MIAMI — Finally, some Tampa restaurants got their stars.
For the first time ever, the esteemed Michelin Guide has bestowed stars to three restaurants in Tampa: Rocca, Koya and Lilac, which each received one star.
The coveted ratings were announced Thursday night at an invitation-only ceremony at Miami’s LoanDepot Park, to celebrate the guide’s 2023 Florida edition. This is the second year that restaurants in Orlando, Miami and Tampa were eligible, part of the international guide’s new foray into the state.
Only four new stars were given out this year in Florida, and three of them went to Tampa restaurants. The other one was awarded to Tambourine Room by Tristan Brandt, in Miami Beach.
The guide also awarded several restaurants on Thursday with Bib Gourmand status, given to eateries that “offer a meal of good quality at a good value.” Those included Gorkhali Kitchen, a Nepalese restaurant specializing in Himalayan-inspired cuisine; Psomi, a Greek restaurant in North Hyde Park; and two restaurants who also received Bib Gourmand designations last year, Rooster & The Till and the recently shuttered Ichicoro Ramen.
And four special awards were acknowledged, including the Michelin Young Chef distinction awarded to Tampa’s Christina Theofilos, the chef and owner of Psomi, and the Outstanding Service Award to Matthew Braden, of Lilac.
Though the James Beard awards are considered by many the Oscars of the culinary world, the Michelin Guide is arguably the most well-known and respected restaurant ratings system, known for garnering international accolades and recognition for restaurants that get star ratings. The most number of stars a restaurant can receive is three. The process is notoriously very secretive. Inspectors visit restaurants anonymously and judge eateries on the following criteria: quality of product, mastery of flavors, excellence in technique, distinct personality of the cuisine and the restaurant’s consistency between visits.
Since the guide launched in Florida, local chefs have been hopeful that stars and additional accolades would help bring more widespread recognition to the Tampa Bay area.
Thursday’s announcement allowed for a collective sigh of relief in the Tampa culinary community, still sore from the last couple of years’ James Beard snubs and last spring’s shocking Michelin debut, when restaurants in Miami and Orlando collectively nabbed a total of 15 stars but not a single restaurant in Tampa made the cut.
Thursday’s star was a welcome surprise for modern Italian restaurant Rocca’s chef and owner Bryce Bonsack following last year’s ceremony, when the Tampa Heights spot received Bib Gourmand status. In a news release announcing the stars, Michelin inspectors praised the restaurant for its originality and pastas, all “skillfully” made in-house, “showcasing classic flavors and scrupulous technique.” (The restaurant was also the first Tampa restaurant to receive this critic’s perfect rating back when it first opened in 2019.)
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“I’m speechless,” Bonsack said after the ceremony. “I think after last year we really wanted to bring home a star. We’ve got such a talented team that have been working hard all year.”
Bonsack said what made the evening even better was watching other Tampa restaurants receive stars.
“It’s such a huge step for the city,” he said.
That sentiment was echoed by others at Thursday’s event.
“Three out of four, that’s just phenomenal,” said Adriana Fralick, who together with her husband Eric runs the Hyde Park modern Japanese restaurant Koya. “You never know what to expect, but we are so excited.”
In their remarks, inspectors commended Koya’s “singular interpretation of Japanese cuisine” and “spectacular seafood” courses. The couple opened their intimate, eight-seat-per-night omakase restaurant in the summer of 2019, and it was named one of the year’s best new restaurants by the Tampa Bay Times.
Thursday’s reveal also marked the third Michelin star for Lilac executive chef John Fraser, whose since-shuttered New York restaurants Dovetail and NIX both received one Michelin star each in the past. The Mediterranean-leaning restaurant, which was named one of the Times’ best new restaurants of 2022, opened last fall in the Edition Hotel at Tampa’s new Water Street development. The contemporary four-course prix-fixe menu ($140 per person), helmed by Fraser and chef de cuisine Josh Werksman, impressed Michelin inspectors with its “Mediterranean influences, Florida-focused ingredients and French techniques.”
Originally founded by brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin in 1900 in Clermont-Ferrand, France, the Michelin Guide — from the French tire company of the same name — was initially designed to help motorists plan their travels. The guide started issuing stars in 1926 to fine dining restaurants, and by 1936 the three-star rating system was in place, with three stars being the most prestigious and acclaimed of the lot.
For many years the European-centric publication only focused on a few American cities, including New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area. More recently, the company began expanding its footprint, with significant financial investments from the cities in which it lands. The guide’s new Florida approach is the result of a partnership between the Michelin Guide, the state’s tourism marketing agency Visit Florida and tourism marketing boards in Tampa, Orlando and Miami.
Only four restaurants received new stars on Thursday, but all of the guide’s Florida star and Bib Gourmand recipients were celebrated at the event. The full Florida guide now includes 19 restaurants with stars, with Miami’s L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon snagging the only two-star rating. An additional 33 restaurants received Bib Gourmand status.
The guide also lists an additional 92 recommended restaurants, 18 of which are in Tampa and include, among others, Ponte, Bern’s Steak House and Cena.