“Everybody has a hobby”
Some of Justin Kwok’s other 20-something friends think he’s crazy. “‘They’ll say ‘why would you spend that much money on dinner?’” But he and his dining companions are on mission: They’re eating at all 37 San Francisco restaurants with a Michelin star by the end of the year. 22 down, 15 to go.
Kwok, a 27-year old software engineer at Cisco Meraki, and five friends were gathered for pre-dinner drinks at Hayes Valley Wine and Cheese earlier this month, awaiting a reservation at Rich Table next door and recounting their exploits. At Michelin-starred restaurants, “Everything’s so polished, the vibe, the wait staff,” said Nick Kubala, a 27-year-old Google software engineer reminiscing about the group’s recent meal at Atelier Crenn, where dinner is at minimum $335 per person.
Kwok’s supper club is an informal affair: Each week, he’s made a Thursday night reservation for the maximum party size at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Kwok recruits at work and among friends to fill the table: Some look askance, others beg to come.
At Rich Table, Kwok is joined by Collin Buchan, a 28-year-old product engineer at AngelList, Karen Chiang, a 29-year-old account executive at Cisco Meraki, and E.O. Stinson, a software engineering manager at Cisco Meraki. Most meals impress the group — they left Hayes Valley with high praise for Rich Table — but some dinners can baffle them. Sons & Daughters felt strange and pretentious, several agree. Often, at long-running restaurants like Aquerello, Kwok’s table is the youngest by a few decades. They notice, but don’t mind.
If Kwok, Kubala, and the rest of their table were a bit grayer, their interest in the Michelin Guide and its highly-rated restaurants would be less noteworthy. There are more youthful — and less costly — dining guides aimed right at them. But for a younger audience, Michelin, which just expanded to include all of California, carries old-guard prestige, and comes with game-ified, collect-them-all stars. In San Francisco, a teeming population of young, highly paid tech workers and the country’s largest population of three-Michelin starred restaurant are getting together for dinner.
Tim Kim, a prolific SF diner and designer, is also occupied with the Michelin guide, and eager to unpack its meaning for a younger demographic. He frequents high-end favorites like Mourad and Angler posting his adventures on Instagram under the humorous handle @notamichelininspector.
“They’re modern day status symbols,” Kim says, analyzing part of the appeal of dining at Michelin-starred restaurants. “We don’t go for expensive clothes, for fast cars... well except Teslas, those are everywhere. We prefer traveling and experiences.”
When everyone rides the same company bus to work wearing the same company swag, a memorable travel or dining experience — conspicuously instagrammed or otherwise recounted — stands out from the crowd.
Kwok and his table of techies are well aware that their Michelin mission could provoke ire. Haters will say they make too much money, and spend it poorly. They’ll wave that away. “Everybody has a hobby,” says Kwok, and lots of them are expensive — international travel, sports equipment, concert tickets. “This is just my hobby.”
And Kwok’s coterie isn’t reserved for tech workers alone. For his date to the group’s dinner at Michelin-starred sushi restaurant Omakase, Kwok brought his mom, who lives in Walnut Creek.
Next up, he and 11 friends will converge at Lazy Bear. They expect to have dined at every Michelin starred restaurant in San Francisco by November.