The team at Protégé in Palo Alto, which has won its first Michelin star less than a year after opening. (Photo: Courtesy of Protégé)
Foodies will have noticed the 2019 Michelin Guide came out this week. Naturally, Bay Area restaurants snapped up a lot of stars, most of them crowded around San Francisco and wine country. But the scene on the Peninsula and in the South Bay is starting to come into its own.
“In the past five years, you've seen a greater recognition that there is quality dining down here that is definitely worth the drive,” said Carolyn Jung, a food writer who has eaten at all 10 Michelin star restaurants south of the city: including Manresa, the long-time destination dining king of the region with three Michelin stars, and Palo Alto's Baumé, with two.
In a region more infamous for tech-bros peddling meal replacements like Soylent and a variety of food delivery apps, it may be odd to think people here would actually go out to drop a rent check at a high-end restaurant, but it happens. More to the point, locals with the wherewithal are investing in high-end restaurants they can personally visit.
“You have a lot of highly educated, well-to-do people who travel a lot. They're looking for more sophisticated options and they're tired of driving 280 and 101 all the time to get to San Francisco,” Jung said.
Michelin defines one star as “worth a stop;” two stars as “worth a detour;” and three stars as “worth a special journey.” The French-born guide traditionally favors fine dining, and its inspectors keep a close eye on alumni from Michelin-starred restaurants.
That explains in part how Silicon Valley’s newest star at New American Protégé in Palo Alto got its star less than a year after opening. The chef, pastry chef and master sommelier all came from The French Laundry, Thomas Keller's three-star landmark in Yountville.
“California Avenue is becoming a pretty darn good foodie destination,” said Linda Zavoral, who blogs about food and restaurants for the Bay Area News Group and notes Baumé is literally on the same block as Protégé. “We’ve had a number of Peninsula restaurants that have had a star for quite awhile.”
It could also be said there's something of a hotbed developing in the kitchens of the region. Zavoral points out Chez TJ in particular, the French stalwart in Mountain View which has been a popular way station for a succession of highly regarded chefs who've gone on to other Michelin-starred restaurants in the Bay Area: Joshua Skenes, Christopher Kostow, Bruno Chemel, Scott Nishiyama, Joey Elenterio and Jared Gallagher.
Chez TJ has one star now, but had two at one point, and owner George Aviet is hungry to raise the restaurant's profile once again. He agrees with Jung that Silicon Valley diners have become more sophisticated in recent years.
“We have such an international community that has brought in so many different understandings of different cuisines. People are more aware of their food. It’s gotten more challenging to grow, not just maintain, the level of excellence,” Aviet said.
It's also very hard work. Chef Steven Pelas of The Village Pub said he's “ecstatic” that his traditional American restaurant in Woodside kept its Michelin star this year. He also said he felt palpable “relief” at the news, “but the pressure comes back ten seconds later, because you've got to do it all over again!”
You don’t need to spend big to eat well in Silicon Valley. Tech campus cafeterias, notwithstanding, there's still top-notch Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese and other options to be had for those willing to explore local shopping malls. That's a fact not lost on international restaurant groups that recently chose to open their first Bay Area locations in Silicon Valley, like Ramen Nagi and Din Tai Fung.
“That really shows you just how much this area is on the map for a lot of potential restauranteurs and chefs," Jung said. “Protégé looked all over the Bay Area for a long time, and they realized that California Avenue in Palo Alto was a great location for them.”
She notes there was one shocker on the Michelin list this year: the loss of a star for the Portuguese restaurant Adega. “We were all so thrilled to finally have the first Michelin-starred restaurant in San Jose,” Jung lamented.
But they can come back. Madera [at the Rosewood Sand Hill in Menlo Park] also lost their star a couple of years ago. They were able to turn it around in just a year and get it back.
“It's a really exciting time for this area and I think that the next few years will bring even more wonderful chef-driven, significant restaurants, because once you get a cluster of them, the excitement builds and draws more talent to come," Jung added.