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Star Struck

Contra Costa Doesn't Translate in Ze Michelin Guide.


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Photo by Lori Eanes

Not on our radar seemed to be the only explanation offered to Contra Costa restaurants when Michelin, the revered French guide to the world’s top restaurants, came out this fall with its latest Bay Area guide.

“The East Bay is a beautiful area, but it’s difficult to cover everything all the time,” says Michelin Director Jean-Luc Naret of the guide’s decision to overlook Contra Costa eateries not only for Michelin’s coveted stars, but for any mention in the guide at all. With his trademark crisp white dress shirt, perfect tan, and quintessentially French insouciance, the Paris-born Naret is the epitome of unflappable cool. “But we are expanding the area that we cover every year, and that includes the East Bay.”

In the latest guide, Michelin does cover the urban East Bay—and in so doing comes up with some real doozies. Two restaurants you wouldn’t be incorrect to call temples of food and drink, Eccolo in Berkeley and Flora in Oakland, get no mention. Yet, an entry devoted to Berkeley’s raw-food, vegan Café Gratitude assures readers they can “be grateful … no animals are sacrificed to feed you here.” Whaah? This is Michelin, from the people who brought you foie gras.

Other inclusions are equally puzzling. Adagia in Berkeley? Hmmm. Caffè Verbena in downtown Oakland? Udupi Palace in Berkeley? Well, sure, but then, to be fair, you should open the floodgates to a host of other cheap and excellent ethnic food haunts.

Meanwhile, Chez Panisse gets the East Bay’s one and only Michelin star (for the third year running).

One could argue that Contra Costa may be too suburban or too far afield for Michelin, but that reasoning doesn’t stand up when the guide lists restaurants such as the Village Pub (one star) in the horsey suburb Woodside, or Nick’s Cove, a wonderful restaurant just a few miles from nowhere in Tomales Bay. Yet, places like Prima and Va de Vi in Walnut Creek, and Gigi and Metro in Lafayette don’t make the cut.

Peter Chastain, chef-owner of Prima, isn’t holding his breath. “I’d love to have Michelin notice us—it would be a feather in my cap. But I don’t lose sleep over it,” he says. “If I cook really well and do it day after day, and pay attention to my clientele, they will come. I don’t know how relevant Michelin really is to the California genre.”

Chastain, who took the reins at Prima 10 years ago with partner–wine director John Rittmaster, doesn’t believe that getting a Michelin star would have a huge impact on a restaurant like his. “The Michelin Guide is yet another resource for guests … but working to be a top-quality restaurant and wine store is really what drives us. In the end, public acclaim and/or criticism, though it may feel good or bad at the moment, is not what we work for.”

And if chefs and critics do take umbrage? Well, it’s something Naret has come to expect from the Bay Area, ever since the guide first touched down here in 2006. When Michelin arrived in Northern California and doled out only a fistful of stars, the food world erupted in outrage like a scene out of Ratatouille. In kitchens and newspaper food columns from South of Market to St. Helena, chefs ranted, restaurateurs railed, and critics sniffed dismissively. San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer was quoted in the paper as saying that “the inspectors don’t get the Bay Area food scene.”

Naret took it all in stride. “I think Michael Bauer expected us to put a stamp on his selections,” he recalls. “We had a different opinion.

“After the first guide came out, I personally called Alice Waters, and she was quite happy. She said, ‘Wow—I’ve dreamed all of my life of getting one star. I based my restaurant on the one-star restaurants in France.’”

In this year’s edition, French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s storied restaurant in Yountville, remains the only restaurant in Northern California to receive three stars. Daniel Patterson’s San Francisco restaurant, Coi, has joined the ranks of new two-stars.

As to how Michelin has been received by the Bay Area’s notoriously opinionated dining public, Naret is sanguine. “When we came into San Francisco three years ago, a lot of people were happy to see us here. We offered a different point of view. It’s up to your own experience to decide if it’s the right selection or not.”

 

This year’s Michelin Guide mentions 32 restaurants in three East Bay cities:

Albany: Fonda.
Berkeley: Adagia, Ajanta, Bistro Liaison, Café Gratitude, César (Berkeley only), Chez Panisse (one star), Downtown, Indus Village, Lalime’s, O Chamé, Rivoli, Sea Salt, Tacubaya, Udupi Palace, Vanessa’s Bistro, Zatar.
Oakland: À Coté, Bay Wolf, Bellanico, Caffè Verbena, Citron, Doña Tomás, Dopo, Jojo, Mono (closed), Oliveto, Pizzaiolo, Tamarindo, Uzen, Wood Tavern, Zachary’s Chicago Pizza (Oakland only).
 

Additional reporting by Michaela Jarvis.

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