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Food & Wine: Stars With New Stripes

By Trevor Felch

Most of the Bay Area’s Michelin-starred restaurants are back — with inevitable changes.

The Bay Area’s glittery fine dining restaurant world is fixated on numbers: the number of Michelin stars, the number of courses in a tasting menu, the vintages of Ridge Montebellos in the cellar. Here’s another number to add to the repertoire: 16.

That is the number of one-, two- and three-Michelin- starred restaurants in Bay Area counties from the most recent guide (released in June 2019) that are (as of press time) either temporarily or permanently closed. Thankfully, the number is much lower than many expected this time last summer (two closed before the pandemic, and the Restaurant at Meadowood closed due to the tragic Glass Fire). The rest have fully reopened for dine-in, or at least partially for takeout.

As with nearly every part of the process of emerging from the pandemic blur, the big question for the Bay Area’s standout restaurants has been: “Where do we go from here?” Instead of one clear answer, it’s more about subtle tweaks to a tried-and-true genre that is always innovating in a competitive industry.

Majestic dishes from Acquerello Executive Chef Suzette Gresham include this tempting dessert: strawberry and pineapple pavlova with lime and mint.
Majestic dishes from Acquerello Executive Chef Suzette Gresham include this tempting dessert: strawberry and pineapple pavlova with lime and mint.

At Plumed Horse in Saratoga, chef Peter Armellino added 13 tables outside and introduced a more “approachable” menu for those tables, while indoor dining continues to have a tasting menu or more elaborate à la carte options. Manresa in Los Gatos, a restaurant that already had to deal with two fires in recent years before the pandemic, reconfigured the dining room to hold fewer tables and have an even more personalized experience, according to a restaurant representative.

Acquerello, the more-thanthree- decades-old icon at the base of Nob Hill, returned from the pandemic with a new addition to its tasting menus: vegetarian. As Acquerello’s Isabella Paterlini explains, “This is something we have always wanted to implement but never found the right time. Coming back after a year closure seemed like the perfect opportunity to make the change, and it seems like the industry is heading in this direction.”

Chef-proprietor Bruno Chemel of Baumé in Palo Alto actually keeps the dining room closed on Saturdays nowadays, a rarity in the restaurant world, serving only a four-course or tasting menu as takeout. For other nights of the week when the dining room is open, table numbers have been reduced to just two tables a night, and on Thursdays, it’s a completely private two-Michelin- starred restaurant for a party of four to six guests.

Into the Vegetable Garden (above) is a famous feature at Owner/Executive Chef David Kinch’s three-star Manresa in Los Gatos.
Into the Vegetable Garden (above) is a famous feature at Owner/Executive Chef David Kinch’s three-star Manresa in Los Gatos.

Elsewhere on California Avenue, Protégé continues to have a popular outdoor patio with an à la carte menu, but the indoor tasting menu experience has changed. “Increasing from five to seven courses has improved the progression of our menu, as well as our wine accompaniments,” points out owner Dennis Kelly. “It has also eliminated the need to ‘turn’ tables in the dining room, meaning that every reservation is now prime time and our guests can enjoy the table for the entire evening.”

Siblings Spruce in San Francisco and Woodside’s The Village Pub also tinkered with menu formats recently and opted for a prix fixe format with multiple choices within each course. But don’t worry, the signature burgers at both are still available à la carte on the bar menus.

Curiously, wine at home continues to be an interesting addition here to stay. In Healdsburg, Rusty Rastello, wine director of three-starred SingleThread, developed an online wine shop during the pandemic, presenting wines of excellent value that might not be offered at the restaurant itself but are savvy choices for consumers at home. Further south at Acquerello, Wine Director Gianpaolo Paterlini started the Acquerello Wine Experiences at-home weekly wine education program during the pandemic, showcasing a certain theme each week, and will continue that great learning opportunity for wine lovers.

The posh and immaculate dining room of San Francisco’s Acquerello has reopened, and its successful wine education program, launched by Wine Director Gianpaolo Paterlini during the pandemic, will continue online.
The posh and immaculate dining room of San Francisco’s Acquerello has reopened, and its successful wine education program, launched by Wine Director Gianpaolo Paterlini during the pandemic, will continue online.

Most of the changes so far aren’t seismic ones, like New York City’s Eleven Madison Park, which made news by announcing its all-vegan menu in May. The French Laundry still serves Oysters and Pearls. And that is the biggest takeaway from the fine dining universe in the reopening phase: The luxury and caviar and Champagne and intricate preparations didn’t go away forever. We can once again celebrate at restaurants and savor their captivating culinary masterpieces in person. “People just want to have the deluxe experience,” sums up Armellino, echoing the sentiments of many esteemed chefs who learned just how much diners missed special occasion meals at their favorite restaurants.

We’ll see how air purifiers, hand sanitizer, masks, distancing and all of those ubiquitous pandemic terms evolve for dining out in the months to come. But for now, cheers to the return of fine dining.

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