It was an active year in the upper echelons of American dining. As Michelin rolled out its dining guides for Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington D.C., there was a shake-up in the rarefied air of three-star restaurants.
The Inn at Little Washington earned a third; Atelier Crenn finally won top honors; and SingleThread brought the total number of Bay Area three-star restaurants up to eight. On the downside, Coi fell to two stars after the chef quit to compete in the culinary Olympics, and Grace abruptly shuttered amid a blow-up between the investor and the staff.
After it all shook out, the United States now boasts 15 restaurants that the old French tire company regards as having “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” It’s the most ever at one time in America, but to put it in perspective, there are 13 three-star establishments in Tokyo alone. So while American fine dining is gaining respect around the world, there’s still plenty of room to grow. But here are the restaurants that have reached the top, from Alinea to SingleThread.
Ever since Michelin first came to the Windy City for its 2011 edition, chef Grant Achatz’s temple of molecular gastronomy has held three stars. Drawing on flavors from around the world—one course may be a chicken thigh with Mexican spices, while a rare Japanese fish may be another—Alinea’s modernist cuisine is strongly influenced from the time he spent at Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli. The restaurant is a showcase of advanced technique where food is dehydrated, subjected to liquid nitrogen, and you may even be fed an edible balloon.
Atelier Crenn, San Francisco
Better late than never. Since opening in 2011 chef Dominique Crenn has put out a soulful, artistic take on modern French fare. After sitting at two stars for years, Michelin has finally awarded Atelier Crenn a third. The guide wrote that “The current menu displays a wonderful balance of grace, artistry, technical ability and taste.” With the honor, Crenn became the first woman to run a Michelin three-star restaurant in America. Not only that, her newest restaurant Bar Crenn—an ode to classic French gastronomy—picked up a star in its first year of eligibility.
Benu, San Francisco
Among his peers, chef Corey Lee is highly revered. Praised for his technical ability and refinement of dishes, Lee’s Benu earned its third star in the 2015 guide. Lee has merged flavors from Korea, China, and Japan with techniques he honed as the French Laundry’s chef de cuisine for four years. The result is a lauded tasting menu that will feature dishes like an oyster with pork belly and kimchi; or smoked quail, lilies, and fermented pepper.
Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, New York City
The name is a bit of a misnomer, as chef César Ramirez has moved his fine-dining restaurant from Downtown Brooklyn to Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. But the format has endured. Diners sit arrayed around a counter, the chefs in full view preparing them a multi-course tasting menu of French-Japanese fusion cuisine. When Brooklyn Fare earned its third star a Michelin inspector told the New York Times “I don’t believe there is anything quite like it in the world, though you might see the closest parallels in Tokyo or Kyoto. If you took the cuisine out of the setting it would compare favorably with other three stars.”
Eleven Madison Park, New York City
The dynamic duo of chef Daniel Humm and Will Guidara bought Eleven Madison Park from hall-of-fame restaurateur Danny Meyer in 2010 and have been remaking this bustling brasserie in their image ever since. Now much more of a serene presence, serving a beautifully crafted menu that honors Humm’s quest for elegance and simplicity, rooted in his French training, the restaurant graduated to three stars in 2012 and in 2017 topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. This year EMP slid to fourth on the global rankings, but remains the highest entry for an American restaurant.
French Laundry, Yountville, CA
Around since the early 1900s, The French Laundry was transformed by Thomas Keller into a leader of American fine dining after taking it over in 1994. Rooted in his love of French food and technique, the nine-course menu features dishes like a cauliflower velouté with toasted marcona almonds, john dory with creamed black trumpet mushrooms, squab with sunchokes, and venison with caramelized Brussels sprouts. One of the greatest testaments to the French Laundry’s influence has been the sheer number of alumni who have opened acclaimed restaurants of their own, from Grant Achatz’s Alinea, to Corey Lee’s Benu, to Rene Redzepi’s Noma, to Jordan Kahn’s Vespertine. Like his idol Paul Bocuse, Keller has created a proving ground for exceptional chefs.
The Inn at Little Washington, Washington, VA
It took three years for Michelin to deem a DC-area restaurant worthy of three stars, and it’s not a surprise that when it finally happened Patrick O’Connell’s Inn would be on the receiving end. Nestled near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in a town of less than 200 people, he opened in a former garage, building it into a temple of gastronomy over the last four decades. The self-taught chef pioneered American farm-to-table cooking, while leaning on modern French technique that the Gallic food guide especially loves. “Over several visits, our inspectors were most impressed by the balance of creative, chef-driven cuisine and impeccable technique from chef O’Connell,” said Michael Ellis, the Michelin Guide’s director when he bestowed the honor earlier this year.
Le Bernardin, New York City
Eric Ripert helms one of the finest seafood restaurants in America. Le Bernardin originally opened in 1986, an import from Paris, and was a hit immediately upon arriving on our shores. Ripert took over the kitchen in 1994, continuing the approach of exceptional seafood, simply prepared. The menu is divided into those preparations of “Almost Raw” where geoduck sashimi is dressed with ginger-ponzu. Then there’s “Barely Touched” where yellowfin tuna and langoustines get the lightest sear. And there’s the “Lightly Cooked,” where you may find pan roasted monkfish with squid ink fideos and a chorizo emulsion.
Manresa, Los Gatos, CA
It’s cliché to say a chef embraces farm-to-table, but David Kinch has been a pioneer in developing vegetable-centric, contemporary California cuisine. Utilizing the bounty of Golden State produce, he’s inspired by the region, making dishes like Tidal Pool that mimics the rocky coasts of the Bay Area. It’s a rich broth that poaches a raw slice of foie gras and is accompanied by uni, butter clams, mussels, oyster, pickled kombu, toasted nori, and shitake mushrooms. His influence continues around California with alums opening their own outstanding restaurants, like James Syhabout of two-Michelin-starred Commis in Oakland, Jeremy Fox of Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica and Josef Centeno of PYT in Los Angeles. Another fire at Manresa shut the restaurant down this year, as it had two years ago, but Kinch has bounced back again to reopen his flagship.
Masa, New York City
One of the most expensive tasting menus in America, chef Masa Takayama serves up an omakase sushi experience at his eponymous restaurant in New York’s Time Warner Center on the corner of Central Park. The Japanese-born chef moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s and eventually opened Ginza Sushi-ko, which helped establish the city’s love for sushi. In 2004, with encouragement from Thomas Keller, he moved to New York to create Masa. Fish from Japan is flown in directly to him from Tsujiki Fish Market to ensure the highest-quality product for his customers. In the 2009 guide, it became the first Japanese restaurant in America to earn three stars.
Per Se, New York City
As Thomas Keller prepared to bring his Francophile cooking to New York after much success with the French Laundry out in Napa, he was asked how his new restaurant would compare to the one that had established him as an iconic American chef. He’d respond, “It’s not the French Laundry, per se.” The name stuck. Like the French Laundry, Per Se serves a nine-course menu, replete with his take on modern French.
Quince, San Francisco
Chef Michael Tusk has combined his love of Northern Italian cuisine with his surrounds in Northern California, to evolve classics like tortellini into modern American fare. Opened in 2003, Quince earned its third Michelin star in the 2017 guide. As with fellow pillars of contemporary California cuisine in the Bay Area, Quince is devoted to sourcing the best product. Tusk has created a partnership with Fresh Run Farm—an early adopter of organic farming—to grow heirloom fruits, vegetables, and flowers exclusively for the chef.
The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena, CA
When chef Christopher Kostow led Meadowood to its third Michelin star for the 2011 guide, he became only the second restaurant outside of New York to earn the award. And, at the age of 33, he was the third-youngest chef ever to reach Michelin’s pinnacle. The restaurant, located at the Meadowood Resort in St. Helena, has become a leader in modern American cuisine, driven by terroir and produce of the Napa Valley.
Saison, San Francisco
Joshua Skenes grew up in Jacksonville, and considered heading to art school, but decided to attend the French Culinary Institute instead, working for Jean-Georges Vongerichten while still in school. He originally opened Saison as a pop-up in San Francisco, but its popularity led to a permanent location serving a nightly 18-course menu of modern American cuisine, while Phil Collins plays in the background. Skenes’ cooking has a naturalistic streak, involving himself in the how squabs are raised to feed diners, working with a local fisherman for Bay area seafood, and cooking directly with fire. In the past year he’s stepped back from running Saison day-to-day, handing the reins to one of the world’s great chefs, Laurent Gras, who was able to maintain the three stars in the 2019 San Francisco guide despite the change at the top.
SingleThread, Healdsburg, CA
Husband and wife duo Kyle and Katina Connaughton wanted to open more than just a restaurant when they debuted SingleThread in Sonoma in 2016. From the inn above the restaurant, to the farm, to the 11-course tasting menu, the two create an immersive and comprehensive experience. The Japanese-inflected food is informed by Kyle’s time as a chef around the globe. Among many stints, he worked at the famed chef Michel Bras’ restaurant in Hokkaido, Japan, made pastries at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Beverly Hills; and led the research kitchen at Heston Blumenthal’s temple of molecular gastronomy The Fat Duck.