July 14, 2016 by Kai Chan
This blog post cannot be contained under one category so I have to post under both Bay Area and San Francisco.
Over the past couple of years, the Bay Area has exploded in great quality of restaurants according to Michelin, particularly in San Francisco which comprises more than 50% of the listed restaurants for the Bay Area. For the most part, I can rely on Michelin as a good benchmark for expectation level from a restaurant. The only caveat is Asian food. You cannot allow non-Asian people to judge Asian food. Otherwise, you will get end results like “Mission Chinese is amazing!” or “Panda Express is my go-to fast food meal!” I’m joking about the latter, but serious about the former. [On a side note, I did have a terrible experience at a Chinese restaurant where I used the number of Chinese people in the restaurant as a proxy of authenticity and it backfired on me. Karma has its ways…] One concern I had when I moved here from New York in 2013 was whether the food here would be on par with New York. I have my blasé moments with food, but it is very important that I eat well. Thankfully, I was surprised with the freshness of the food since it’s close to where it is locally and hopefully sustainably sourced and pretty happy with the food with the exception of some ethnic limitations.
Curious in the Michelin trend since I moved here, the Excel monkey in me manually inputted all the Michelin restaurants broken down by stars for the past three years in Excel. I marked the colors of restaurants who lost their stars in pink (this only happened to 1 star restaurants) and who gained a star in mint. I counted the number of restaurants for each star allocation and each year. 2014 was a bleak year as five 1 star restaurants were relegated and one new restaurant was added (State Bird Provisions). After many years of being 1 star, Quince finally got the 2nd star. However, 2015 and 2016 proved to be prodigious. While the number of restaurants did not increase by much in total for 2015, two restaurants were upgraded to 3 stars – Benu and Saison. That basically doubled the number of 3 Michelin star restaurants in the Bay Area and finally got San Francisco on the 3 star map. Acquerello, headed by Suzette Gresham, received its additional star to make 2 star and doubled the number of 2 star female chefs in the Bay Area. Keep in mind, that in 2015, there were only 3 female chefs with 2 Michelin stars in the entire country so that was quite a feat to have 2 represented in San Francisco. 2015 was also the year where Japanese restaurants were starting to make its Michelin mark with Kusakabe and Maruya both getting 1 star. However, Maruya seems to be a dark horse or anomaly because its 1 star was relegated in 2016. But not to worry about 2016 – this was the crazy year.
The number of Michelin starred restaurants increased from 40 in 2015 to 50 in 2016. This is including 4 restaurants from 2015 losing their 1 star. Manresa finally got its 3 star status and Campton Place and Commis, restaurants that flew under the PR radar, received 2 stars. The list of new restaurants that made it to the 1 star list for 2016 was surprising and prolific. Restaurants such as Octavia, Al’s Place, Lord Stanley and Aster had not been open for a full year before they received their first star. It’s also interesting to note that Lazy Bear received 1 star – the chef of this restaurant (the restaurant name is an anagram of his last name), started as a side project then became pop up restaurant and now a proper institution, after Chef Barzelay left his prior life as a lawyer to pursue his passion for food.
Hopefully these new restaurants can maintain their star for next year and next year won’t become a slump year like in 2014. I’m lucky to say that I have eaten at more than half of this restaurants (highlighted in orange in the spreadsheet). It’s an expensive habit but everyone has their vices on how they spend their money. Thankfully, I am usually a pleased customer so I’m not even going to try to explain the stress and psychosis of chefs trying to get or maintain their stars. To end off, here are some food porn pictures and notes from some of these restaurants. Until the next dinner reservation…happy eats!
Lazy Bear (1 star): Can it get 2 stars? I would think hard considering that the dining format is at a large communal tables. Really fun – better to go with a group. But take the earlier seating as total experience will likely run 3-3.5 hours.
Californios (1 star): I can see Californios stretching to aim for the 2nd star. I’m really excited to see where they take high end Mexican cuisine. Will be interesting to see where it lands next year.
Wako (1 star): This was great and is one of my new favorite sushi places in SF. There hasn’t been any Japanese restaurant that has gotten 2 stars in the Bay Area so I think it will likely retain its 1 star next year. Also, service is casual so I think it will be hard to get the 2nd star.
Keiko a Nob Hill (1 star): This has consistently been at 1 star for the past several years. The service here is formal and better than most of the other 1 stars (French meets Japanese) so I’m still trying to figure out why it can’t get the 2nd star.
Kusakabe (1 star): One of the first sushi places to make the Michelin list for the Bay Area. A little less sushi forward with influence of some kaiseki. I suspect too casual to gain the 2nd star but will still maintain its 1 star.