Maydan and Little Pearl earn stars, while Bad Saint is a surprise shutout.
DC’s Michelin guide, now in its fourth year, just announced its 2020 star awards for Washington. It’s a year of one-star surprises, not major shakeups. The Inn at Little Washington retained its third star. José Andrés‘s Minibar (our pick for the year’s #1 restaurant) and Aaron Silverman‘s Pineapple and Pearls—for the fourth year running—are in the two star category.
The only changes to be found are among the one-star selections. The newcomers to the party include Sushi Nakazawa, the excellent, Trump Hotel-adjacent spinoff of the New York omakase destination (also one star); Maydan, restaurateur Rose Previte’s fiery Middle Eastern dining room; and Gravitas, Matt Baker’s mod-American place in Ivy City. Little Pearl earned a star, too, making it a three-peat for Aaron Silverman (besides Pineapple and Pearls, he also owns the one-star Rose’s Luxury). What set his cafe-by-day, tasting-menu-destination-by-night apart? Michelin’s chief North America inspector—who remained anonymous on our call—says what wowed the team was both Little Pearl’s value and sense of fun: “One meal had tater tots, which is a funny thing to have,” they say. “They were beautifully crispy and golden and served with a cod-roe hollandaise.”
Then there were some surprise omissions. Bad Saint, Genevieve Villamora’s beloved Filipino restaurant, was bumped from the Bib Gourmand list this year, leading many to predict it would earn a (deserved, IMO) star. “It’s a wonderful restaurant and a local gem,” the inspector says. Its prices bumped it out of the Bib category, but it didn’t earn a star. Bibs are categorized as “restaurants offering exceptional food at moderate prices” (for Michelin, that means $40 for two courses or a dish plus a glass of wine or dessert). Still, can you really argue that Bad Saint is more expensive than other Bibs like Sfoglina or Kaliwa, home to a $30 Filipino duck confit? Bad Saint’s $35 lechon, after all, isn’t meant for just one diner. On the plus side, chef Tom Cunanan garnered a major James Beard Award a few months ago.
And still nothing for Johnny Monis’s Thai gem Little Serow, which has always been shut out. Or Del Mar, Fabio and Maria Trabocchi‘s glitzy Spanish spot at the Wharf. Or any deserving female chefs at all (cough, Centrolina‘s Amy Brandwein).
After three years on the list, Blue Duck Tavern lost its single star. “We had a meal there, and then a followup, and after some discussion it was apparent that it didn’t align with our criteria,” the inspector says. “When suppressing a star, we don’t take it lightly.”
Speaking of criteria, restaurants are mainly judged on food. Inspectors evaluate five areas: quality of product; personality; mastery of technique; value; and consistency between visits. Even in this post-#MeToo world, Michelin Guide international director Gwendal Poullennec says ethical considerations are kept out of discussions. “Michelin stars are awarded to teams, not just chefs,” he says. “They are based only on the quality of food on the plate.”
But it’s not just the food. The dining scene—and the way it is covered—all over the country has quickly evolved, especially in the last few years. Food trucks and delis and mom-and-pop shops and cheffy fast casual joints are getting attention they deserve, and are routinely included in top-restaurant lists. Michelin itself gave out stars to street food stalls in Bangkok and Singapore. But the little red book’s assessment of DC remains heavily formal—skewed towards starched tablecloths and crystal decanters.
The DC scene, Poullenec says, “deserves its place on the world culinary map” thanks to its diversity. There are 18 starred restaurants, 44 Bib Gourmands, and over 120 restaurants with a “plate” symbol in the DC guide. That last designation commends restaurants that inspectors recommend “for a good meal with fresh ingredients and capable preparation.” There are 36 cuisines represented in all. Currently, there are no plans to expand the list beyond DC to Maryland and Virginia (the Inn at Little Washington is the only exception).