Eating L.A. Before it Eats Itself: L.A. doesn’t need another biased food guide

Los Angeles is a city concealed under botox and filler, coated in a thick layer of Hollywood gloss and overshadowed by its glamorous reputation. 

Growing up less than two hours away, I carried a perception of Los Angeles that mirrored that of any other tourist — the city belonged to movie stars and internet celebrities, to hilltop mansions and beachside cottages, to movie lots and talent agencies. 

Despite the diverse neighborhoods that compose Los Angeles, and despite my proximity to the reality of the city, I held a stereotype.

It’s an easy stereotype to believe — informed by countless movies, TV shows, tabloids and celebrities, Los Angeles has fostered a reputation for its vanity. And, bolstered by smoothie bowls and juice bars abound, L.A.’s food scene has been a victim of this stereotype too — mocked, patronized and scorned by outsiders all over the world. 

After 2009, Michelin ceased publishing a Los Angeles guide, followed by a biting criticism from its former director: “The people in Los Angeles are not real foodies. They are not too interested in eating well but just in who goes to which restaurant and where they sit.” 

It seemed as though Michelin, too, waded in this stereotype.

Without Michelin, Los Angeles is relegated to talented critics like the late Jonathan Gold, whose yearly lists have shaped (and continue to shape) restaurant culture in the city. People were driving from Van Nuys to San Gabriel Valley, Koreatown, East Los Angeles and South Orange County to try Gold’s favorite dishes. 

Slowly, after the umpteenth condescending article from global publications praising “L.A.’s up-and-coming food scene,” the city garnered Michelin’s attention again. 

When I first heard about Michelin’s long-awaited return to the city, I felt a strange sense of validation, like Michelin was an estranged parent and my Los Angeles had finally impressed them again. 

For years, Michelin stars were an elusive sign of success to me, one that I hadn’t encountered in Southern California. In my eyes, Michelin transcended gourmet—It was a sign of culinary success I was desperate to try but was deprived of. 

This year, no Korean, Thai or Filipino restaurants were awarded a Michelin star. 

A single Mexican restaurant, the astounding Taco Maria, received one star. 

One Chinese restaurant in San Gabriel Valley received a star.  

Eleven Japanese restaurants were awarded stars. 

Five restaurants in Hollywood had stars.

Five in Beverly Hills.

Twenty-seven total.

Reading over the list, and realizing its distinct lack of high praise for the abundant and excellent multi-cultural food in Los Angeles, I felt my adoration for the Michelin guide fade. It was clear that, despite a newfound dedication to value the many facets of Los Angeles, Michelin had settled back into a safe, stereotypical view of the city. 

Heavy on classic fine dining, sushi and celebrity chefs, the star system neglected many of L.A.’s best restaurants for being too casual and too cheap. Koreatown and San Gabriel Valley were vastly neglected, despite housing some of the best Korean and Chinese food in the United States, respectively. The absence of Thai legends like Jitlada, Sapp Coffee Shop and Night + Market from the Bib Gourmand was felt.

The 2019 Michelin Guide for Los Angeles is an unfortunate regurgitation of the city’s food stereotypes. While it provided the long-overdue global validation for L.A. as a burgeoning culinary destination, its one and two-star lists fell flat in its representation of the city’s ethnic pockets. 

Perhaps I am biased, and perhaps the lack of a three-star restaurant (Vespertine deserved it) struck me as unfair, but Los Angeles does not need a Michelin guide to highlight exceptional dining. Guides like Jonathan Gold’s did all the work of a Michelin Guide and then some, pointing locals toward hole-in-the-wall restaurants, encouraging citywide exploration, and saving small eateries in the process. 

Although I am no seasoned Michelin Inspector, I do love food. Specifically, the food I’ve eaten in Los Angeles, bursting with flavor, sometimes dripping with grease, savored in late-night darkness with a cohort of Angelenos unfit for the entertainment industry. It’s food from heritage, made by families, or freshly independent cooks, or experimental scientists. It’s passion and skill with the exceptional sunniness found only in Los Angeles, a city I love, and a city I’ll continue to explore — no Michelin Guide needed.

Christina Tiber is a senior writing about food. Her column, “Eating L.A. Before It Eats Itself,” runs every other week.