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William Bradley was too excited to sleep on the night two months ago when his San Diego restaurant, Addison, earned its third Michelin Star. So, around 5 the next morning he got up and checked the OpenTable app on his phone.
In the nine hours following the announcement at 8 p.m. Dec. 5, more than 1,100 dinner reservations flooded in from all over the U.S. and beyond for a California gastronomy restaurant that — until then — was best known only to Southern California gourmands. Addison became an overnight sensation, 16 years in the making.
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In the world of fine dining, there is no higher honor than three Michelin stars. Just 13 restaurants in the United States, including Addison, now hold that honor, and only 142 restaurants worldwide. A chief inspector for Michelin North America told The San Diego Union-Tribune in early December that Addison earned the top honor because it’s at an “astounding level globally.”
Earning the third star catapulted Addison’s business overnight. It’s now booked through June. And the price for the nine-course tasting menu at the 52-seat restaurant has gone up to match that at other American three-stars: $355, plus tax and tip, not including alcohol. But diners shouldn’t expect to see any other big changes in Addison’s food, service and experience. Consistent excellence is one of the most critical factors in achieving top Michelin honors. And anyone who has watched Addison’s slow but steady rise to the top knows that its success was built on years of consistency and hard work.
Bradley founded Addison in 2006 and was never tempted to relocate to the Bay Area, a renowned haven for crowning its chefs with Michelin stars. Addison’s former chef de cuisine Stefani de Palma spent 14 years in Bradley’s kitchen before leaving in late December to recharge her batteries and explore new opportunities. Her replacement, Jonathan Brambila, has been there for 13 years. Sean McGuinness, Addison’s director of service, is now in his 11th year at Addison, and he has servers on staff who have worked there for six to eight years.
That loyalty, institutional knowledge and cross-training mean that Bradley and his 16-member kitchen team collaborate on each of the dishes, which can take years to perfect. And in the dining room, McGuinness said the front-of-house staff work together to orchestrate every moment of a guest’s experience.
So what is it like to dine at Southern California’s only Michelin three-star restaurant? I’ve had the privilege to dine at Addison a handful of times over the years — before Michelin Awards were expanded to Southern California in 2019, and after the restaurant earned its first and second stars. In January, I returned for the three-star experience and later spoke with Bradley and McGinness for an insider’s look at what it takes to be “astounding” on the global level.
Addison’s staff does its homework before guests arrive. Repeat customers are greeted with an offer of their favorite cocktail, and their likes and dislikes are known. The spacious dining room has just 18 tables, with no more than 52 diners seated per night to ensure perfect and unhurried service. McGuinness said the diner experience “starts with the focused lighting on the tables, so each of those plates has an opportunity for its own dramatic monologue.” He said it takes about six months for the wait staff to feel comfortable performing the restaurant’s quiet choreography of “anticipatory service.” “When we’re in movement,” he said, “there’s a sense of orchestration. It’s a dance.” With the arrival of each course, teams of servers surround the table and in perfect synchronicity they pour the guests’ water, wine and sauces and place or remove plates and napkins. The servers are trained to know when a guest is done with a dish, but to never hover, and they work at crafting their own words to describe each dish. The typical meal lasts three to three-and-a-half hours. Though it’s billed as a nine-course menu, diners will be served 18 to 20 dishes small dishes during the meal, and they won’t leave hungry or overfull.
Most of the dishes Bradley makes celebrate this state’s first-rate produce, seafood and land proteins, and many are inspired by his own roots, growing up near the border in Chula Vista. The dinner begins with a cup of Mexican-style ponche, a warm and delicate hibiscus, cinnamon and apple punch. Then comes the meal’s first surprise. Inspired by the bevy of snack plates Ferran Adrià sent out to his guests at the late, great El Bulli restaurant in Spain, Bradley kicks off his meal with a wow moment of five appetizers that arrive on unique custom plates and pedestals. They include oysters with pickled rose apples; a crispy potato cube topped with creamy folds of Iberian ham; and tiny pillow-shaped “croutons” filled with seasoned cheese and topped with micro-greens from Escondido Sage Hills Ranch (a sort of inside-out salad).
The ‘star’ dish
The one Addison dish that Michelin inspectors singled out in awarding their third star is the stunning, melt-in-your mouth fourth course. Regiis Ova Reserve caviar is served over warm, porridge-like koshihikari rice stirred with sesame oil that’s layered with smoked buttery sabayon sauce, toasted sesame seeds and crunchy bits of puffed rice. Bradley said it took two years of experimentation to get it just right. “It’s been the most well-received thing I’ve ever cooked in my life. I’ve seen people cry eating it,” he said. “There’s an old saying by Daniel Boulud that you want to be known for the fifth dish you made, not the 500th. This will be that dish for me.”
Bradley likes to pay tribute to his childhood memories. Among the appetizers is a dish of tiny chicken-liver-filled churros topped with dark chocolate. They’re inspired by his many boyhood visits to Tijuana and his passion for Mexican food, as well as his love for culinary alliteration (“chicken” and “churros”). His appreciation for chips and dip inspired Addison’s Fish and Chips course, which is ribbon-like, fresh-fried salt-and-vinegar potato chips with a side of burnt onion dip topped with golden caviar. There’s also a “Creamsicle” palate cleanser that tastes just like his favorite boyhood frozen pop. And instead of classical music playing in the background, listen closely to Bradley’s playlist, which includes songs by some of his favorite bands, including the Cure and the Smiths.
Addison has a collection of 10,000 bottles of wine, with an emphasis on First Growth Bordeaux, the top tier of French Bordeaux wines. The depth of its wine cellar has helped Addison retain Wine Spectator’s Grand Award — an honor held by just 95 restaurants worldwide — every year since 2009.
The bread course
What’s more Californian than sourdough bread? A fresh-baked boule, brushed with clarified brown butter and served with spreads, arrives as the seventh course. When the restaurant shut down in 2020 due to the pandemic, Di Palma started baking bread to pass the time. Her now 3-year-old starter is the base for all the loaves baked in-house daily.
Pacific seafood is the principal protein in the Addison dining experience, from caviar to scallops and from Kumamoto oysters to Hokkaido sea urchin. The artistic kanpachi sashimi course is a handcrafted “flower bud” made from slivers of raw yellowtail hand-rolled between “petals” of preserved pear and salted kiwi. And the mouthwatering splendid alfonsino course is a snapper-like deep-sea fish showered in a hot oil bath that crystallizes its delicate pink scales. It’s served in a pool of clam butter. This focus on seafood is one of many ways Bradley lightened up the menu in 2020 by transitioning his concept from modern French to California gastronomy. One dish on the current tasting menu, squab yakitori with peanut miso, is both reminiscent of the older French style with the light Asian touch of the new.
Ending the meal is another wow moment: the five-part dessert course. There’s a plated chocolate and praline pastry, a foamy yuzu custard, mini fig-wafer and horchata cream cones, and wildflower honeycomb. But my favorite, and Bradley’s as well, is the berry-beet tartlette, with a cheesecake base draped with a berry gel and tucked in a tangy beet shell. It’s beautiful and the perfect bite of tart and sweet to end the meal.
Addison guests have always received a parting gift after their meal. In its early days as a modern French restaurant, Addison gave diners fresh-baked macaron cookies. Now diners go home with a ribbon-wrapped jar of fresh-toasted California granola.
“This way the meal technically doesn’t end until the next morning,” Bradley said of the breakfast treat. “What I truly want people to grasp is when you come here you know where you are and you leave here wanting to come back again.”
When: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays
Where: 5200 Grand Del Mar Way, San Diego
Phone: (858) 314-1900