This past Saturday, I had dinner at Manresa in Los Gatos, CA and completed a journey I’ve been on for the last 5 years — to eat at every Michelin 3 star restaurant in the United States.
Though it is not without controversy, the Michelin Guide is probably the most respected restaurant rating authority in the world. Their team of anonymous raters eat at restaurants in a variety of cities across the globe and assign the best 1, 2, or 3 stars. (If you’re interested in how the process works, this article in The New Yorker is a great read.) According to Michelin, a 1 star restaurant is “a very good restaurant in its category,” a 2 star offers “Excellent cooking, worth a detour,” and a 3 star restaurant has “Exceptional cuisine“ and is “worth a special journey.” (Yes, the Michelin Guide is related to the Michelin tire company and the guide was originally started to get people to drive more places.)
A restaurant obtaining 3 Michelin stars is a big deal. It is a career goal for many of the world’s best chefs and there unfortunately have been cases of suicides relating to the (potential or actual) loss of a star.
There are currently 14 such restaurants in the United States (out of 125 worldwide) — 6 in New York, 6 in the San Francisco Bay Area, and 2 in Chicago. Washington, D.C., which Michelin just started starring last year, does not have any three star restaurants (yet).
- New York: Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, Per Se, Masa, Eleven Madison Park, Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare
- San Francisco Bay Area: The French Laundry, The Restaurant at Meadowood, Benu, Saison, Manresa, Quince
- Chicago: Alinea, Grace
My first three star experience was at Jean Georges in August 2012.
I had been interested in fine dining for quite a while, but had never eaten at a 3 star restaurant, and given that I had just sold my hosting company a month prior — a celebratory meal was in order.
My dad, who lives in the New York area and has joined me at three of the 3 stars, came into the city to join me for a lovely meal at Jean Georges. Like all of its peers, Jean George’s commitment to excellence was obvious — the food was artful and tasty and the service was extremely good, yet still relaxed enough to make it an enjoyable experience. (It was amusing to see a waiter almost get tackled by another waiter for attempting to offer us more bread after we had already indicated we didn’t want more bread.) I was hooked and wanted to try more.
As someone who loves both food and customer service, eating at every 3 star restaurant in the US seemed like a good goal.
It was also consistent with my general goal to spend money on experiences rather than stuff. If you think about these restaurants as places to get a meal, you’ll make yourself sick at the prices before you sit down. However, if you think of them as experiences, it puts the time and money spent into a very different context. I put going to these restaurants in the same spending of time/money category as concerts or theater. They’re often coupled with a trip of some sort and/or the celebration of a special occasion, making the experience context even more prominent.
What interests me most about these restaurants is their commitment to excellence and ability to execute at such a high level consistently.
You can watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi or an episode of Chef’s Table to get a better sense of this, but being there really brings it to life. You’ll see that the chefs almost always have tweezers in their jacket pockets, the kitchens are run with militaristic precision, a group of waiters will bring the entire table’s dishes at once and pour sauces at the exact same time, and so on.
It’s very impressive to see all of this in action, especially when you think of how much work it is to get ~30 guests exquisitely cooked and beautifully presented food at exactly the right time while still accommodating dietary restrictions, different pacing, and tons of other variables. Oh, and trying to make money in the process.
I recently ate at Grace in Chicago and they had a quote prominently displayed in their kitchen (right next to their Michelin 3 star plaque) that summed it up quite nicely:
Grace and its Michelin 3 star peers take this responsibility quite seriously. You can learn a lot from the best people/places/companies in their respective areas and these restaurants are no exception. As part of this journey, I’ve gained a whole new level of appreciation for the creativity, craftsmanship, and pure operational excellence that goes into being the best at something. I encourage you to try one or more of these amazing restaurants and do the same.
By far, the most frequently asked question: Which was your favorite? Eleven Madison Park. They did a great job at making the experience memorable without making it look like they try too hard. Others seem to agree; EMP was recently named the best restaurant in the world by the World’s 50 Best Restaurant ranking.
Least favorite? Least favorite is unfair, but the one I would be least likely to recommend is Masa. I love sushi and Masa is undoubtedly an excellent restaurant, but it is hard to recommend it given the cost. Masa is the most expensive in a cohort of already very expensive restaurants and there are a number of amazing sushi restaurants in New York that cost a lot less, such as the (not yet starred, but I suspect at least 2 star) Sushi Nakazawa.
Which was the most unique? My boyfriend and I ate at the chef’s table at the Restaurant at Meadowood and it was great. There were two high top-type tables of two in the actual kitchen and head chef Christopher Kostow was there all night and actively chatted with us while serving courses. We even got to see some kitchen drama. (If we just ate in the dining room, I don’t think Meadowood would have stood out in any particular way.)
How did you get the reservations? I secured almost every reservation through the American Express Platinum Card concierge service. They have relationships with most of these restaurants and were always super helpful. They are not miracle workers, so don’t have high hopes of securing a last minute Friday night reservation at one of these places, but if you plan in advance, they can make the process a lot easier.
Which one are you going back to first? My birthday is later this month and I am going to Benu again to celebrate. Eleven Madison Park has been closed this summer while they revamp the restaurant, so I will be making a point to try it again once they reopen.
Can you tell the difference between 1, 2, and 3 star places? My opinion is that there is a pretty significant difference (on average) between 1 and 2 star restaurants, but the difference between 2 and 3 is quite subtle.
Who did you go with? It was a varying cast of characters, with a mix of friends, family, and folks I met through work. Special thanks to the people who joined me at more than one place, including my boyfriend Chris (5 of the 13), my dad (3), my mom (2), and my friend and former co-worker Graham (2).
What’s next? I am pretty close (just two to go, with plans already set for one of them) to having eaten at every Michelin 2 star in both San Francisco and New York. I may expand that objective to include the entire US as well. 🙂 I’m also aiming to eat at every Michelin 1 star in the San Francisco Bay Area.
(One thing to note — Saison and Benu were both 2 star restaurants when I ate there.)