Among people who care about food, no independent restaurant in America needs less of an introduction than Berkeley's Chez Panisse. Co-founder Alice Waters has done more to implant the words "local," "seasonal," and "sustainable" in our brains than any other living soul. She began the restaurant modestly in 1971, serving French food inspired by cookbook authors like Richard Olney and Elizabeth David. Her search for quality ingredients from nearby farmers eventually propelled the California cuisine movement—as did the skills of other freethinking cooks who joined her in the kitchen through the years. In turn they helped foster pride in homegrown foods and traditions among chefs in the country's other regions. The Chez Panisse philosophy rerouted America's culinary trajectory. Its continuing insistence on simplicity also generates its share of backlash.
This has all been written about and discussed ad nauseum. How satisfying is Chez Panisse for diners circa right now? That varies between the downstairs restaurant and the upstairs cafe. I definitely prefer one experience to the other.
In the middle of our meal my friend, a first-timer, utters what he doesn't realize is a cliché about dining downstairs at Chez Panisse. "This looks like something you'd serve at home," he says.
"It's designed that way," I respond. We're gazing at our most substantial of five courses: fetching, misshapen hunks of wild King salmon grilled and topped with a sauce of chopped mushrooms. On the side are leeks braised in red wine, a little tuft of salad greens, and several stalks of asparagus. Of course every element on the plate exudes freshness. The mushrooms are morels, dark as olives and forest-deep in their earthiness. Their flavor melds with the salmon's gentle, fishy musk. A thoughtful play of textures banters between the soft leeks and the snap of asparagus. Nothing sets off fireworks, but it's a graceful plate of food.
This is the third meal I've had downstairs at Chez Panisse in my twenty years of serious dining, and I've felt the same way every time: Lovely, and more transformative in doctrine than in experience. I eat this food, and I appreciate the lives and labors that went into it. Am I dazzled by the meal? No.
But I do admire the way the restaurant adheres to its vision: It serves dinner Monday through Saturday, one nightly changing fixed price menu, which gets more complex as the week progresses. Monday night is three courses for $65; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday is four for $85; and Friday and Saturday means five courses for $100. The restaurant will accommodate vegetarians with notice. Otherwise, what you'll be eating is a surprise until the week's menu goes live online.
We reserved for a Friday and found ourselves with an all-seafood menu. As it has always been, the dining room feels like an intimate supper club. All signs of the fire that closed the restaurant for three months last year have vanished. The reclaimed redwood paneling gleams ruddy and handsome; the geometric copper light fixtures cast flattering shadows. We had a 6 p.m. reservation and the evening started leisurely. Our bright, engaging server brought out thick slices of sourdough from Acme Bread Company (started by Steven Sullivan, a Chez Panisse alum) and a plate of bacalao crostini with a few olives.
The room filled and dinner didn't begin in earnest until around 6:45 p.m., with a fan of yellowtail jack crudo dribbled with olive oil and dappled with crushed grapefruit, garlic, and herbs. Clean flavors, easy to enjoy. Next came risi e bisi—rice and peas—with ringlets of grilled Monterey Bay squid. The restaurant may have started French, but Paul Bertolli, the main chef from 1982 to 1992, shifted the style of cooking toward Italy, a direction the savory kitchen in particular maintains. (Downstairs currently has two chefs, Jérôme Waag and Cal Peternell, who each work like maniacs for six months and then get off the other half of the year, paid, to recharge and research menus. Peternell was in the kitchen during my meal.)
The salmon followed the rice and peas, and then came a strawberry and rhubarb millefoglie—an endearingly lopsided pastry shell filled with cream and decorated with slices of candied kumquat. We chatted with the table of three next to us, and we tagged along with them on the tour of the kitchen they'd requested. We thanked our hosts, muttered kind words about the food on the way out the door, and felt relaxed on the drive home. Just like eating at an old friend's house.
I felt worlds more excited about the pizzetta sitting in front of me the following week. Taking cues from the Connecticut school of pizza, fresh clams dotted the pie, which had also been sprinkled liberally with punchy marjoram. The cheese and tomato sauce fused, the charred crust crackled, and the clam's briny jolt infused every bite. It was the beginning of a spectacular lunch.
The Cafe at Chez Panisse opened upstairs in 1980 for diners seeking a more casual option, and over the years it has developed its own personality—the spunkier younger sister who's frankly more fun to be around. The à la carte menu has grown in length through the decades, and the items can change even from noon to night, but expect gutsier, more soulful compositions than what's served downstairs. Out of sentimentality I ordered the baked goat cheese covered in bread crumbs and herbs, nestled among garden lettuces, a dish that's been available since the cafe's earliest days. It made the Indian nuances of poached halibut shocking by comparison: The fish came with saffron rice, gingered spinach, rounds of golden beets, and a dollop of coconut-coriander chutney. It was the culinary equivalent of Joni Mitchell suddenly taking up the sitar.
All-American pleasures followed: Crisp-edged chicken cooked under a brick and flecked with rosemary, with polenta prepared creamy enough that we might as well call them grits. Shaved leg of lamb revved with a mustard sauce, the seeds popping between my teeth. And my god, the desserts. The apricot galette looked so simple but contained the universe—a dance of sweet and tart, the crust carrying a whiff of smoke from the wood oven, the vanilla ice cream alongside enhancing without distracting.
I lingered over two other sweets—strawberry-rhubarb shortcake and a honey-yogurt sherbet with roasted blueberries—nearly as transcendent. The service was lovable, not as confident as the downstairs team but intent on our happiness. We were seated in a small room at the top of the restaurant's converted Craftsman house, a turret of sorts with old-timey wallpaper of tree-like patterns. Out the window, I could see the lush spring and a cloudless blue sky, and a sliver of San Francisco Bay and the mountains beyond. Yes, I thought. This is the Chez Panisse experience that best encapsulates California cooking.