Michelin Guide D.C. 2020 – Thoughts

Over the last two weeks Michelin has announced its 2020 guide star restaurants for D.C. and its Bib Gourmand selections.  After a couple days to mull it over, I have some thoughts.  For reference, here are the Michelin star restaurants (Bib Gourmands at the bottom of the post).  In parenthesis is our site rating for that place.

Three stars: Inn at Little Washington (Splurge Worthy)

Two stars: Minibar (Splurge Worthy)*; Pineapple and Pearls (Splurge Worthy)

One star: 

Bresca (Worth Paying for Cab)
The Dabney (Worth Paying for Cab)
Fiola (Splurge Worthy)
Gravitas (new) (Splurge Worthy)
Kinship (Splurge Worthy)
Komi (Splurge Worthy)
Little Pearl (new) (Worth Paying for Cab)
Masseria (Splurge Worthy)
Maydan (new) (Worth Paying for Cab)
Metier (Splurge Worthy)
Plume (Splurge Worthy)
Rose’s Luxury (Worth Paying for Cab)
Sushi Nakazawa (new) (untried – RIP Ben Franklin Post Office)
Sushi Taro (Splurge Worthy)
Tail Up Goat (Worth Paying for Cab)

Washington is a One Star Town:

The first thought is that there are more restaurants in our fair town that deserve one star.  The relationship between Michelin and D.C. has been strange.  There is a scrappiness about the local dining scene that is more idiosyncratic than Michelin is used to.  Many of the restaurants that are recognized now grew up on the fringes – culinary and geographic.  For years, dining was dominated by beef-based mainstays that occupied downtown and Georgetown, with some French and Italian thrown in for good measure.  A little over a decade ago, things started to change.  Taking advantage of gentrification’s population wave and cheaper rents, restaurants that were personal in perspective sprouted.  Instead of trying to match the preferences of the crowds, these upstarts put out what they liked and waited to see if the crowds came.  Not all of them survived, but the model proved successful enough.

In that wake came much of the current list, generally located a few blocks from the beaten path and almost defiant in their personality.  Not all of them have the polish or setting that would be expected from a Michelin star spot, but it is satisfying that Michelin was able to see what they offer.  In that category I would put:  Pineapple and Pearls, Bresca, The Dabney, Gravitas, Komi, Little Pearl, Rose’s Luxury, and Tail Up Goat.  One problem for understanding Michelin’s criteria, once you crack the door open to some places there are many other places that should qualify.  For example, Maydan made the cut this year, but its neighbors Rooster & Owl and Seven Reasons did not.  If you say yes to The Dabney, then why not A Rake’s Progress?

Beyond the quirky places, there are also classic restaurants that should be on this list.  Marcel’s and Michelin seem to be in a contest to see who will blink first.  Marcel’s is on the verge of a star, and has been for years.  There is something that Michelin wants them to change, but Marcel’s won’t do it.  I don’t know what that is, but the bottom line is Michelin is wrong about Marcel’s.  Michelin says they judge on “quality of product; personality; mastery of technique; value; and consistency between visits.”  Marcel’s food, service, wine list, and setting are all on par with any place listed with one star and, in my opinion, beat many of them.

The classic places that did make the list are not surprising: Fiola, Masseria, Plume, Kinship, and Metier.  Sushi Nakazawa seems constructed to meet the Michelin ideal of a sushi place (at least in the United States).  Sushi Taro is an unusual selection based on its setting, but it is laudable Michelin can see past that.  Inn at Little Washington got its third star last year, although it felt like a career achievement award more than a response to any change the restaurant made to elevate its work.

In addition to Marcel’s, there are at least two other places that should have garnered a star.  Despite going through some turmoil, Mirabelle is firing on all cylinders.  It is of the classic model.  Unlike some, I do not question Plume being on the list, but if it is then Mirabelle qualifies too.  The other spot that should make the cut is Sushi Ogawa, especially its bar omakase service.

…But there is at least one more two star:

I am glad Washington (big or little) has a three star spot, but right now D.C. is not a three star city.  It does not have the money of San Francisco, NYC, London or Paris to support multiple restaurants competing for that category.  The two places that did get two stars (P&P and minibar) are less like grand temples and more like exquisite chapels.  They are focused, personal in touch, and more casual than one might expect for two stars.  What I cannot explain is why Metier does not have two stars.

Michelin’s Blind Spots are Washington’s Strengths:

There are places that did not make the cut that caused some consternation.  The shoe-box Bad Saint fell off the Bib Gourmand list, raising the possibility that it might get a star.  It didn’t.  Little Serow also did not get a star.  Both of those places are excellent and could easily justify a star along the lines of Tail Up Goat or Maydan.  Likewise, if Bresca makes the cut, then a strong case could be made for Centrolina.  In similar settings both are doing exceptional versions of their cuisine.  It should also be noted that not a single chef on the list is a woman, which may be a problem of investors more than Michelin.  Del Mar did not make the list, but I assume for the same reason that Fiola Mare did not.  It is too much of a factory to match Michelin’s biases.

Forty-four places earned Bib Gourmand recognition for great value at around $40.  Michelin also gives out a “plate” rating for a good meal with fresh ingredients and capable preparation.”  120 places earned that designation. (for those keeping score at home, Michelin has 127 restaurants in its online guide for D.C.  Our humble site – 17° Cork by Northwest – has about 250 recommended restaurants).  Some of the Bib Gourmand places are curious for how they did their math to get them under the price cap.  Many of them are places that our Dining Guide rates highly, but have never spent less than $40 a head at, including: American Son, Astoria (literally everything is $14 – so two small plates and a drink is $42!), China Chilcano, Chloe, Hazel, Joselito’s, Kaliwa, Sfoglina (!).  The fact Michelin is jamming them into the Bib Gourmand category is confirmation that so much of what is really good about D.C. dining falls between the cracks of Michelin’s categories.

Michelin started doing a D.C. guide in 2017 (released in 2016).  They still have blind spots, and possibly a lack of commitment.  For example, Mirabelle’s description includes this passive-aggressive note: “a new team is taking a crack at the elevated fare that originally put them on the map—and the dishes are stronger than ever.”  The reality is the team is not new, it is over a year old.  They are not taking a “crack” at it like a school project.  The executive chef was the sous at three star Alinea.  The food was always elevated, but the new version is more experimental than Ruta’s classically-focused fare when it opened, so that is misleading.  Likewise, “stronger than ever” is not a useful reference if you do not define what the food was like in the age of “ever.”  They call Bad Saint “a local gem.”  So is the Hope Diamond.  They also say that Bad Saint takes reservations by email –  when in fact, reservations can be made on its site.

There are also places that get recognition that don’t make sense.  I don’t want to dump on specific places, but there is more than one on the Bib list that seems to be there for buzz more than quality.  They are fine, but do not meet our standards for being a recommended restaurant, or are merely “Worth Trying Out” rather than a highly-recommended value.  Also, Blue Duck Tavern lost its star this year, but the fact it got a star in the first place was a bit of a head-scratcher.

Work To Do:

Having a Michelin Guide for D.C. is a boost.  It is a recognition of the quality that is sprouting up from new places and the effort to sustain by established places.  It is a monetary boost for those places that are recognized.  It is also another voice so that the Washington Post is not hegemonic in its judgments.  Some of the most interesting Michelin insights are where they disagree with the Post’s Tom Sietsema.  He gave Gravitas 2.5 stars (upgraded from 2.0) where Michelin gave a star.  He gives Rasika 4 stars, Michelin gave it none.  The irony is that the flaws of Michelin’s conservatism are highlighted by a town thought to be as traditional as D.C. But D.C. is changing.  Michelin is trying to adapt, but struggling.  Michelin does provide a service, but it is of limited value for our city.

Don Rockwell, a pre-eminent voice on D.C. dining, said after the 2020 list came out: “Having just dined in a (legitimate) 3-star restaurant this evening, I have a message for both Michelin and Washington, DC: You’ve got some work to do – both of you.”  He did not expound on that thought, but it does capture some of the thoughts above.  Washington does have work to do.  It lacks a super-rich class like San Francisco or New York.  But it can compete with a place like Chicago (25 starred restaurants) or Philadelphia.  There is no reason why dining cannot be part of the city’s allure.

As for Michelin, it is getting smarter about the District, but still makes dumb mistakes.  Friends mock this site for claiming to be Washington, D.C.’s Third Best Dining Guide.  They also ask who we think are the top two.  We can tell you Michelin does not get a top three position on our scale.  Maybe one day they will spend the time and resources necessary to be a premier dining guide for D.C.  When they do, we will buy them dinner to celebrate.  At Marcel’s.

Here are the Bib Gourmands for 2020:

American Son (NEW)
Astoria DC (NEW)
Cane (NEW)
China Chilcano
Fancy Radish
Federalist Pig (NEW)
Hanumanh (NEW)
Ivy City Smokehouse
Joselito’s Casa de Comidas
Laos in Town (NEW)
Napoli Pasta Bar
Ottoman Taverna
Pearl Dive Oyster Palace
Primrose (NEW)
The Red Hen
Spoken English
Stellina Pizzeria (NEW)
Taqueria Habanero (NEW)
Thip Khao
Tiger Fork
Timber Pizza Co.
Toki Underground
Unconventional Diner
Zenebech (NEW)

* We had not tried minibar at the time of the original posting.  Updated to reflect that change.