From Berkeley's Chez Panisse, Alice Waters has launched a "delicious revolution."
From Berkeley's Chez Panisse, Alice Waters has launched a "delicious revolution."
In the summer of 1971, Holiday magazine published its list of the best American restaurants, a roundup of glittering high-end tables from Miami Beach to Monterey. Seventeen out of 142 were in San Francisco. There was Doros, with its "luscious planked chateaubriand" and "fettuccine Alfredo served Roman style on gold plates." Ernie's made the list, as did Jack's, Amelio's, and Trader Vic's. Julius' Castle was heralded for its pheasant en cocotte and Le Trianon, for its roast young boar, oysters in champagne, and steaks "prepared in the Parisian manner."
The very month that Holiday published its paean to duckling à l'orange, sauce béarnaise, and opulent restaurants named after men, Alice Waters and a group of her friends opened Chez Panisse in a craftsman house in Berkeley. Waters was a 27-year-old former Montessori teacher from New Jersey. "Great restaurants for me were those little one-star restaurants in France," Waters says. "That's really what I had in mind. I didn't want a fancy restaurant, although I admired and appreciated them. I just wanted one little restaurant run by the chef, with beautiful flowers in the room and all the food out on the counters, so you could see what they were serving that day. I wanted a place with a simplicity about it."
Chez Panisse had strenuously humble aspirations: It would serve a single fixed menu every night. The American restaurant has never been quite the same.
Even if you have never eaten there, you have probably been touched by Chez Panisse. It is often ranked as one of the best U.S. restaurants, as are a number of restaurants whose chefs once chopped garlic in its brick-walled kitchen: Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe; Lucques and Campanile in Los Angeles; San Francisco's Zuni Café. You are also seeing its influence when you peruse the menu of just about any sophisticated American restaurant, where the descriptions of dishes will typically include the pedigree of the ingredients: Shelton Farm's chicken and Montrachet goat cheese salad, or grilled Copper River sockeye salmon with Yakima Valley asparagus. When the emphasis seems to be on fresh ingredients produced locally and organically, when the emphasis seems to be on the ingredients themselves rather than the wizardry of a saucier, this too is Chez Panisse.
"What starts at Chez Panisse often becomes a phenomenon," says David Lebovitz, author of Room for Dessert and a former pastry cook at the restaurant. "When I started out, you couldn't get organic teeny lettuces. Now they're at every Safeway."
Thirty years ago, when Chez Panisse served its first dinner (pâté en croûte, duck with olives, salad, prune tart) at long tables, family style, there were few indications that the funky restaurant would turn the culinary establishment on its ear. The founders, Waters included, were not trained chefs. Caroline Bates, who reviewed Chez Panisse for Gourmet in 1975, says, "A lot of their dishes didn't really work. I remember an artichoke soup that was sort of separated. It wasn't a very good soup." But she has vivid memories of Jeremiah Tower—perhaps the most flamboyant chef to come through the Chez Panisse kitchen—grilling artichokes and throwing the leaves into the fire as fuel. "The food was always interesting," Bates says. "They were doing these funny, experimental things."
And she loved it. In her review, she wrote, "Still- life table arrangement of flowers, unblemished fresh fruit, and glistening fruit tarts suggest that this is a restaurant more interested in art than artifice."
When did it become something more than an arty little Berkeley place? "When Alice herself started cooking, two or three years after it opened," says Stan Sesser, who reviewed Chez Panisse for the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1970s, "that was when I realized it was going to be something big."
There have been many collaborators at Chez Panisse, and many brilliant chefs have worked in the kitchen. But there is little argument that Chez Panisse is—and has always been—Alice's restaurant. Waters is extremely gifted, and she is a perfectionist. Says Jennifer Johnson, a former Chez Panisse sous-chef: "She's got the finest palate I've ever been around. She'll notice the smallest discrepancy in salt or heat, and her correction always makes sense."
Waters was never just feeding people; she was teaching them. "We want to get people to try the unusual things on our menu," Waters told the Chronicle in 1975. "That's what the Montessori approach is all about—to open people up." Californians were ready to be opened up. In the 1970s, pricey San Francisco restaurants still served Camembert out of a can. So when Chez Panisse presented customers with snow-white chèvre, fresh from Laura Chenel's Sonoma dairy, it was a revelation.
Then there were the salads. Thirty years ago, restaurant salads were iceberg or spinach, festooned with a cherry tomato and dressed with Roquefort, French, or Thousand Island. Chez Panisse served curly, crunchy, sweet baby greens, plucked from the ground in the morning, delivered to the restaurant by noon, washed, tossed, and promptly put in front of a customer. "They had the most wonderful salads," Bates says. "They had the most incredible tomatoes—just sliced on a plate with olive oil. I thought this was one of the best things I'd ever eaten. We take that kind of thing for granted now."
Food is treated like it's precious at Chez Panisse because it is, often, the most precious of its kind. Waters only tolerates the most aromatic melons, the sweetest just-picked corn, the most luscious apricots. And she has grown increasingly adamant that they all be organic. When she had trouble finding farmers who could meet her exacting requirements, she convinced local growers to give it a try. Today, about 98 percent of the restaurant's food is organic—even the sugar.
The staff has been trained to do as little as possible to the produce. "Everything that is accepted in the restaurant is already in a perfect state," says Mona Talbott, who cooked at Chez Panisse from 1993 to 1996. "You don't have to do a lot to a carrot that is freshly dug and tastes incredible."
The restaurant has resisted every trend that has come along in three decades—no desserts on stilts, no rococo fusion pastas, no decadent marriages of foie gras with tuna and wasabi beurre blanc. The offerings at Chez Panisse make elaborate presentations look vulgar. "To do something simple is very, very complicated, so lots of times it doesn't quite happen the way I would like it to happen," Waters explains. "It happens, I think, always well. And sometimes it happens really well."
Waters is no longer at the stove, but Chez Panisse is still very much her restaurant, and when she travels, she returns with new ideas, from homemade mozzarella to organic tortillas. When she's in town, she is usually found at Chez Panisse.
Other renowned chefs have built empires. For example, Wolfgang Puck presides over dozens of restaurants, from a handful of expensive Spagos to a string of airport cafés. Emeril Lagasse has TV shows, six restaurants, and a Web site where he hawks Kicked Up Gaaahlic salad dressing, T-shirts ("Bam!"), and $120 Emerilware casseroles.
But Waters has stuck to the one lovely restaurant (she also founded the pocket-size Café Fanny a mile or so west). The politics of eating seems to interest her more than celebrity or riches. "I think she is more concerned with promoting the message about eating right than marketing the restaurant," says Kelsie Kerr, a Chez Panisse chef.
Ever the teacher, Waters likens her restaurant to a school, sending its graduates into the kitchens of America, spreading the word about organic ingredients. "We have a mission," Waters says. "We're trying to cause a revolution, a delicious revolution. We have a purpose that's bigger than serving the dinners. Chez Panisse is not just a restaurant."
Because Chez Panisse is not just a restaurant, it is sometimes hard to remember that it is still a restaurant. It is a restaurant where people celebrate 50th birthdays, get engaged, fall in love, and expect, above all, not an education, but a great deal of pleasure. It is a restaurant where cooks eviscerate mountains of squid, shave fennel, roast figs—and it all needs to look, smell, and taste astonishing.
There are two ways to experience Chez Panisse. The casual upstairs café (1517 Shattuck Ave.; 510-548-5049), opened in 1980, serves both lunch and dinner, and the à la carte menu leans toward pizzas, pastas, and salads. Entrées run $15 to $23. As you eat, you can watch cooks in the open kitchen tossing chopped eggs and bottarga into salads and pulling sand dabs from the wood-burning oven.
The 50-seat downstairs restaurant (open only for dinner; 510-548-5525) is the more serious—and expensive—proposition. The room is wood paneled, the walls hung with black-and-white stills from the 1930s movies of Marcel Pagnol. (Panisse is a character from a Pagnol film.) Reservations are accepted one month in advance for the two nightly seatings (6-6:30 p.m. and 8:30-9:30 p.m.) and require a $25 deposit. The menu is fixed: You will eat what is placed in front of you, and this could mean octopus salad, spit-roasted lamb, lobster fritters, mulberry ice cream. If you don't want octopus salad, you can call on Monday, or go to www.chezpanisse.com , to see what's on for the night you reserved. (Remember: If you cancel less than 24 hours in advance, you will forfeit your deposit.) Monday night meals consist of three courses and cost $45; Tuesday through Thursday, dinner is $65 and includes four courses; Friday and Saturday, the tab is $75 for four courses, with an aperitif.
So, how is it?
"What is amazing about it is that it just keeps going to a higher level," says Gourmet's Bates. "It goes up and up and up."
It is Wednesday night and the downstairs restaurant is completely booked. Duskie Estes and her husband, John Stewart, the young chef-owners of zuzu, which opened in August in Santa Rosa, are studying the menu. Waters has been Estes's role model throughout a 15-year cooking career.
But Estes has never eaten at Chez Panisse, and she is anxious that the fabled restaurant will not live up to its reputation. "A restaurant that is 30 years old can rest on its laurels because everyone already thinks it's awesome," she says. "And so it doesn't actually have to be awesome."
The first course arrives: warm salad of white shrimps and summer chanterelles. "Perfectly cooked," Estes says. "The arugula is dressed with the perfect balance of salt, acid, and oil. The balsamic with the seafood is a little different; a lot of people do it with beef and lamb."
The sauce that remains on the plate is not actually a sauce, she points out; it's just the mingled juices of the dish's components: mushroom, shrimp, oil. "This is the Alice Waters philosophy," she says. "The ingredients are the flavors."
On to the ricotta and borage ravioli in a rabbit sugo. The pasta itself gets highest marks. But the sauce contains a number of sharp, small rabbit bones. "I'd definitely have to talk to the person picking the meat. This is not OK," says Estes, pushing bones aside. "But accidents happen."
The main course squab is crispy skinned, with burgundy flesh. It is surrounded by lima beans the size of quarters and the squab's liver and heart. "The beans are cooked just right—it's surprisingly hard to cook beans," Estes says. "You need a very attentive cook."
Dessert is a fruit tart with a dollop of mascarpone cream. "What I love are the flavors of the nectarines and the raspberries," Estes says. "The mascarpone was on the plate as a creamy contrast, but I would have added sweetness, a note of almond." After further reflection she says, "Or maybe vanilla bean. But I understand what they were trying to do, even if I'd do things differently."
"Honestly, I didn't expect it to be this good," she says. "This was awesome."
Chez Panisse is turning 30 in a business where three decades is an eternity. Of the 17 San Francisco restaurants Holiday cited as belonging to the nation's elite in 1971, only four are still in business, and none is considered among the city's best. Yet Chez Panisse continues to change the way Americans eat, the way food is grown, the way we feel about having an indigenous cuisine.
So let's lift a glass of 1996 Anderson Valley Navarro chardonnay and toast Chez Panisse at 30. It's still awesome.
Chez Panisse is Just the Beginning
by Patricia Unterman
Chez Panisse turned the principles of restauranting upside down. Instead of showcasing the wizardry of chefs, the kitchen focused on ingredients—seasonal, local, naturally raised—and cooked them only to reveal their essence. I opened Hayes Street Grill (320 Hayes St., San Francisco, 415-863-5545) 22 years ago determined to serve only fresh, local fish. I used to write the whole menu on a small blackboard because I could only get my hands on three different kinds. Now we cook a large variety over a wood fire; open oysters from nearby Tomales Bay; and cook up stews of North Coast shellfish. I personally haul produce from the Ferry Plaza farmers’ market to Hayes Street twice a week because after two decades it still gives me enormous pleasure to cook simply with these vibrant ingredients.
When I can get away from the kitchen, here are my favorite restaurants inspired by what has become over the years the Chez Panisse tradition.
Manka’s Inverness Lodge (30 Callendar Way, Inverness, 415-669-1034) expresses chef-owner Margaret Grade’s romantic sense of place. She has created a personal fantasy in a coastal forest—a dining room that feels like a tree house and a menu that weaves together wild and cultivated ingredients foraged from nearby Bolinas and west Marin. Grade knows the provenance of every morsel of food she serves—and you will too after reading the menu. A dreamy dinner and an overnight stay in Manka’s rustic luxury have become a pilgrimage for believers in the celebration of locality.
Paul Bertolli, formerly the downstairs chef at Chez Panisse, has mounted an equally passionate exultation of the fresh, local, and artisan made at Oliveto (5655 College Ave., Oakland, 510-547-5356), but in an Italian idiom. He grinds his own organic corn for polenta. He cures his own prosciutto and salami. Once you’ve tasted his ravioli with wild greens, his slabs of free-range pork cooked on a wood-½red rotisserie, and his Italian-style tripe (so delicious), you’ll make Oliveto a culinary pilgrimage site as well.
Every Wednesday for six years Damani Thomas has crossed the street to the Santa Cruz farmers’ market to buy produce. His colorful dishes at Oswald (1547 E. Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, 831-423-7427), a tiny, redwood-lined restaurant, exude local bounty. People (like me) drive from San Francisco for his crispy duck breast and golden potato cake slathered with aromatic peach chutney. Fans will think up any excuse to get to Thomas’s sparkling, always luscious cooking. Hiro Sone has seen the proliferation of Napa Valley vegetable gardens over the 13 years he has owned Terra (1345 Railroad Ave., St. Helena, 707-963-8931). He uses these hyperlocal ingredients in unexpected ways, drawing on Japanese, Italian, and French sensibilities, but his dishes always reflect what they’re made of, like his famous panzanella (an Italian bread and tomato salad that you will never forget) made with tomatoes that arrive at his kitchen still warm from the sun. It’s a thrill to eat this earthy food in Terra’s old stone dining room, especially with wines from the neighborhood.
Raymond Tang shops at the Windsor and Santa Rosa farmers’ markets for tiny Mariposa (275 Windsor River Rd., Windsor, 707-838-0162), and he has also cultivated his own half-acre garden behind his nearby house. He raises herbs, 50 kinds of tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, all of which he incorporates into his menu with impeccable taste. His white beans with house-cured bacon (made with pork belly from pigs raised for Chez Panisse) is a dish that has traveled a straight line from the origins of California cuisine. Yet no one would mistake it for anything but an exciting Tang original.
Photography by Mitch Tobias 
This article was first published in November 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.