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Michelin Heads to the West Coast

The famous French dining guide follows up its New York debut with an edition for San Francisco

Daniel Sogg
Posted: April 6, 2006

First came New York last November, now the Red Guide has San Francisco in its sights. Michelin announced yesterday that its second North American restaurant-and-hotel guide, covering the San Francisco Bay area from San Jose up to Napa and Sonoma, is scheduled for release this October.

Though San Francisco had been tentatively slated to follow the New York pilot project, this is the first official acknowledgement from Michelin that the edition is in the works. "It's very exciting that we're the second city [after New York]," said Michael Mina, executive chef at San Francisco's Restaurant Michael Mina. "We're definitely different in style, but it's positive for Bay-area restaurants to be recognized."

The announcement came at a noon press conference held at the Justin Herman Plaza, in front of the San Francisco Ferry Building. The Michelin Man mascot, Bibendum, was in attendance, toting a wooden fork and knife.

Jean-Luc Naret, director of the Guides, said that five Michelin inspectors have been evaluating area restaurants since November. Another dozen or so inspectors from Europe will arrive during the next few months. They've got the proverbial full plate: Inspectors started with a list of 950 candidate restaurants, and subsequent research expanded that by 150. Naret said the first "star meeting," at which inspectors allocate the Guide's coveted stars, will take place in May. Final decisions are slated for August, when the Guide goes to print.

Considered by many to be the bible of French gastronomy, the Michelin Red Guide has recently come under scrutiny, with some critics arguing that its standards are too formal and rigid. In 2004, a former inspector wrote a book critical of the evaluation process.

The 2006 New York City guide provoked animated conversation and garnered mixed reviews. One repeated critique was that the ratings are too Franco-centric, which Naret disputes. "We gave [Japanese restaurant] Masa two stars. In every single country, we have inspectors from that country, and the editor is from that country," he said.

Perhaps the biggest question is how Michelin inspectors will respond to the informality of the Bay-area dining scene, which is more casual than either New York or Paris. "It will be very interesting to see what they think. But everything, from the way people dress to the service, is different here," said Rajat Parr, wine director at Michael Mina. He added, "If they stick to the same types of standards they use in Europe or even in New York, where nearly all the top restaurants were French, I'm not sure anyone other than the French Laundry would get the top rating."

After the press conference, Bibendum at least looked like he was settling into San Francisco's relaxed groove, engaging amused pedestrians on Market Street near the Embarcadero. Whether Bay-area restaurateurs and foodies will be as receptive to his presence won't be known for sure until October.

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