In America, this year was a time of expansion for the Michelin. In June, the guide moved beyond just the Bay Area to rate restaurants across the whole state. And in honor of its 15th year in New York City, Michelin expanded to Westchester County, promptly giving Blue Hill at Stone Barns two stars in its first year of eligibility.
Despite the wider net, as Michelin rolled out its dining guides for Chicago, New York City, San Francisco and Washington D.C., there was very little movement in the rarefied air of three-star restaurants. None ascended to three this year and one lost its star: Saison. With Joshua Skenes stepping aside at the restaurant he founded to let acclaimed chef Laurent Gras run the kitchen, Michelin demoted Saison to two. However, Gras, no stranger to Michelin-starred kitchens, may well earn it back soon.
By comparison, 2018 was an active year in the upper echelons of American dining. 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 tensions between the investor and the staff.
With Saison’s demotion and no further movement elsewhere, the United States now boasts 14 restaurants that the old French tire company regards as having “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” It’s an exciting time in American gastronomy, 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 finally awarded Atelier Crenn a third last year. 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. “The first time I ate Corey’s food was at the French Laundry when he was chef de cuisine,” says Crenn. “I could taste the talent behind the food. What I love about Benu is he celebrates where he’s from—Korea—and he communicates that in a very special way.” 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
It has been an eventful year for the restaurant helmed by chef Daniel Humm. Rule changes at the World’s 50 Best meant that the restaurant that topped the rankings in 2017 could no longer appear on the list, as former No. 1s were all relegated to a “Hall of Fame” status. Then came the news that the dynamic duo of Humm and Will Guidara, who turned EMP into a fine dining powerhosue after they bought it from hall-of-fame restaurateur Danny Meyer in 2010, decided to go their separate ways. Humm remained at the restaurant, continuing to serve food with a restrained simplicity that’s rooted in his French training. Despite the changes, the restaurant retains the third star it first earned in 2012.
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. As it celebrated its 25th Anniversary this summer, the restaurant remains a beacon of American fine dining. 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 then-director when he bestowed the honor last 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. When we named the “30 Most Influential Restaurants of the Last 30 Years” Le Bernadin was among the honorees, with chef Adrienne Cheatham summing up its legacy by saying, “This restaurant dedicated itself to exploring the bounty of the sea and to challenge and change the way diners were used to not only cooking and consuming, but also purchasing seafood.”
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.
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.