There was substantial buzz in the Santa Barbara restaurant community back in early March when it was announced that the region would be, for the first time, analyzed by the Michelin Guide. The globally respected culinary review book series, which was founded by the French tire company in 1900, is best known for awarding stars to the world’s top restaurants.
Its first American guide was issued in 2005 and focused on New York City. San Francisco and the Napa Valley has been analyzed since 2007, and Los Angeles was under the microscope briefly from 2008 to 2010. But this year, thanks to the support of Visit California, which reportedly gave $600,000 in support, the Michelin Man made a triumphant return to the Golden State, with anonymous critics again hitting restaurants in L.A. as well as brand-new territories in Sacramento, San Diego, and parts of the Central Coast.
When the stars were doled out at a beachside bash last Monday in Huntington Beach, 69 restaurants — including ones in Sacramento, Carmel, and San Diego, though San Francisco/Napa and Los Angeles led the pack — were awarded one star, 14 garnered two stars, and seven reached the top of the Michelin pyramid by snagging the coveted three-star ranking. Santa Barbara, meanwhile, got skunked in the stars department.
It was not a complete loss: Sama Sama Kitchen and Mesa Verde were honored with the “Bib Gourmand” selection, which recognize great meals for under $40, and 11 establishments were listed as “Plates,” where, according to Michelin, “inspectors have discovered quality food.” They are Barbareño, Bella Vista at the Biltmore, Belmond El Encanto, Blackbird at the Hotel Californian, the Lark, La Super-Rica Taqueria, Los Agaves, the Stonehouse at San Ysidro Ranch, Smithy’s Kitchen + Bar (now closed), Yoichi’s, and, in Solvang, First & Oak. (Could that be a gambler’s guide to where they may be looking in 2020?)
When asked about Santa Barbara specifically, a Michelin Guide spokesperson explained, “Inspectors were impressed with the immediate potential in the area. … It’s important to emphasize that there is no set number of stars we look for each year. Whether our inspectors are judging a potential three star, two star, one star, Bib Gourmand, or $25 and under, the criteria is always the same: It is all about the food on the plate. Just being included in the selection is an honor — the Guide does not include every restaurant in a market, only those that are notable. And only about 14 percent of the restaurants in the selection will receive star distinctions. Michelin inspectors will continue to closely follow Santa Barbara restaurants over the next year.”
The reaction from Santa Barbara’s restaurant community has been somewhat muted, although Barbareño co-owner Jesse Gaddy put an honest and gracious spin on it. “Of course I hoped Barbareño would get a star, but it’s not a total surprise we didn’t,” said Gaddy. “I don’t think it’s unfair that no one in Santa Barbara got a star. I think we are growing a lot as a restaurant town, but there’s no doubt we can be better. Speaking for Barbareño, I know there are tons of things we can do to improve to the point where I’d feel we really 100 percent deserved a star.”
For many observers, the stumbling block for Santa Barbara, which is one of the original homes for the now widespread farm-to-table cuisine movement, might be the service. Michelin Guides place a high bar on professionalism in the dining room, and given that much of Santa Barbara’s waitstaff are of a transient nature — often college students just working a temporary job — that could prove a lingering disadvantage.
The region’s travel boosters welcome the added attention, even without any stars this first time around. “It’s an incredible honor that Michelin found a wide range of our local restaurants worthy of attention, from taquerias to fine-dining restaurants, as well as the region’s wine scene,” said Kathy Janega-Dykes, the president and CEO of Visit Santa Barbara. “This reflects just how far our culinary scene has come in a short time and is a tribute to the creativity and hard work of local chefs and their teams. We are confident this will enhance the reputation of Santa Barbara as a culinary destination and attract visitors from far and wide to experience all our region has to offer.”