Michelin Stars and Speed on the California Coast

A writer hits the road in a Ferrari Roma, zipping from LA to Sonoma with the Michelin guide as a map.


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THE MICHELIN STAR. It’s as synonymous with fine dining as impossible reservations and the amuse-bouche. But what’s the link between this prestigious rating and the name emblazoned on our tires? Like many glorious adventures, it begins with a road trip.

In the early days of the automobile, brothers Édouard and André Michelin, founders of the Michelin Tyre Company, developed the Michelin Guide to encourage motorists to venture out onto the open road, explore new destinations, and, inevitably, wear out their tires. Early editions of the guide included maps, hotels, mechanics, and restaurants. The brothers recruited a team of secret restaurant critics to review the establishments, and in 1926, Michelin implemented a star rating system, which remains in use today and still retains its original road trip-themed classifications:

A single-star restaurant is “Worth a stop!”
A second star earns the designation “Worth a detour!”
And a three-star restaurant is deemed “Worth a special trip!”

I did not add the exclamation points. The brothers’ enthusiasm still roars through the guide’s pages. And I share their sentiment, for I’m about to set out on a whirlwind, five-day road trip from Los Angeles to Sonoma County, California — a journey designed to bring the pages to life and recapture the soul of the Michelin Guide. My companions on this adventure are photographer Daniel Dorsa and the drop-dead-gorgeous Ferrari Roma.



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The touch screen on the steering wheel sparks the turbocharged V-8 to life with a growl that affirms the Roma is just as enthusiastic as I am to hit the road. But like most monumental events, it’s best to begin with a sandwich.

While I don’t have a background in cultural anthropology, I reckon we are living in the golden era of the fried-chicken sandwich. Son of a Gun in Los Angeles is categorized as a seafood restaurant by the Michelin Guide, but hiding in the menu is a delicious, crispy secret — a pickle-slaw-topped goodbye kiss from LA.

Near Ventura, Route 101 reveals its glimmering coastline. It’s the perfect reminder to lower the windows, breathe the sea air, and downshift so the Roma’s resonant exhaust note drowns out my horrible rendition of Prince’s “When You Were Mine.” We roll into Santa Barbara around 5 p.m., bound for Loquita, which earned the Michelin Bib Gourmand rating, a classification that celebrates best-value restaurants and is named for Michelin’s puffy, smiling mascot Bibendum, a cartoon inspired by the stacks of white tires that first made Michelin famous. Inside Loquita, there’s a casual ebullience that mirrors its dedicated menu section of gins and tonics. I quickly scan the offerings and order everything containing the word “jamón.” Perfectly-crusted croquetas arrive, followed by a tasting platter of ibérico, chorizo, and serrano hams. Yellowtail crudo follows. There’s no time for dessert tonight — we’re bound for Los Olivos.

Leaving the 101 for Highway 154 through the Santa Ynez Mountains provides breathtaking views and the opportunity for the Roma to reveal its true character. It’s different from other Ferraris. It feels light and playful. Flicking the red manettino dial to race mode and giving it throttle lets the rear wheels break loose a little. The Roma floats and dances through the curves as the early evening fog settles in the mountains. It soon becomes clear that this car will require a very upbeat playlist.

“Would you like to try our homemade limeade? We can add vodka.” This was not the road-weary voice inside my head but the gentleman behind the front desk at The Inn at Mattei’s Tavern. While not yet listed in the Michelin Guide, Mattei’s is worth a stop. Established by Swiss immigrants in 1886 as a waypoint for stagecoach drivers, Mattei’s offers luxurious guest rooms that feel uniquely Californian with dual fireplaces and Western hats hanging on the wall for guests who truly want to get into character.


If Mattei’s had served their huevos rancheros with homemade mole in the 1800s, I’m convinced those stagecoach drivers would have stayed put. But our next meal is 206 miles away, and we must pry ourselves from breakfast to explore one of the nation’s most beautiful roads — Highway 1 along the rugged coastline of Big Sur.

We book it toward Carmel-by-the-Sea to make our reservation at La Bicyclette, a family-owned French bistro recommended in the guide. Stepping inside the bistro, it’s clear why it’s recommended. There’s a palpable joy buzzing through the staff, as if everyone is as thrilled to be here as we are. Chef Obdiel Luna sends dish after dish to the table with the relentless enthusiasm of a DJ dropping hits. Classics like steak au poivre and Miyagi oysters melt into pan-seared sole with hand-grated, crispy leeks accompanied by charred pearl onions and salmon roe. Despite its prominence in a bustling corner of Carmel, La Bicyclette feels like a well-kept secret.



Driving from Carmel to Healdsburg takes about three hours. Or enough time to play Taylor Swift’s “Getaway Car” 53 times at full volume — not that I’m admitting anything. Beyond the buzz and the prestige of its three-star rating, what sets SingleThread apart is its narrative. The story of husband-and-wife owners Kyle and Katina Connaughton reverberates through every detail, from their time living together in Japan to Katina’s stewardship of the SingleThread Farm just four miles from the restaurant. The farm is worked by hand, and chef Kyle walks the grounds nearly every morning to determine what will make its way onto the menu. There’s a peace that blankets the farm, and their connection to the land is evident throughout the SingleThread experience.

Despite its accolades, SingleThread feels more like we’ve been invited to spend time with a group of friends. Remarkably talented friends. Our meal comprises 10 courses, eight wines, and two sake pairings. (Thankfully, I’m spending the night in SingleThread’s spectacular on-site suite.) Rooibos-glazed duck follows kegani crab and the green strawberries we saw on the farm earlier, but there’s no use listing the dishes because in a few days, like the land itself, the menu will change. That’s the beauty of the SingleThread experience. It’s not only culinary but temporary. “We tell the story of today. … Every time you come, you’re experiencing whatever that conversation is at that moment,” Kyle explains. Tomorrow, SingleThread will be different, and after this experience, so will we.


We head south toward San Francisco, where chef Alex Hong spent three years perfecting Sorrel as a weekly pop-up. Today, Sorrel is brick-and-mortar — and riveted to that brick is a Michelin star. “I think mostly it’s a reward for the past 15 years, being a line cook. … working 16-hour days, it was like wow, this was for something, this meant something,” Hong confides as his chef de cuisine presents delicate skate perched atop grilled lettuce, gnocchi with fava and mint, and Sorrel’s rendition of the Choco Taco — a dessert as endearing as Hong’s Chuck Taylors.

The Michelin Guide lists hotels for “the traveler in search of respite from the adventures of the day.” Respite is exactly what I am searching for — respite and an old-ashioned. The 1 Hotel in San Francisco has perfected eco-conscious luxury with soft furnishings, chunky blankets, and the considered use of natural materials at every touchpoint. It’s the kind of hotel that makes me want to take home one of their signature scented candles — or an end table.

Late that night, I spring the Roma from the valet and rip over the Bay Bridge. I’m headed for Great China in Berkeley because there’s no way I’m missing out on Bib Gourmand-rated Chinese takeout. As my favorite Go-Go sings “Rush Hour,” I have to confess, I’m smitten. This is a car you can crush on, and eating spicy General’s Chicken from a takeout container perched on the warm hood seems to capture the Roma’s mischievous charm.


The road trip is a singular, incomparable experience. It is the perfect pace with which to see the world. If the Michelin brothers were along on this journey, crammed into the Roma’s remarkably tiny rear seats, I think they’d be proud, for, rest assured, a century after the guide was first published, the road trip is still very much alive and well.

Barreling down Interstate 5, Siri reminds me I’m still four hours away from our final stop — Moo’s Craft Barbecue and its lauded brisket. I pass a large family crammed into a minivan with Oregon plates. Then two friends rocking out in a Ford crossover, the passenger resting her toes on the dashboard. I’m reminded again of the original intention behind the prolific guide — to get in our cars and explore. After all, out here, we’re all travelers searching for a day’s adventure and a little respite. No matter what we’re driving, where we’re eating, or where we’re headed, we all share the same title — motorist. It’s a feeling underscored by the Guided by Voices song echoing through the Ferrari’s cabin. Four simple words buried beneath distorted guitars — “Come on. Speed on.”

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Our Contributors

John Chuldenko Writer

John Chuldenko is a writer, director, and automotive journalist based in Los Angeles. He’s drawn to the magic of the road trip and the people, experiences, and emotions surrounding driving. John has been featured on NPR, and his work appears in Panorama, The Motoring Journal, Christophorus, and Craft&Tailored.

Daniel Dorsa Photographer

Daniel Dorsa is a Brooklyn-based photographer. Though born in the Northeast, he was raised in South Florida. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Monocle, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, and more.


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