berkeley food #17: chez panisse

1517 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, California 94709
(510) 548-5049

I’ve been to Chez Panisse four times now spread out over the last year and a half. Every time has been a blast, and delicious, and (believe it or not) not terrifyingly expensive (though I’ve yet to foot the bill). The restaurant is split into upstairs (the cafe) and downstairs (the restaurant). In the restaurant, there is just one menu that everyone gets, which changes daily. In the cafe, the menu also changes each day but you can choose between several options for starters, entrees, and desserts. All of the times I’ve been there have been in the cafe because (1) it’s more fun to get a bunch of stuff and share and (2) it’s actually possible to get reservations upstairs with only a couple of weeks of notice (or less, if you’re willing to eat at 5pm on a Wednesday).

The restaurant has a lot of history behind it. It was opened by Alice Waters in 1971. The website sums up the philosophy:

Alice and Chez Panisse have become convinced that the best-tasting food is organically grown and harvested in ways that are ecologically sound, by people who are taking care of the land for future generations. The quest for such ingredients has largely determined the restaurant’s cuisine. Chez Panisse has tried for years to make diners here partake of the immediacy and excitement of vegetables just out of the garden, fruit right off the branch, and fish straight out of the sea. In doing so, Chez Panisse has stitched together a patchwork of over sixty nearby suppliers, whose concerns, like the restaurant’s, are environmental harmony and optimal flavor.

I guess these aren’t uncommon ideas these days, but probably they were in 1971. It’s a French restaurant, but the food (I think) is really Californian–mostly familiar and with amazingly fresh and well-matched ingredients. Some claim the restaurant was actually the birthplace of California cuisine, but since I’ve been here just three years I won’t try to pass judgement on that.

All of my experiences at this place have been wonderful. The atmosphere is very casual, with lots of dark wood and natural light coming in. Butcher paper on the tables invites you to make a bit of a mess passing food around–which is really the only way to experience the variety of the daily menu–but the attitude, knowledgability, and attentiveness of the waitstaff let you know you’re in a “fancy” restaurant from the start.

We usually start with things like fresh salads, baked goat cheese, toasted breads, and so forth. The entrees range from pizza and pasta to duck to awesomely rare cuts of beef–my last trip (with my parents) I had the best flank steak of my life. Every thing is swimming in butter, of course, but it never feels like a mask for flavor–maybe something more like a foundation. The desserts are probably the most unique, with lots of fresh fruit incorporated into tarts, sorbets, and cakes. One dessert we had in prime citrus season was two unpeeled oranges and three figs–and it was such a perfect match of flavors.

I guess at some point if I really knew what I was talking about I would comment on the wine list, but we all know that would be absurd. They have… lots of wine! Of all sorts and colors. Usually we get a red one. I do like the local beer they keep on tap, which I can attest is always seasonal and yummy even if the selection is fairly narrow.

Prices are of course on the steep side, with entrees from $15-35 and a complete dinner for four hovering around $300 with all the accoutrements. But honestly the food is so great that it doesn’t seem unreasonable, and I’m sure they could keep the place full at twice the price. For a special event or just a reunion with good friends or family this place is awesome. Just be sure to call exactly a month ahead (that’s as far out as they take reservations) if you want that Saturday night spot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *