Michelin Guide California on Tuesday awarded eight San Diego restaurants with the designation of Bib Gourmand, a category that’s supposed to represent an affordable “hidden gem,” as opposed to the rarefied world of Michelin-starred establishments.
It’s the first time San Diego restaurants have been rated by Michelin’s highly secretive anonymous inspectors. And the France-based arbiter of fine dining may not yet know what to make of this SoCal casual county’s dining scene.
Several of the local eateries chosen for the Bib Gourmand — in which two courses and a glass of wine or dessert are to cost $40 or less — easily exceed that and are considered among San Diego County’s elite, including Juniper & Ivy and Kettner Exchange in Little Italy, Cucina Urbana in Bankers Hill and El Jardín at Liberty Station.
As for being hidden gems, each of eight on the Bib Gourmand list, which also includes Campfire in Carlsbad, Lola 55 in the East Village, Solare at Liberty Station and Cucina Sorella in Kensington, are hiding in plain sight — they are some of the most popular and well-known restaurants in San Diego.
“Michelin reveals affordable California restaurants, from wine country to San Diego,” read the headline of the announcement of the Bib Gourmand category as part of the inaugural California guide. Restaurants awarded coveted stars will be revealed at a live ceremony Monday in Huntington Beach.
“From tacos to sushi, and from bistros to oyster bars, the highly anticipated list features 151 restaurants that represent 36 different cuisine types,” the press release said.
“In addition to the exceptional restaurants distinguished by star awards, Michelin inspectors take great pride in finding hidden gems to complete the selection that are more widely accessible for diners, whatever their budget or craving.”
The apparent disconnect to heralded, ambitious and pricier restaurants like Juniper & Ivy, Kettner Exchange and El Jardín, had some scratching their heads.
“We are happy to be recognized and included on a Michelin list, and it is awesome to see that Michelin came to San Diego. We do have some trepidation that readers might come to Juniper & Ivy expecting to have a full dining experience with a guest for $40,” Juniper & Ivy owner Mike Rosen said in an email.
“While we do offer dishes at a variety of price points, a typical full experience at our restaurant for a party of two generally goes beyond that. We have a very extensive wine program and feature a range of fully house-made dishes that utilize some of the most pristine local proteins and produce available, as well as a variety of small and large plates that our diners like to experience.”
Prices at the trendy Little Italy restaurant, which is helmed by celebrity “Top Chef All Stars” winner Richard Blais, range from about $15 to $25 for appetizers and $20 to $100 for main courses.
Several in San Diego’s food community said privately that among the eateries on the list, Juniper & Ivy’s inclusion was the most surprising; it was considered more in contention for a Michelin star than a Bib Gourmand. Some cited curious omissions, particularly in the areas where San Diego is nationally recognized, such as tacos, sushi and seafood. Only Lola 55, a chic, elevated fine-casual restaurant, is taco-centric. They’re priced from $3.25 to $4.95.
However mystifying, nothing could put a damper on the excitement of being recognized by one the world’s most prestigious restaurant rating guides.
“Loads of shouts and screaming when I heard. ... We ran down to Campfire and gave the whole staff a hug,” said John Resnick, owner of the woodfire-fueled, hip hotspot Campfire, and its neighbor restaurant Jeune et Jolie. (Jeune et Jolie, a stunning, critically acclaimed French bistro, opened in December, which may make it too new for Michelin to inspect.)
“I had my expectations pretty low. I just thought a Bib Gourmand for Campfire obviously would be really incredible, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up,” Resnick said. “I’m thinking of redoing the menu line-by-line to say ‘Bib Gourmand Award Winning Kale.’ Seriously, when we think of David Chang and (New York’s) Momofuku having a Bib Gourmand and to be in that class is so friggin’ cool.”
Tracy Borkum, owner of Cucina Urbana and Cucina Sorella, had double the elation.
“We’re honored to have two restaurants chosen!” she said in an email. “When we opened CUCINA Urbana 10 years ago, we were making a statement about the necessity to provide diners with value-driven menus focused on quality while using the best ingredients available to us. That still rings true today. ... Our restaurants are helping to lift a rising tide here in San Diego, and that’s something we’re incredibly proud of.”
For El Jardín chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, the accolade adds to an already approval-abundant year. She was San Diego’s lone 2019 James Beard Award semifinalist and her groundbreaking regional Mexican restaurant received a rave in The New York Times.
“What an appropriate location for me to receive the news. I am sitting in Mexico City looking out at a beautiful fountain, in awe of the beauty and art you see everywhere in my country,” she said by email.
“Thank you to Michelin for recognizing the food we speak through, thank you to my team that help me everyday chase my dreams and to my partner Johan (Engman) for letting me be who I am creatively. Most of all thank you to the customers who champion us daily and tell us not to quit.”
Monday’s highly anticipated Michelin star reveal could produce San Diego’s first such lauded restaurant, which can drive hordes of food-obsessed diners from around the globe to eat there. Fine dining restaurants that have been approached by Michelin fact-checkers reportedly include Addison, Mr. A’s, Mille Fleurs, George’s California Modern, Nine-Ten, Market Restaurant + Bar and The Marine Room.