L.A. doesn’t need Michelin for validation, but anything that drives more attention toward America’s most vibrant food city should have a positive effect.
Melisse caviar egg
Credit: Stan Lee

“It was very ironic,” Melisse chef Josiah Citrin says as he thinks about all the messages he got on Tuesday after word spread that the Michelin Guide is returning to Los Angeles in 2019.

The last time Michelin was in L.A., Santa Monica’s Melisse was one of only four restaurants (along with Providence, Spago, and Urasawa) that received two stars in the 2009 guide. But a lot has changed since then, and Citrin wants things to evolve at Melisse.

Melisse closed for renovations on Saturday. When the restaurant reopens, maybe in six or seven months, its main dining room will offer à la carte dining instead of Citrin’s elaborate tasting menus. But there will be an additional 18-seat restaurant tucked inside Melisse, “where the finishing kitchen and dining room are combined,” Citrin says.

If all goes well, Citrin hopes that the main space at Melisse will earn one Michelin star. And maybe he’ll be able to get two or three stars for his still-unnamed back-room restaurant. With the return of Michelin, which will be announcing the star selection for its first statewide California guide in early June, it’s important for Citrin to make it abundantly clear that he will have “two different concepts” within Melisse.

“I’m thoroughly confident in the changes I want to make,” says Citrin, who slept in on Tuesday, woke up thinking about how he had to put away some things at Melisse, and then realized that his phone was blowing up with messages about the Michelin announcement. “Maybe I would have played it safe if I knew Michelin was coming. Maybe I wouldn’t have moved forward.”

Melisse is a very specific situation, but the point Citrin is making echoes what many other chefs in L.A. are saying about the return of Michelin. It will be nice to have the guide back, but one reason L.A. food is so great is that this city is full of dynamic chefs who are willing to take big risks. They’re not doing this for any specific honor. They’re doing this because it feels correct.

L.A. doesn’t need Michelin for validation, but anything that drives more attention—and more culinary talent—toward America’s most vibrant food city should have a positive effect.

“I think it’s going to be great for California and especially L.A,” says Jessica Largey, who recently launched her chef’s-counter tasting menu at Simone. “It will bring more attention and notoriety to it as a culinary destination. It’s a very different landscape now than it was before when they were here, and I’m sure the upcoming guide will be an amazing collection of deserving restaurants.”

Melisse Michelin
Credit: Courtesy of Visit California

“I’m so excited,” says chef Teresa Montaño of Otoño. “Even at Ración [the restaurant Montaño had before Otoño], I operated like they were going to come in. It’s that inner push. I always had that in mind.”

At the same time, “I think the absence of Michelin has allowed us to be really playful and riff in L.A.,” Montaño adds. “It’s like playing experimental jazz. It will be interesting to see how everyone adapts to Michelin and how Michelin adapts to us.”

After all, if an affordable dumpling spot in Hong Kong or a chicken stand in a Singapore hawker center can earn a Michelin star, why shouldn’t a wonderful L.A. taqueria have one as well?

“Sonoratown’s great,” Citrin says. “La Palma’s burrito, you eat that and it’s perfection.”

Aitor Zabala, an El Bulli veteran who opened the Somni tasting-menu counter with fellow El Bulli veteran José Andrés at the SLS Beverly Hills hotel last year, mentions shrimp-taco truck Mariscos Jalisco and also L.A.’s wealth of Korean and Thai restaurants as other reasons why the city’s dining is so spectacular.

“Mariscos Jalisco having one star would be amazing, really,” Zabala says. “The diversity of the food and the people are what make L.A. great. In the general picture, Michelin is great for the restaurants in Los Angeles and all of California. Some people will not be happy about it, but the diversity of opinions is great.”

Having Michelin stars in L.A., Zabala says, will attract tourists who might eat at Somni one night and then go restaurant-hopping in Koreatown the next evening. It’s not unlike how a food-loving visitor might spend $500 on sushi in Tokyo one night and then stand in line for a simple plate of tonkatsu the next day.

Because this new Michelin Guide is statewide, it opens things up for the possible inclusion of restaurants like San Diego’s Addison (Southern California’s only Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five-Diamond restaurant), where chef William Bradley excels at tasting menus. There might be room for a restaurant like Costa Mesa’s Taco Maria, where Carlos Salgado serves à la carte tacos for lunch and offers grand four-course meals for dinner. And, of course, Phillip Frankland Lee hasn’t been shy about his Michelin-star aspirations at The Silver Bough in Santa Barbara.

Lee, whose restaurants also include L.A.’s Scratch Bar and Sushi Bar, hopes that the presence of the new Michelin Guide will make ambitious young cooks consider Los Angeles as a place to build their careers instead of going to Michelin-star-laden cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. And he’s excited to see which restaurants in L.A. get stars in 2019 and beyond.

“Michelin is the standard, at least the way I was brought up and taught,” Lee says. “If Michelin says you have three stars, then you are the best. I think there are a lot of restaurants in L.A. that warrant one and definitely some restaurants that warrant two. I’m really excited to see what Michelin thinks warrants three, because I think there are a few.”