Chez Panisse is everything it’s cracked up to be and more. It’s not just a shrine to sustainable cooking. It also stands for excellent food prepared simply so as not to interfere with the flavors and for a warm and welcoming ambiance.
Alice Waters and some of her young Berkeley friends opened the restaurant in 1971. It bumped along financially until they found their footing. But from the start the concept of the restaurant and the quality of the food and cooking drew attention across the culinary map. Chez Panisse often is credited with being the restaurant that inspired what was to become known as “California cuisine”, but Waters did it with a French flair that still is there today.
From the start Chez Panisse intended to create the feeling of a dinner party in your own home. The menu is different and fixed each night. Everyone at the table, everyone in the restaurant, is served the same courses, just as they would be at a home dinner party. Monday night it’s three courses; Tuesday through Saturday it’s four courses.
The staff treats diners like guests in their home. In addition the food is organic and sourced locally from a network of farmers, ranchers and dairies. The restaurant downstairs is warm and friendly, with a buzz of diners enjoying themselves. The ambiance as well as the décor keep the noise level down.
The upstairs café offers an ala carte menu featuring the same local, organic ingredients at more modest prices. However, if you are going to order the same number of courses at the café as you would be served at the restaurant, the price will creep up north.
The restaurant serves only dinner. The café is open for lunch and dinner. Each facility has its own kitchen and staff.
Chez Panisse today remains true to the roots that were planted in 1971. The restaurant was sustainable decades before the notion came into popular being and the Berkeley idealists who were in at the beginning were devoted environmentalists.
If they had a greater background in the restaurant business they might never have bought into the concept of Chez Panisse. We are fortunate that they didn’t have that background, trusted their instincts, and stayed true to themselves.
As for the name “Chez Panisse”, if you’ve seen the musical or movie “Fanny”, or the Marcel Pagnol trilogy of films from the 1930s called “Marius”, “Fanny”, and “Cesar”, you may recall the character of Honoree Panisse. His was the name that was given to the restaurant.
On one visit to Chez Panisse we had grilled striped bass, cauliflower soup, braised pork shoulder and belly, and an apple tart. Jennifer doesn’t like cooked apples, so they gladly substituted a chocolate bombe. Each dish delivered a home run.
Next visit it was fennel fritters with green garlic, black truffle and sheep’s milk ricotta cheese, followed by Gulf shrimp on a bed of gold and green pasta. Then it was grilled quail with spiced butternut squash. Desert was chocolate, espresso and stracciatella ice cream bomba.
These are menus you might never see again. The menu changes nightly and is posted on the web site each Saturday for the following week. Reservations are taken one month in advance.