The drama, such as it was, was all at the single-star level, with four eateries joining the elite club. The newcomers are Ivy City’s industrial-chic Gravitas, hearth-fired Middle Eastern hot spot Maydan, Capitol Hill cafe-cum-wine-bar Little Pearl, and Sushi Nakazawa, the New York import located in the Trump hotel.
One venerable restaurant, Foggy Bottom new American staple Blue Duck Tavern, was bumped off the one-star list. (Another previously starred restaurant, Robert Wiedmaier’s Siren, closed.)
For stargazers tracking the changes, the 2020 list might have contained a surprise: no Bad Saint, the tiny Filipino hot spot that has garnered national attention. Bad Saint had previously been included on the guidebook’s list of cheap eats (known as the Bib Gourmand designation) but was left off that 2020 list announced last week. The omission this year had some wondering if Bad Saint would graduate to the list of starred restaurants, but it did not.
A Michelin inspector spoke with us over the phone about the changes, though the company’s hypersensitivity to the anonymity of its reviewers meant he spoke only on the condition that his name be withheld.
First, a word about Michelin’s behind-the-scenes process, which has come under more scrutiny than ever since a famed French chef sued the company for demoting his restaurant from three stars to two, claiming that the guide violated its policy of multiple visits.
Of Blue Duck, the inspector said, the decision to “suppress” a star is one the company takes seriously. If a meal at a starred restaurant is off, another inspector will go in for a visit. (Likewise, he says, if an inspector has a meal at an unstarred restaurant that suggests it is star-worthy, another inspector visits to weigh in.) On both visits to the Foggy Bottom restaurant, he said “the technique and quality weren’t there.”
As for the additions, he praised Little Pearl’s “great value”; said that Maydan’s live-fire cooking “dazzled us”; praised “the quality of product and skill going into the meal” at Sushi Nakazawa; and said Gravitas “right away struck us as [offering] star-caliber cuisine.”
The addition of Little Pearl, the Capitol Hill gem that transforms, Batman-like, from a cafe by day to a wine bar by night, is a coup for chef and owner Aaron Silverman. He’s also the force behind two-star Pineapple and Pearls and one-star Rose’s Luxury, which means all three of his properties now have stars, a feat unmatched by other Washington chefs with multiple restaurants.
Knowing the drill from previous years — representatives from Michelin call the morning the list is published — Silverman told The Washington Post he was waiting with a question. “I was going to ask them what I needed to do to bring Little Pearl up to the level” of a star, he said.
And when he was informed that it was a fait accompli? “I was blown away,” he said. “For the staff, it’s a recognition of their hard work. That sounds cliche, but it’s true.”
He and his staff had already celebrated the night before; they hosted a collaborative dinner in honor of the Michelin list with fellow one-stars Bresca and the Dabney. “We do it ahead of time, so there’s no pressure about who got how many stars,” he says. “Honestly, it’s not about stars; it’s about the D.C. restaurant community.”
As for Bad Saint losing its Bib status, our inspector says, “It’s a lovely restaurant and well deserves to be a local favorite. But the pricing didn’t align with the Bib” list. The criteria for that list is that two courses plus a glass of wine or dessert should come in at $40 before tax and tip. (In our upcoming fall dining guide, we list Bad Saint’s main courses as ranging from $16-$40; last fall’s guide listed the range at $13-$30.)
The Michelin star as a measurement of a restaurant might feel a bit dusty. The designation was created almost a century ago by a tire company with the goal of getting diners out on the road (and wearing out those treads!) to discover far-flung gastronomic destinations. These days, we’re eating hyperlocally and more concerned about our carbon footprint than the joys of burning rubber.
But the star system chugs along.
One way Michelin is looking to keep up with the times? The company is emphasizing the globe-spanning cuisines on the list. The inspector noted that 36 cuisines are represented in the 130 Washington establishments on the list (which includes the starred establishments, the Bib Gourmands, and a slew of others that merely get the moniker of “Michelin Plates”). Seven appear on the starred list, a coterie that got a boost from the addition of Maydan’s Middle Eastern-meets-African offerings.
“What was really exciting this year,” he said, “was that Washington further expressed its rich diversity.”
And geographic diversity a little closer to home could be on its way, he added. Since the Michelin guide first came to Washington, there’s been talk about expanding its reach into the gastronomically fertile ’burbs ringing the city.
“That’s something we’re definitely talking about for the future,” he said.
Gwendal Poullennec, international director of the Michelin Guides, said the company could be bringing its signature little red books to other U.S. cities, though he declined to identify what metropolis might be in the mix. “The U.S. is a very interesting culinary market,” he said. And he served this heads-up to restaurateurs across the land: “We always have inspectors in the field.”
Here’s the full list of Washington’s 2020 Michelin starred restaurants:
The Inn at Little Washington