from around the world to every restaurant, but never the same inspector twice. The restaurants are rated on their creativity, personality, ingredient quality, value and consistency, among other factors. Inspectors always pay for their own meals. And because this year, Washington-area restaurants knew they’d be coming, many restaurants spent an entire year playing “spot the inspector.”
“There are sometimes red alerts when you feel that someone is looking at the experience you’re providing from a critical perspective rather than just allowing themselves to experience it the way 90 percent of your guests sort of succumb to the performance,” O’Connell said.
But it’s not that easy to identify: Sometimes, “You’re like, ‘I think those people are inspectors,'” said chef Aaron Silverman, of Pineapple and Pearls and Rose’s Luxury. But then he will chat them up and discover he is mistaken. “I’ve totally thought it was someone, and it ended up being my neighbor.”
Having a Michelin star can make a big difference for a restaurant, and in ways that guests wouldn’t imagine. Yes, it means more prestige for the chef and makes reservations a prize, but it also makes it easier to hire the best staff. Everyone wants to say they worked at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
“Whenever anybody applies, I ask, ‘How did you find out about us?'” said Jeremiah Langhorne, chef at the Dabney. “A lot of them say, ‘I looked at all of the Michelin-starred restaurants in town and applied to the one that seemed the best for me.’ ”
Ever since last year’s guide came out, some starred restaurants have reported hosting more foreign tourists.
“The first influx is the Asian market. They have a very very strong connection with Michelin, and when you tend to ask them what is bringing them to Washington, or how they heard about us, it’s almost always Michelin,” O’Connell said. “We’ve experienced, since the rating came out last year, a number of non-English-speaking people, and that’s very rewarding. And it’s also quite charming in our village of 133 people.”
But there are drawbacks to being a Michelin-starred chef, too, like the pressure to maintain or increase your star level.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say that I feel an extreme amount of pressure to uphold those standards forever,” Langhorne said. “I try not to think about it at all. I could push myself over the edge if I try to dwell on it.”
In Europe, some top chefs have committed suicide, leading some to speculate publicly on whether the pressure to uphold Michelin standards was too great. This year, Sebastien Bras, chef of Le Suquet à Laguiole, a longtime three-star restaurant, asked to relinquish his stars.
“I can totally understand how a guy like [Sebastien] Bras, who has had decades of stars, is like, I’m over it,” said Silverman. “There’s an aura to the three stars that’s kind of crazy.”
(For the record: “The Michelin star, the chef doesn’t own it,” Ellis said. “It’s an opinion, it’s a point of view. You can agree with it or nor agree with it, but you can’t give it back.”)
But even if there are no three-star restaurants this year, restaurants are looking at the silver lining.
“Always being a worrier, I worry about what would we do if we didn’t have the gold ring to chase after?” O’Connell said. The pursuit of a third star: “For me, that’s the ultimate high.”