At 8:30 p.m. on a Thursday evening, all the tables at Chez Panisse are full. Cooks bustle soundlessly from stove to counter and back again in the open kitchen, their routine so fluid and natural that their presence at the far end of the room is easily overlooked. Their workspace bears little resemblance to the typical professional kitchen, with stainless steel replaced by woodblock countertops and copper pots. In the adjoining dining room, the din of conversation is low as gentle light flickers in copper fixtures and is absorbed by the dark wooden beams that cross the ceilings and door frames. A heavy curtain shields the dining room from the entrance to the restaurant, blocking drafts and outdoor noise and retaining a cozy atmosphere. As a result, one feels at ease here in a way that might not be possible in another restaurant of similar stature.
To speak the truth, though, there are just a handful of restaurants in the nation of comparable stature. The longstanding fame Chez Panisse enjoys is a result of myriad factors including chef/owner Alice Waters’ pioneering dedication to the use of local and seasonal ingredients, and the influence her simple, French-inspired cuisine has had on American culinary trends, especially in California. Still, the reason for Chez Panisse’s popularity, almost forty years after its doors opened, is most apparent when you forget its renown and fall under the influence of its warm ambience and beautifully executed meals.
Part of Chez Panisse’s charm becomes apparent even before you walk through the front door. It is located on Shattuck Avenue in famously liberal-minded Berkeley: live music floats through the air from cafes as amidst an eclectic mix of crowds and picnickers during the day, while at night, the area grows quieter with tiny lights sparkling in the trees that line the sidewalks. Guests walk through a dark wooden arch, engraved with the restaurant’s name, and into a small arbor dominated by and the dappled light filtering through trees. The entrance feels organic, and the whole thing is integrated so well with its surroundings that it seems to have sprung up naturally.
On this evening, we arrived early for our reservation and went upstairs to wait at the bar in the café, where the atmosphere is quite different from the subdued scenario below. The café mimics the restaurant’s design, with a homey open kitchen and wood surfaces, but more light, tables, people, and an expanded, less expensive menu, make for a livelier scene. The bar there offers wines by the glass, beer, and cocktails to enjoy while waiting for a table. While they wait, guests can also peruse or purchase any of the Chez Panisse cookbooks displayed behind the counter.
When our table was ready, we were shown downstairs to a little nook at the far end of the room, next to a window looking out into the arbor. The dining room is small enough that even though our table was one of the farthest from the open kitchen, I could still get a view of its activity. Our server immediately welcomed us, explained the fixed price menu, and offered some helpful with finding a bottle of wine that would pair nicely with each of our courses. As we debated our wine selection, a few starters were brought to the table: a bowl of green olives topped with fresh thyme, a tiny dish of butter, and a basket of bread containing a few slices each of a crusty country bread and a second, softer-textured loaf.
When we finally decided on a 2006 Brouilly Beaujolais, our server also checked to make sure that we were happy with the menu selections for the evening. Because of an allergy, I expressed concern about the lobster risotto and was offered a substitution of squash risotto in place of the original. After our wine arrived, our menus were whisked away and we settled down to talk and relax, free from the need to make any other dinner decisions.
Our first course, a Smoked Haddock Salad, arrived on one of Chez Panisse’s specially designed simple, round white plates. It was composed of carefully mounded, pristine romaine lettuce, with flaky pieces of gently smoked haddock, rings of lightly pickled leeks, and crunchy quartered radishes interspersed throughout, and the whole thing was topped with minced chives and parsley, as well as a generous drizzling of seasoned crème fraiche. It is hard to imagine a better opening course than this salad, a mélange of textures and tastes that combined smoky, tart and spicy elements without any one part overwhelming the other, the whole remaining delicately flavored and light, so that our appetites were enticed, not sated.
Our next course was the Maine Lobster Risotto with young spinach, which arrived in a wide, shallow bowl, flecked with dark green wilted leaves and generous chunks of lobster. For me, they had specially prepared a Squash Risotto substitute, colored pale yellow, dotted with diced kabocha squash and flecks of sage. Both risottos were as they ought to be: not heavy, slightly soupy yet still al dente, and lightly seasoned to bring out the flavors. No single element completely dominated either dish and, as a second course, the risottos served as an excellent introduction to our more richly flavored main course.
The second course was a dish of Grilled Becker Lane Farm Pork Loin with apples, quince, Savoy cabbage and porcini. It consisted of three thin slices of rosy pork loin fanned on the left side of the plate amidst a small pool of russet-colored, glistening juniper sauce, and bordered on the right by dark wedges of sweet-tart, tender apples and quince. Below lay a small braised chiffonade of cabbage and a pile of sautéed porcinis touched with a hint of thyme. A study in the possibilities of late fall and early winter ingredients, the memorable quality of this dish was the balance between the earthiness of its major components- the pork, cabbage and mushrooms- matched against the elevating herbal and tart notes contributed by the sauce and the apple, quince mixture.
The final course of our set menu was a Meyer Lemon and Huckleberry Ice Cream Bombe. We were both served a square slice of the three layer bombe, composed of individual layers of deep red huckleberry and tart Meyer lemon ice creams, capped by sponge cake. A drizzling of huckleberry sauce and tiny whole huckleberries surrounded the bombe, and a final touch of sweet candied Meyer lemon pieces added a different texture to the dish. For us, this was a superlative finish to the meal as, after the warmth and richness of our final course, something light was in order for dessert.
On the first page of her famous cookbook, The Art of Simple Food, Alice Waters notes that, “when you have the best and tastiest ingredients, you can cook very simply and the food will be extraordinary because it tastes like what it is.” Chez Panisse has certainly stayed true to this observation, creating dishes that present ingredients at their peak without pretentious distractions, and entire meals that progress naturally in terms of flavors, textures, layers of richness and portions.
If you are planning to dine at Chez Panisse, be advised that it can be difficult to get a table at a particular time, and that the restaurant offers just one fixed price menu each evening, which can be viewed online a week in advance. When you call, you will be offered a space in one of two seatings, the times for which depend on the day you plan to go. This structure has been the rule at Chez Panisse since its opening and is part and parcel of the restaurant’s commitment to using only the freshest local and seasonal ingredients. Tuesday through Thursday the menu is four courses and costs $75; Friday and Saturday the $95, four course menu is more elaborate and includes an aperitif. Monday is the deal of the week, offering a three course meal for $60. The restaurant takes reservations up to a month in advance with a credit card deposit of $25. Though I called three weeks early, once in an attempt to secure a weekend night and once for the Monday night deal, I ended up taking a Thursday night at 8:30pm.
In short, to eat at Chez Panisse you must be flexible about what and when you’re going to eat. You can rest assured, however, that no matter when you go the service will be not just attentive, but kind, and the food you eat will be prepared not just with the best ingredients available, but with care for those ingredients and the people who harvest them. Your only responsibility, then, is to call as early as you can, and invite only the best of company to join you.