jim sullivan

Starlets of Palo Alto

February 8, 2019

A second of anticipation surrounds the kitchen as fingers delicately place the finishing touch on a plate, a recipe developed after many stages of trial and error. Delve into the journey of two Palo Altan restaurants and the effort that each puts into attaining and maintaining A Michelin star, an ultimate mark of prestige within the restaurant industry.

Grilled tentacles of Spanish octopus gleam atop pureéd Santorini fava beans; Quince almond relish dressed in a coat of tangy Aegean capers gives one a dive into Mediterranean culture. It is a cauldron of flavors, entwined with chewy textures and salty undertones. When one eats at a Michelin star restaurant, it is immediately apparent that each star recognizes some of the most delicate and deliberate cuisine and service worldwide. In the 1900s, brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin strived to expand the budding French tire company, Michelin, by looking to the French cuisine as an opportunity to profit. Merging their business with the restaurant industry, the first ever Michelin travel guide was designed for motorists in France. The Michelin brothers crafted the rating system to award three stars to restaurants they deemed so exceptional that it is worth making a ‘special journey’ for them, suggesting that the restaurant itself was the destination. Two stars signify the restaurant is ‘worth a detour,’ encouraging travelers to dine somewhere slightly further away from the nearest exit, and finally single stars are awarded to establishments that excel in their class of food. 

Over the last century, the guides’ high standards have transformed the small 400 page red booklet into a prestigious award, recognizing sensational food paired with exceptional service. Although divergent from its original intentions, the system benefits restaurants, as stars indicate excellence and typically amass more guests. While these establishments must work to maintain the star, many emerging restaurants endeavor to individualize and elevate their cuisine and service to a level deemed worthy of such an honor. A restaurant that has quickly acquired the award is the local restaurant Protégé, serving some of the most refined, yet classical examples of new-american cuisine in Palo Alto. 

The butcher-block tables of Protégé seat 40 people in their á la carte lounge and 20 in their prix fixe dining room. The food served is so exquisite that the restaurant earned their first Michelin Star just nine months after opening. Protégé is a sophisticated yet laid back restaurant featuring New American cuisine, serving simple yet delicious versions of modern cuisine, using a variety of ingredients from different cultures. At first, owners Dennis Kelly and Anthony Secviar considered opening in San Diego, but the casual atmosphere there did not favor an upscale restaurant, especially one with high quality wine. 

“One of the main reasons that we decided to come here was there was very much a niche that needed to be filled, places […] where you could get a really good meal without paying hundreds of dollars,” said general manager Kent Bui. Protégé’s focus on high quality dishes while maintaining a reasonable price attracts customers to try their modern dishes along with a wide variety of wine. Unlike many other restaurants that have capitalized on their reputation, Protégé clarifies that it is not aiming to compete with other restaurants for customers, instead choosing to emphasize their easygoing atmosphere.

With a similar goal of upholding a relaxing yet upscale place for the general public to eat, the small tavern or ‘Taverna’ rests behind an authentic Greek cobalt door  into a corner on Homer Avenue of downtown Palo Alto. The teal walls are adorned by a central colorful painting and a white ceramic bird; the classic Greek white and blue tones being a defining factor for the restaurant.  The small Greek business while providing a neighborhood dining spot, has an ambitious goal in mind: a Michelin star. In the process of attaining a star, the staff emerges with a valuable experience, alongside newly refined skills. 

“There is absolutely no denying the power of Michelin. When I was at Manresa, we received that third star. That was mid-October and literally two days later, we sold out the rest of the year, in a heartbeat,” Bui said, from his experience of working at the three-star restaurant. For many chefs, the Michelin star represents both personal and professional success; it is a symbol of prestige, the result of individual ambition, and ultimately showcases hours of dedication and experimentation. 

“There is absolutely no denying the power of Michelin. When I was at Manresa, we received that third star. That was mid-October and literally two days later, we sold out the rest of the year, in a heartbeat.”

– Ken Bui

Both the owner, Thanasis Pashalidis, and executive chef, William Roberts, of Taverna have previous experience working at Michelin starred restaurant, The Village Pub, located nearby in Woodside. Having performed at a restaurant with a Michelin star, Pashalidis and Roberts understand the high standards that need to be met. They institute this awareness to build the Taverna team and brand their level of service, ambiance and style. The labor that goes into obtaining a Michelin star is fierce, intensive, and time consuming. Chefs spend hours in the restaurant cooking with dexterity among seasoned veterans, just to go home and study culinary techniques in order to perfect their dishes with great attention to detail. 

In addition to creating high quality food, Taverna has also set a focus on the ambience of the restaurant. They aim to stand out as a traditional yet innovative high-end Greek restaurant that maintains a familial sentiment in differentiating themselves from other Greek restaurants in the area. “The goal was to create a neighborhood eating place, Taverna, just like in Greece,” Pashalidis said. Taverna has a homey atmosphere while still maintaining a polished interior with impeccable service. Delicate fresh flowers, tasteful pieces of Hellenic art and chairs and tables shipped from Greece, combine with the epochal vibrant blue walls to compose a space that transports one to Greece, but also modernizes the traditional experience when coupled with the extraordinary bites, small plates and entrees.   

The Bay Area is saturated with Greek establishments, but Taverna stands out from the rest by maintaining a hospitable relaxed environment along with high quality food. “I think your market is there – when he approached me about this project, I was kinda like really like you know, does Palo Alto need another Greek restaurant?” Roberts said. Thus, restaurants must work to not only provide quality food, but also to distinguish themselves from businesses in the same niche. Additionally, he adds that the small number  of Michelin reviewers, particularly in the Bay Area, limits the number of restaurants that can be reviewed at one time, shorting many restaurants their opportunity to achieve the award. 

According to Roberts, a combination of the politics of the restaurant scene, presentation of food, quality, and saturation of restaurants also contribute to the final decision of whether or not a restaurant is awarded with a star. As competition increases, it becomes more difficult to individualize these establishments significantly enough to elevate yourself among a sea of high quality restaurants. 

“Now, one star means something a little more special than just a good restaurant,” he finishes, referring back to the original rating scale. Both the small quantity of reviewers and the booming restaurant business composes an environment where restaurants cannot be discouraged when they do not get a star a certain year. “We can’t shed tears over what’s fair and what’s not fair, you just kind of go with the system that’s there and hope that what you do is seen and eaten and recognized,” Roberts said. Instead of fretting over the flaws in the system, Taverna works specifically to enhance the service experience and tranquil atmosphere for customers. Chefs pour their energy into perfecting the details of each step in creating their dishes to present elite food. After all this, the next steps are out of the restaurant’s hands and the decision is up to the reviewers. Despite the flaws of the system, restaurants must learn to persist tirelessly to refine their cuisine, service and style  for the next cycle of reviewing. 

To many, achieving the star is a defining moment in one’s career. “What’s worth it is happiness and obviously a career, supporting yourself. But I think, for my sake, it would definitely be something I want to try to achieve in my life,” Roberts said. Acquiring the star not only increases revenue, but it also grants satisfaction to everyone behind it, as a means of recognizing and acclaiming their work. The Michelin star not only represents a symbol of quality and prestige, but also of the industry professionals’ love for cuisine.

Bui concludes, “We’re not in this industry to be rich. We do two chocolate chip cookies for two bucks. This is using some of the best chocolate in the world.”

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