Santa Monica has long held a gourmet reputation, but after weathering three rounds of shutdowns, the evaporation of tourists and an ever changing sea of health regulations, the 2021 return of Michelin awards feels much more momentous to local chefs.

In keeping with tradition, Santa Monica has swept this year’s guide with its mere 8.4 square miles capturing fourteen individual Michelin recognitions.

At the top of the culinary honor roll is hometown Chef Josiah Citrin whose intimate 14 seat tasting menu restaurant Melisse earned two stars. He is kept in good company by Chef Andy Doubrava and Chef Jeremy Fox of Rustic Canyon and Chef Dave Beran of Pasjoli, whose restaurants each earned one star.

All three fine dining establishments share a dedication to seasonality, creativity and an unwavering dedication to sourcing the finest ingredients possible from the Santa Monica Farmers Market and beyond.

TUMBI Indian restaurant and Colapasta Italian restaurant both earned the prestigious Bib Gourmand Michelin award, which recognizes exceptional food at a price point that won’t break the bank.

Ten other Santa Monica restaurants clinched a Michelin Plate award, which is a less competitive honor, but nonetheless marks very high food quality. These include three Rustic Canyon Family restaurants—Milo + Olive, Birdie G’s and Cassia—alongside Citrin, Fia, Elephante, The Lobster, Chinois on Main, Lunetta and Michael’s.

While locals are already well aware of the City’s culinary prowess, these awards are valuable for attracting foodies from afar and take on greater importance in light of the City’s need for a rebound in tourism revenues.

“Michelin-starred restaurants in our community emphasize that Santa Monica is a world-class culinary destination filled with diverse and creative chefs,” said Misti Kerns, president and CEO of Santa Monica Travel and Tourism. “A robust and exciting food scene is a tourism draw and as we continue to emerge from the economic turndown, our renowned restaurants, bars and farmers markets attract visitors whether they are here for a meal or an overnight stay.”

The pandemic also increased the significance of these awards to local restaurants.

While in previous years the bestowing of a star might be met by smug satisfaction of chefs who know they are at the top of their game, this year’s star recipients largely expressed emotions of relief and gratitude.

These chefs, alongside restaurant workers across the state, spent much of the last eighteen months in survival mode as they tried to keep their businesses afloat through the shifting landscape of pandemic challenges.

“We were trying to do take out, we were trying to sell cheesecakes to get the staff on health insurance, it was a mess,” said Pasjoli Chef Dave Beran. “If someone walked by and said ‘I’ll give you 10 bucks for your shoe,’ I’d probably given it to him to make sure the door stayed open.”

Pasjoli went through several iterations during the pandemic, from to-go only, to outdoor only and launching a new brunch service to attract more customers. The servers had to rethink their approach to the French fine dining experience as at various points in time they were not allowed to pour wine table side or change out people’s silverware.

“To have someone come in and say that you’re up to the certain standards to be recognized in that regard, it shows that all of the resilience and all of the effort put in by the team was received,” said Beran. “It’s a pretty rewarding thing to get a star through all of this.”

While for Beran the importance of a Michelin star took a backseat to the importance of business survival, Chef Josiah Citrin of two-starred Melisse saw the two concerns as more intertwined.

“It’s important to have Michelin stars to get the clientele and the certain kinds of diners that like that kind of dining in. They judge the restaurant based on that,” said Citrin. “I was focused on that the whole time. That was always the goal to get Michelin stars.”

Modern Californian restaurant Melisse is one of the finest dining experiences in Santa Monica, offering ten course, two and a half hour long dining experiences that, when combined with a wine pairing, can cost around $500 per person. It shares a dining space with Citrin’s aptly named a la carte restaurant Citrin, which scooped a Michelin Plate award.

While many tasting menu style restaurants closed their doors for long swaths of the pandemic, Citrin kept Melisse going at every opportunity through take home tasting menus, meal kits and building a new outdoor restaurant space.

The entire time, Citrin sought to ensure Melisse and Citrin avoided the excessive stuffiness that plagues some Michelin restaurants and maintained a sense of fun with plates such as lobster toast and dirty chicken wings. The latter dish served as an inspiration for a fast casual chicken restaurant that Citrin is opening on Main Street later this year.

Over at Rustic Canyon, Chef Andy Doubrava exhaled a long sigh of relief once he found out that the restaurant had again received a star.

“My biggest fear was just losing it somehow and what we do after that,” said Doubrava. “Seeing all the emotions come through with all of our younger team members that weren’t here the first time and the pride amongst the team members that have been here the whole time, it’s just a great thing.”

Doubrava said that the intense seasonal focus of Rustic Canyon meant that the kitchen team was used to constantly changing tack, but that the pandemic really pushed the depths of their flexibility. Although the restaurant was able to make to-go and outdoor dining work, Doubrava is very pleased to have people back in the dining room both for the energy they bring to the establishment and the opportunity to watch people’s reaction when they taste a new dish.

The Michelin awards continued to bring joy to several other kitchens across the City. Chef Stefano de Lorenzo said that his Bib Gourmand award felt more special this year than Michelin honors received in years past, and this is coming from a cook who ran the Michelin-starred fine dining establishment La Botte for many years.

“Oh my god so much happiness, to me it felt just like a star, it’s unbelievable. It’s just absolutely beautiful. It made us forget all of the crazy times and all of the challenges,” said de Lorenzo.

De Lorenzo proudly hand crafts every piece of pasta served at Colapasta and dedicates six to eight hours a day doing it. During the pandemic he relied on customer loyalty to keep the small family run business open and is especially grateful for the dedication of his teenage son, who tirelessly took down the restaurant’s orders and boxed its food to go.

The Michelin plate awards also felt extra special to local chefs this year, as the vague definition of the award—which is to recognize restaurants that “simply serve good food”—makes it difficult to predict what establishments will be chosen.

One such delighted chef was Erin Eastland who heads Milo + Olive, an unassuming neighborhood joint that serves freshly baked bread and New York-style pizza.

“We always fly under the radar for these types of honors, and it means so much to have someone really see us for the hard work we put into making massive amounts of amazing dine in and takeout food,” said Eastland. “It really is a labor of love, and it’s such a good feeling to have that recognized amongst the greats!”

Clara@smdp.com