Culinary ambitions

Michelin is set to launch its first California restaurant guide in June. Will Sacramento establishments see stars?

illustration by Maria Ratinova

Keep up with the launch of Michelin’s California Guide at

To understand why California’s state tourism board recently paid the famed Michelin travel guide company $600,000, we may have to start the story at the turn of the last century.

Michelin, a French tire company that wanted to spur more people onto the roads in the early days of automobile travel—and therefore, buy more of its tires—began putting out a guide to local gas stations, scenic sites and, yes, restaurants.

Fast-forward more than 100 years, when earning a Michelin star (or two or three) is the restaurant world-equivalent of winning Olympic gold or an Academy Award. Or if you ask any chef, it’s all three put together.

But at the heart of it all, a Michelin Guide is still just a tourism guide. And it’s run by a company that still wants to make a profit.

That’s where tourism boards such as Visit California and Visit Sacramento come in. According to Visit Sacramento CEO, Mike Testa, the conversation to bring Michelin to Sacramento started more than two years ago, but Michelin expressed more interest in creating a guide for all of California.

It’s notable as only the fifth Michelin guide in the United States: The other four are in San Francisco (which boasts of having the most three-star restaurants in the world, eight), New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.—arguably among the heaviest hitters in American cuisine. San Francisco’s guide, which started in 2007, will be absorbed into the new California guide, so there’s really still only four.

Who appears in that guide and which restaurants get stars have no connection to the money a local tourism board pays Michelin, according to both sides of the partnership.

In fact, Testa said Michelin is exceedingly tight-lipped about the process. He said representatives would not discuss when, which or if any Sacramento restaurants would be reviewed.

“Believe me, I’ve tried to get information out of them,” he said.

The real challenge may be one of perception.

First, some Sacramentans still revel in the city’s cowtown image. The idea that Sacramento’s restaurants would be on the same level as those in San Francisco or Los Angeles is antithetical to that self-image, even though chef and restaurateurs have been steadily coming to the capital city for years as a cheaper alternative to San Francisco’s skyrocketing prices.

Second, pay-to-play rumors have surrounded the deal since its announcement in March at the Golden 1 Center, though California is not the first location to pay for a Michelin Guide. Seoul, South Korea paid roughly $1.8 million in 2017 to get one, to mixed reviews, according to And the Tourism Authority of Thailand spends about $880,000 a year to commission its guide.

In a highly-competitive world that’s all about how you’re perceived—by customers, by critics and by fellow chefs—will Visit California’s purchase taint any newly-awarded stars?

“I would say eat at that restaurant and tell me they’re not worthy of that designation,” Testa said. “What a terrible thing to say to someone who has poured themselves into their restaurant.”

Being included in the guide even without a star rating is an honor unto itself, sort of like being runner-up in a beauty pageant. But winning a star can land a restaurant hundreds of thousands of dollars more in revenue and worldwide acclaim.

According to an announcement from Michelin, the 2019 star selection for the inaugural California Guide will be revealed in early June in Huntington Beach.

Joseph Vaccaro, former general manager of Ella Dining Room & Bar (which catered the Michelin announcement event) and is now COO for Selland Family Restaurants, said no one in the restaurant business has ever “bought” notoriety.

He also said he hasn’t heard whether Ella will be under consideration by Michelin critics, but that it “would be incredibly humbling.” Vaccaro said he told his staff that just having the guide include all of California “only makes the spotlight shine brighter” on them.

“There are more good restaurants in this town than I have time to dine at,” Vaccaro said.

“Nothing comes easy in the restaurant business,” he added. “You’re only as good as your last service.”