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Dave Faries here, pondering a little matter of perception. 

I was struck by an aside in Agata Popęda’s piece in the current print issue of the Weekly on the significance of a mention in the Michelin Guide for local restaurants. Chef Justin Cogley of Aubergine—owner of the county’s only Michelin Star—indicated that gourmands tend to look past this part of California when considering a dining adventure.

A glance at the guide suggests he may be on to something. Of the 90 stars awarded by Michelin critics to restaurants in the state, 31 went to kitchens in San Francisco. Others were clustered around the Bay Area, wine country and the Los Angeles suburbs.

It seems as if the Monterey County culinary scene lags—at least in the reputation department, according to some observers.

But the comment raised eyebrows around the Weekly’s office.

The star hierarchy supposedly breaks down this way. One highlights a top restaurant in its category. Two stars? Break from your travel itinerary and get there as quickly as you can. Three-star kitchens serve up meals so memorable that you would cash in precious vacation days (and generally push your credit limit) just for a reservation.

It doesn't play out that cleanly. I’ve been to one-star restaurants that were equal to three-star destinations in quality, if not in level of service or amenities. My sister would hop on a flight across the country for Montrio Bistro’s poutine, if only it weren’t shuttered for remodeling. A granddaughter dreams of several dishes from Seventh & Dolores. And during my Covid-related hiatus from the Weekly, I had visions of Villa Azteca, along with vivid memories of several other dining experiences at places such as Sierra Mar.

Chef Tim Wood, once of Carmel Valley Ranch and now in the cockpit of Woody’s at the Airport, sees things much the same way. “I’ve eaten at Michelin Star restaurants,” he points out. “I know what it means, but every country is different.”

Part of the problem is Michelin’s narrow focus, at least in the U.S. market. Their critics hit up certain cities. They cover New York and San Francisco, of course. Chicago, too. Dallas—one of the nation’s finer dining destinations—is not part of the mix.

So the single star and slew of lesser awards offered to area restaurants represents something remarkable, especially considering the county’s population (and that Michelin likely never visited Villa Azteca in Oldtown Salinas—they might be pleasantly delighted if they did).

Granted, Wood explains that the local dining scene has experienced considerable improvement since The Sardine Factory opened—but that was 1968, and Michelin might’ve caught on by now.

“Now even places that weren’t that great are better,” Wood says. “Downtown Carmel—you can thank David Fink. Tony Tollner was part of that one-step-at-a-time thing, too.” He also points to his days at Bernardus, when Chef Cal Stamenov (now at Grasing’s) had assembled a stellar team now populating other strong kitchens.

“I think it’s being authentic, true to your craft,” Wood adds. “The amenities you can pay for, it’s the intent and integrity you can’t.”

Here at the Weekly, we see a lot of intent and integrity in the dining scene. It’s something we will continue to highlight in the pages of our print edition and in this daily newsletter, Monterey County NOW. I am excited to be a part of it…again.

If my name is vaguely familiar, I served as editor of the dining section—as well as the drinks, sports and other fun bits—before the pandemic. I’m back to report on the food and drink scene, and I will also oversee coverage of sports, features and the Chill section highlighting cannabis and cocktails, beer and wine, and beyond.

Send story ideas my way. It’s good to be a part of the scene.

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