HUNTINGTON BEACH — San Diego joined the world’s dining elite Monday, when the city’s first Michelin star was awarded to the luxurious Carmel Valley restaurant Addison.
At a ceremony for the inaugural Michelin Guide California in Huntington Beach, which was attended by a who’s who of the state’s top chefs and restaurateurs, Addison executive chef and San Diego native William Bradley accepted the illustrious award for the 13-year-old bastion of fine dining at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar.
“We’re just so happy and so honored to be part of such a prestigious guide representing San Diego and Addison. It’s just amazing,” Bradley said after the awards were given out. “It was surreal. To be standing on that stage with that backdrop and with all those amazing chefs. It’s a dream.”
Among the celebrated chefs in attendance were José Andrés, Michael Cimarusti, Michael Mina, Niki Nakayama, and Ludo Lefebvre. A total of 90 California restaurants were awarded stars at Monday’s reveal event, 69 with one star (for “High quality cooking, worth a stop”), 14 with two stars (“Excellent cuisine, worth a detour”) and seven with three stars (“Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”). Among the three-star recipients, all were repeat winners; no new three-star designations were given.
It was the first time eateries in San Diego, Orange County, Santa Barbara and Sacramento were in consideration by the ultra-influential France-based rating organization. Until this year, only restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, including wine country, were being inspected by Michelin’s meticulous — some say persnickety — army of anonymous judges. (The San Francisco guide will be folded into the first statewide guide.) Michelin had rated restaurants in Los Angeles beginning in 2008, but folded operations just two years later, during the Great Recession.
“Our inspectors have been very impressed with the level of world-class gastronomy,” said Gwendal Poullennec, international director of the Michelin Guides. “From wine country to San Diego, (California) is a culinary powerhouse.”
Addison’s achievement capped an emotional roller-coaster week in a select segment of the San Diego food community, first with a high on Tuesday as eight county restaurants — Juniper & Ivy, El Jardín, Kettner Exchange, Cucina Urbana, Cucina Sorella, Campfire, Solare and Lola 55 — were awarded Michelin’s Bib Gourmand designation as more affordable “hidden gems.” Elation quickly turned to disappointment for several of them, though, since a Bib Gourmand designation meant they were knocked out of contention for a Michelin star.
As the week went on, anxiety and speculation roiled other chefs and restaurateurs who had been contacted by Michelin fact-checkers earlier in the judging process. They waited for invitations to Monday’s ceremony and finally realized they wouldn’t be coming; in the end, only Addison had been invited.
Addison, a gilded gustatory temple where a 10-course tasting menu of its refined, contemporary haute cuisine costs $265 per person, was considered San Diego County’s only shoo-in for a Michelin star. Since 2009, the restaurant has been the sole local establishment, and among the rare few in Southern California, to be awarded both Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five Diamond accolades. Most importantly, it has all the ingredients that Michelin stars notoriously require — super-luxe surroundings, formal, fastidious service and a world-class wine collection with 36,000 bottles.
Bradley, 43, who is known for his uncompromising approach to the precision of French technique, insistence on the finest and most luxurious ingredients, and laser focus on achieving the ultimate balance and flavor in a dish, has for years been hailed by fellow chefs, in San Diego and beyond.
The cachet of a restaurant getting a Michelin star can’t be overstated. Beyond the industry-wide adulation it brings, legions of food lovers around the globe plan pilgrimages around meals at starred establishments, many of which are the most expensive on the planet.
“I think this is a recognition of what a lot of us locally have known: that San Diego’s culinary scene has been rising and improving over the past several years and this is proof that we’re starting to get recognition,” said Candice Eley, director of communications for the San Diego Tourism Authority.
Eley said that while she didn’t know of any economic impact studies on the effect of Michelin coming into a community, she said anecdotally it’s known to improve business.
“There’s not a lot of cities in the U.S. that have Michelin recognition, so that alone will be a great differentiator and a great draw,” she said. “I also saw places that get Bib Gourmand (awards) see a big boost. People associate the restaurants with stars with a special occasion. The Bib Gourmands are more accessible.”
The late French chef Joël Robuchon, who held the record for having the most Michelin stars, 32 in 2016, said in a 2017 Food & Wine article that he had quantified the financial increase stars bring. “With one Michelin star, you get about 20 percent more business,” he said. “Two stars, you do about 40 percent more business, and with three stars, you’ll do about 100 percent more business. So from a business point ... you can see the influence of the Michelin guide.”
Michelin will allow San Diego to do more marketing outreach as a dining destination, said John Gordon, a San Diego restaurant analyst. But it won’t only put the region on the must-visit map with the food obsessed.
“What I am painfully aware of is this will give us some credibility into attracting new talents to town, which is critical. To the degree we can offer people that, to attract other stars into the market, that is all extremely positive,” Gordon said.
The first California-wide Michelin Guide reflects the ascendancy of the state’s ingredient-driven culinary prowess, as well as the rise of noted restaurants beyond the New York-Chicago-San Francisco triumvirate. Los Angeles, in particular, is considered by many to be the most dynamic and exciting food city in America right now. Michelin awarded stars to two dozen Los Angeles restaurants Monday.
Rating restaurants in casual Southern California proved to be somewhat vexing for the straight-laced organization. The lack of French formality may color some inspectors’ view of even the most sophisticated SoCal spots, some San Diego chefs said privately. The Bib Gourmand inclusion of such ambitious, and relatively expensive, restaurants as Juniper & Ivy, Kettner Exchange and El Jardín had locals scratching their heads.
The new guide came about through an unconventional partnership with Visit California, which promotes the Golden State’s $132 billion-plus tourism industry. Visit California worked with Michelin to launch the guide and reportedly paid $600,000 to underwrite restaurant inspection operations.
Michelin Guides began in 1900 when the French tire company sought to increase demand for cars, and thereby tires, by providing recommendations on where to eat and stay throughout France. As the guides’ reach expanded to other countries in Europe in 1911 and beyond, so did Michelin’s clout. Today, it rates restaurants in 25 countries.
Japan leads the world with the most three-star establishments, followed by France and the U.S. There are only about 100 three-star restaurants in the world, Poullennec said.
Thomas Keller, of French Laundry and Per Se fame, holds seven Michelin stars, making him America’s most-decorated chef.
He is also Bradley’s mentor — the two first met in 2010 when Keller ate at Addison. The superstar chef was wowed, telling the Robb Report, “I felt it the first time I walked into his kitchen ... It’s a sense of confidence, knowledge, and respect. He cooked me a piece of bass with crispy skin. His was one of the most crisp, perfect pieces of fish I’ve ever had.” In a 2016 interview with the Union-Tribune, Keller praised Bradley’s “simple yet elegant” food and said, “Addison is a restaurant with a soul.”
Bradley, who was accompanied at the beachside event by his wife, Kyra, said he wasn’t surprised the new statewide guide didn’t include any new three-star establishments, even among the acclaimed spots in Los Angeles.
“It’s a journey; a lot of excellent restaurants start off slowly and they work their way to the top. It takes time,” he said.
“You know, I wish they would have had one, there are so many great restaurants in L.A. It would have been great. But we take what we can get, and we honor it and we love it and protect it.”