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The Chez Panisse Renovation: A Tour With Alice Waters

It's been one month since Alice Waters' legendary restaurant Chez Panisse reopened its doors in Berkeley, California, after a fire forced its shutter back in March. Waters marked the occasion with a benefit for her charity, the Edible Schoolyard, that she says "was just like a family reunion." And ever since then, it's been a busy summer for the 42-year-old restaurant, full of bookings, Bastille Day celebrations, and continued improvements to complete the three-month renovation process that began pretty much straight after the fire hit. Those continued improvements include rebuilding the handicapped ramp, which Waters says they didn't get perfectly right the first time. Chez Panisse will close July 29-30 to accomplish this task.

As Waters pointed out in an interview shortly after the fire, the opportunity to rebuild things in a better way was a silver lining to such a tragedy. The Chez Panisse team — including some of its original builders and artisans — spent three months fixing up the patchwork of dining spaces that had been added throughout the years as Chez Panisse grew in its home on Shattuck Avenue. Not only did they rewire the electrical systems and take safety precautions to prevent any more fires in the future, but Chez Panisse also got a new pagoda-like facade, reconfigured dining rooms, a new menu in the upstairs café, and more.

Having built up immeasurable neighborly goodwill throughout the years in Berkeley, Waters also got plenty of help in her renovation plan. The original architect Kip Mesirow came back to design the new facade, while local artists and artisans such as Sherry Olsen, Willem Racké, Paul Discoe, and Khalil Mujededy all worked on various aspects of the new Chez Panisse. Most touchingly, Waters bought a little metal clip stand for posting announcements at the bar with the $37 that two young girls brought her from their Meyer lemonade stand. "It was pretty beautiful," Waters says of the gesture. Here now, a look at the various Chez Panisse renovations, as explained by Waters herself:

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[Photo: Patricia Chang]

A New Facade

Your original designer Kip Mesirow worked on the facade with you, right?
Yes.

So how did that come together?
Kip, it's like he almost had it in his mind always because he sat down the first day he was here and he just drew it. Just like that. Drew it on a little piece of paper right in front of me.

And the first draft, you were like, "Okay, let's do it."
Yep, the first draft I said, "Yep, looks great." And then he refined it and there it is. So I think he really did have it in his mind.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the elements of the facade?
You know, the two porches that we built were meant to be balconies. And because we needed the space, oh, we'd put a roof over the balcony and then we put windows and then we put real windows and then we put a real floor. It happened like that over a period of time. And when we wanted to do the same thing upstairs, we didn't really even tie it in to the downstairs room. It was sort of sitting on top of it very awkwardly. It didn't make sense except in terms of dining space. And the same thing happened up there [in the upstairs porch]. It was just open and then we had an awning on it and then windows came and then we put a roof in and then all of a sudden it became a room. So this really pulled everything together.

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[Photo: Amanda Marsalis]

Dining Room Renovations

Can you tell me about the dining alcove?
When we rebuilt the facade of the restaurant, it meant really completely redoing the downstairs space as well as the upstairs space. And what Kip Mesirow did is he tied the two together. So it allows us to have a pitched roof in the upstairs. And it makes the whole front of the building sort of come together in this beautiful Japanese pagoda look.

It's the one room upstairs that feels dramatically different because it was a very low-ceilinged little space. It was almost like a treehouse. You walked up several steps to get into it, and now it's really part of the dining room. It's a very special part of the dining room with big windows that look out over the Bay and up into the tree. So it has quite a dramatic view.

And it's built with redwood?
We built it with recycled redwood. Actually, all of the wood had been cut or salvaged a long time ago, around the time we built the café. That was 30 years ago. It was supposed to be used on another project and it never was. So we got it all back.

That's perfect.
Yeah, it was perfect.

Where was it?
It was in the workshop of one of the artisan woodworkers, [Paul Discoe]. He's a well-known builder and artisan, Japanese-inclined. Amazing guy.

And the tables in the dining area. Are they all new tables or is it just a new placement of them?
We're going to have new tables. We have done new placement and added a lot of benches to the café. We're not finished with that. But we're just seeing how different tables work in different spaces. I'm really pleased with the new configurations, which allows certain corner tables to be more private. Just all kinds of ways that it just works a whole lot better.

When is the last time that you changed the table placement up?
I don't even remember. We make these plans and we're not considering everything. [This time] we had three months to really consider everything. What we really wanted it to feel like. That was great.


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[Photo: Patricia Chang]

Safety Precautions

And I know you have installed sprinklers, fire extinguishers, and fire-proof windows.
Indeed.

I guess those are pretty straightforward.
They're pretty straightforward. And you know, we just can't be too careful. We're working on very, very deliberate signage around the restaurant so that people can find the right exits and really understand that they are fire exits. It's so important that people can leave the building and find their way to a safe spot. So I think we all believe in it. I'm not resisting anymore for aesthetic reasons. It doesn't make any difference to me, I'm just doing it.

Are the signs up already?
Yes. Some of them are. They're up in a temporary form, very strong signs are everywhere. But we're going to really make them long-lasting. We'll make them out of metal, make them with lights on them, make them really durable.

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[Photos: Amanda Marsalis]

Lights and Electricity

And speaking of lights, you also got new light fixtures.
Those are beautiful. Those are designed by Kip a little bit but then also Khalil [Mujededy], who has worked with us since about year four of Chez Panisse. He was a refugee from Afghanistan and he's turned out to be indispensable, managing the building and designing many, many elements. Not only of lighting, but of trim through the bar and all kinds of work in copper that he's put in the kitchen. The door of the walk-in. He's just an amazing... I want to say he's an inventor.

So what was the thought behind the fixtures? Did you have in mind what you wanted?
Well, I don't know if I can ever get it right because we're in an old house and sometimes there's just more electricity to one fixture than another. So you're trying to adjust light bulbs to make it right. It's just endlessly in that place. But [Khalil] designed a whole group of light fixtures that are in the back. He has worked with me and another artist, Sherry Olsen to get the right quality of light in the downstairs.

We put in a silver leaf ceiling so that it reflects the light in a beautiful way. It's amazing. The ceiling is amazing. I'm in love with it. It was done by an artist in San Francisco who does all kinds of finishes, special finishes for walls and makes murals. Does all kinds of things with paint and paper and I heard about this from a friend. So they came over and they did it in the downstairs. It's just an astonishing thing. Really. His name is Willem Racké.

And you guys also did a total rewiring, right?
We did. All under the house. It's all been rewired way better than it was. But it's a matter of the circuits that exist and the way that they're hooked up to the actual fixture. It's just a mystery in some way. You'd have to take out all the ceilings and everything out of the restaurant to get that right. I don't think it's worthwhile. I think we'll just have to exist in this dimming lights place.


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[Photo: Patricia Chang]

A New Café Menu

You also changed up the café menu?
We did. We're still working on that, too, but I like it very much. I like the idea that we're probably going to change the paper because it's too absorbent. And we're just thinking that they're slightly too big. You know, fine-tuning it. But I love the way it looks, and I think people do, too.

What kind of changes did you make, food-wise?
We decided to put on an hors d'oeuvre pasta. For me, it's a great thing. I always like to have a little pasta before I order a main dish, and this allows me to do that. I think a lot of people like to eat a small amount of pasta maybe even as a main dish. So that's something. We have really been able to emphasize this late-night steak that we do. That has a beautiful place on the menu. We do that on Monday through Thursday after 9:30 p.m. Sort of a steak-frites with a glass of red wine.

That sounds great.
It is. I wish it weren't just so late at night. We're working on that. I like it late, but I never like to eat that late.

So you might someday offer it earlier?
Yes, I think we might have to.


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[Photo: Patricia Chang]

Odds, Ends, Paint, and Wallpaper

Anything else yet to be done?
We had an opportunity to paint the entire restaurant. I mean, every part of it has been painted. And then we just sanded all the wood and refinished it. It looks great. Those rough spots in the benches in the café have disappeared.

Did you use the original paint color or did you change it?
It will look to people like the original colors, but they have been changed. And we're choosing wallpaper, which will go in the downstairs dining room and on the porch. I'm just excited because we had some very old wallpaper that I found at a flea market that my father hung in the little private dining room of the café when we opened the café 32 years ago. And when we remodeled, that room disappeared and that wallpaper with it. When we were looking at wallpapers to put on the porch, there is one old wallpaper pattern that just about like the one that was in the private dining room that I got at the flea market. I'm so excited. We're definitely putting that in the downstairs room.

That's a great story.
It's amazing how close it is. Just amazing. And I love that wallpaper. There's a picture of me in The Power of Gathering, in the book, in the early days of the restaurant where I'm just sitting in that room and the wallpaper is predominant. I love the picture because the wallpaper is in the background.

Where did you find the new wallpaper?
It was this artist Sherry Olsen, who has helped us from time to time. She found it. I think it's in a collection of wallpapers from the '20s and '30s. And I know that the wallpaper that I had was from the '20s. I got it in all of these rolls at the flea market and my father painstakingly hung the wallpaper. It was falling apart almost because it wasn't stored right. So my father sort of just pieced it together in the most beautiful way. He always hung wallpaper in our house when we were growing up. It was just what you did. You didn't paint; you hung wallpaper. So it's something that brings back lots of memories.

I love how so many of these things have stories behind them.
Yeah, a lot of things certainly came from the flea market in the early days. I have lots of memories of collecting things and light fixtures, and people that gave us things. Pictures that we hung. We changed all the placement of the pictures in the dining room, in the café. I took the precious two from Café Fanny when it closed and I hung them in the café. So they're sort of back home again.

[Lede Photo: Amanda Marsalis]

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Chez Panisse

1517 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, CA 94709
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