Our (not so) excellent Chez Panisse adventure

Chez Panisse. Photo: ulterior epicure/Creative Commons

Michelle Vaughan and Felix Salmon are Berkeleyside friends who live in New York City. Michelle is an artist and Felix is a finance blogger for Reuters. They’re passionate about their food so when we heard they were coming to Chez Panisse for the first time, we asked them to record their thoughts. Here’s their tale:

Michelle: Coming to San Francisco this time for me was for one occasion, and one occasion only: my husband’s birthday. He needed to be in SF for work the day before, and instead of him spending it alone, I volunteered to fly out. With one proviso:  that he get an amazing reservation for a decadent meal.

So Felix set his alarm inside his computer calendar to alert him exactly one month before so he could book through Open Table. He came back to me, “I booked us a reservation.” And I said, “Oh really, where?” And then he showed me the computer screen: Chez Panisse, 2 people, 9:15pm.

Felix: The alarm thing in the computer didn’t work very well, but when Michelle and I were in a restaurant in Orange County last month, I remembered the Chez Panisse idea and got a resy using the Open Table app on my iPhone. I love Open Table, but I think that it sometimes works less well with old-fashioned restaurants.

Michelle: We have dreamed about going to this restaurant for years and years. It’s never happened. So you can imagine my excitement and I booked an air ticket right away.

Felix: Which of course was my cunning plan: I got to spend my birthday in San Francisco with my wife, which was great.

Michelle: Fast forward to F’s birthday: we’re on the BART traveling from San Francisco to Berkeley all dressed up and anticipating a fabulous night.

Felix: Berkeley’s big! And Chez Panisse is not very close to the BART. I was expecting something a bit more Jane Jacobs and downtown, rather than a restaurant-you-really-need-to-drive-to. Michelle was wearing heels, turning the walk from the BART into a bit of a schlep.

Michelle: We arrive at Chez Panisse bang on time.

Felix: We thought we had time to explore Berkeley or grab a drink beforehand, not so much. It basically took us an hour from getting on the BART in SF.

Once we got to the restaurant, I was immediately struck by the architecture: it’s a beautiful and unique restaurant, architecturally, and I adore the way it looks and feels. You feel immediately at home, with all the warm wood; it’s informal yet high-end at the same time. But it can get a bit crowded.

Michelle: It’s asparagus season so there is a big pile in a basket near the entrance. I love that, stating: this is in season, and this is what you’re going to eat.

Felix: The greeting was a bit chaotic, there was a lot of milling around in a crowded corridor before the hostess finally appeared, and she had to deal with a couple of other people first. She needed my last name to find my reservation — no California informality here — and said the table would be ready in 5-10 minutes, they were running a little late. I looked around the corridor, and had to ask if there was a bar. Oh yes, she said distractedly, it’s upstairs. She’d come and fetch us when the table was ready.

The bar was nice, if also crowded; we ordered a couple of cocktails and looked around. Five minutes passed, then ten…

Michelle: Our reservation was for 9:15, so I’m already pretty hungry, as is Felix. We wait and wait.

It was a long wait. Drinks were finished. I mention to Felix it was poor expectations management to have us up here so long, and not check in to see how we are or give us an update on when we’ll be seated. But we are patient.

She finally comes up and we walk down to the dining room. We sit down and soak up the room. No art, just very attractive woodwork somewhere between Mission and Art Nouveau, I was having a hard time deciphering which. It was elegant but not snobby.

We receive our beautiful paper menus (green onions illustrated on the cover), which stated a fixed tasting. Fine, makes things easy — four courses: asparagus salad, Maine lobster and scallop risotto, braised and grilled pork shoulder with gnocchi, peas and fava beans. Neapolitan ice cream for desert. Great, we are ready.

The waiter comes to discuss the wine menu, which Felix is trying to choose from. He narrows down to a few — asks for a Pinot Noir that is earthy, light and has lots of character. We like a barnyard kick. The waiter wavers a little, unsure if they had something to match his request. So Felix asks about an Italian choice, and the waiter says, “Ah yes. That is fantastic and should be what you’re looking for.” (Or something to that effect.) We’re happy, he walks away and then returns with the bottle. He says, “Well actually it’s not from Italy, but from Slovenia. You will enjoy it.” Slovenia? Really??? The fact of the matter is, the wine was good. Slovenia: who knew? But it was listed as Italian and the waiter who seemed to know something about it, didn’t interject in the beginning to let us know it was in fact misprinted and from somewhere else, which annoyed Felix. I was still thinking about Mission furniture and how trendy it was for yuppies in the mid-nineties.

Felix: Our waiter seemed friendly, if slightly aggressive. Certainly chatty. He told us that the Chez Panisse conception of locavorism extends to flying in lobster from Maine, which I wasn’t very excited about, since I don’t think Maine lobster travels very well and much prefer it in situ. Eventually he came to take our wine order; he said that an interesting-looking red Trousseau from Jura was going to be quite heavy, so I asked about a 2004 Pinot Nero from Friuli in Italy. He started waxing rhapsodic about it, and told us that it was aged in clay, which sounded so weird and funky that I had to order it.

When he came back with the wine, he didn’t present to us so much as announce its arrival. Here you go, he said, a Pinot Nero from the Italian-Slovenian border. Then he looked at the back label, and said oh look, actually it’s from Slovenia. (It was called Movia, if you want to look it up.)

I’ll try any kind of weird and wonderful wine, so the fact that the wine was from Slovenia didn’t bother me too much, in fact it was quite exciting. And the wine was good. But it is very odd that it was listed on the wine list as being from Friuli in Italy. And it’s also odd that the waiter who knew so much about the wine didn’t know what country it was from.

Michelle: Then the first course comes. The asparagus was delicious. We finish.

Felix: The asparagus, we both agreed, was perfectly cooked, and tasted better than just about any asparagus either of has ever had. In the annals of asparagus, this was undoubtedly first-rate asparagus. And it lived up to the Chez Panisse reputation of cooking first-rate local food simply, and just letting the natural flavors come out.

I did feel that a bit of effort with respect to the plating would not have gone amiss: just because it’s been cooked simply, doesn’t mean it can just be slapped down on the plate. If anything, when the food is cooked so simply, the rest of it becomes more important, including the way the food is presented, both on the plate and by the waiter. It’s the only way for the restaurant to show respect for the food and for its customers.

Michelle: We wait. The second course comes… our waiter had said earlier that this dish was really divine, but actually: meh. It was OK. Neither of us were bending over backwards.

Felix: The second course was nominally a risotto, but it came out more like a random pile of undercooked rice mixed up with light-brown liquid and the occasional lump of something seafoody. This was no unitary risotto: it had disassembled itself into its constituent parts, none of which seemed to have enjoyed the experience. The lobster and scallops were perfectly good, but hardly revelatory, and actually, for a restaurant which prides itself on letting the food’s flavors shine out, they were kinda buried in the rice. That wonderful light, spring-fresh flavor that one gets in great risottos was missing; instead, the dish was stodgy, and I certainly got no hint of the sheer joy I get from eating Maine lobsters in Maine. My lobster rule stays.

Michelle: And then for the third course. Except we didn’t get it. We waited and waited. Our plates had been removed and we just sat there. Our waiter was MIA. I wish I had been more attentive to my watch so I could tell you the exact amount of time which went by during each course — but what I can say is that all of it was too long. I finally had to find another waiter and tell him, “Listen, we haven’t seen our waiter in a really long time. We don’t have our mains, what’s going on?” and with that, he rushed back. Our food came out immediately after, our waiter apologized and gave us a glass of wine on the house. That was nice. But it doesn’t make up for our time lost, and that cohesive fine dining experience one should expect from Chez Panisse… we ate our pork and fava beans: they were OK. Nothing spectacular. And nothing wrong either. Everything tasted good, but it didn’t taste GREAT. It wasn’t that creative. I won’t even describe the Neapolitan ice cream because I think you get it. So what, right?

Felix: The wait between the second and third courses really was a joke. And we did seem to lose our waiter somewhere along the way, dealing with various different servers and even the hostess at various points. They did give us an extra glass of wine when Michelle ran out, and no one was ever unfriendly. They were just a bit absent. All of which is pretty unforgivable given that this is a restaurant which in theory knows weeks in advance exactly how many dishes it’s going to be serving that night, and exactly when each one is going to be served. If it wanted to, it could, like Alinea, time everything down to the minute. Instead, it seemed to be collapsing under some kind of unexpected strain. Maybe the chef got sick and couldn’t come in, something like that? I have no idea. But that was the impression.

The main meat course was two cuts of pork, cooked two ways: shoulder and loin, I think, braised and grilled. Something like that. If anything a bit high-concept for the down-to-earth Chez Panisse, and certainly so much cooking was done to the pork that I can’t tell you whether the pork itself was particularly good. The loin was better than the thin and dry slices of shoulder, which sat there forlornly looking as though their highest ambition in life was to be a filling in a sandwich.

The dessert course was a big disappointment for me: while I ate the strawberry ice cream, I left the vanilla and the chocolate — they just weren’t interesting. Mine did come with a candle, and a piece of paper saying happy birthday.

And finally came the coffee: bitter, far too strong, with none of the natural sweetness in a well-drawn espresso. We asked a couple of people if they could call us a cab, and eventually somebody did.

The room was full of a wide variety of interesting-looking Berkeleyans, but  I didn’t get the vibe that most of them were there for the food. (One table was clearly there for the wine, another seemed to be putting together a PowerPoint presentation.) Maybe it’s a pleasant place to have a nice meeting or meal out, catch up with colleagues or friends. And that’s a very important part of what a restaurant should be. But some restaurants aim higher than that.

The bill, when it came, included a 17% service charge; I can’t remember whether that was mentioned on the menu. But in the end we spent over $340 on dinner at Chez Panisse. I can certainly think of places where it’s possible to spend that kind of money on worse food, but I can also think of a lot of places where you get much more joy, professionalism and creativity.

Michelle: We walked out that night completely let down. We both love what Alice Waters has done for food and farmers, and I can only assume when she’s in the kitchen cooking it’s a fabulous experience. But the restaurant is another story — just putting together local, fresh food is not enough these days to get me excited. I can do that in my own kitchen, and if we want disorganized service, believe me, we can serve that up just fine at home. What we were expecting was to be dazzled, like we were the following day for lunch at the Slanted Door. That was spectacular (pineapple-anchovies anyone?).

Sure we’re spoiled in New York, with local chefs from downtown to Brooklyn experimenting, competing and getting weird. Corton and Eleven Madison (for very special nights out), Spotted Pig/Breslin (when Fergus Henderson visits, it’s the bomb) and Momofuku Ssam Bar are tried and true NYC favorites… I’d rather be pounded by rock music while some pierced hipster slaps down creative bowls of deliciousness at Momofuku, than deal with a disorganized fancy restaurant any day.

Felix: The legacy of Alice Waters is everywhere: in thousands of restaurants and farmer’s markets around the country the Alice Waters gospel is preached to the converted. It has been built on with fervor and imagination, and millions of Americans eat tastier, healthier food as a result. But I think that Chez Panisse is no particular exemplar of what Alice Waters really stands for. It’s not accessible; the food is not all that spectacular; and the overriding impression is of a past-its-prime institution trading on its name.

Michelle: Alice Waters is very important as a food activist, and we totally support the Edible Schoolyard. One is being built in East New York, Brooklyn, it’s going to be great. I am helping support a regional outdoor market which will hopefully open permanently in downtown. It will be different from a green market. She’s incredibly active, and I think influenced Michelle Obama’s decision to plant a vegetable garden at the White House.

We very much support all these efforts, which is part of the reason we were so damn excited to visit the restaurant! So we crashed hard when they just kind of threw it out there and then disappeared.

What do you think, Berkeleysiders? Did Michelle and Felix have bad luck? Was there somewhere else in Berkeley they should have gone for a celebratory meal worth flying across the country for?

Photo of Chez Panisse by Empty Highway on Flickr

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  • Jane G.

    I’m sorry you had a disappointing experience on your sole visit to Chez Panisse! I’ll say this – as others have said, experiences there can vary widely; it’s the nature of this restaurant (largely because the menu changes nightly, about which more in a moment), although it sounds like something was terribly wrong on this occasion.

    I would strongly recommend, though, that you not only get more data before judging, but learn more about the restaurant. For example, I am surprised that you did not know, when you made the reservation, that Chez Panisse serves only one menu per evening, and that this menu changes nightly. It also varies in price, and is never terribly expensive — although, as you discovered, it’s possible to rack up quite a bill depending on what you spend on wine, cheese courses, etc. The menus at Chez Panisse are not only about great ingredients; it was also one of the great innovators of California cuisine, and there is an experimental component and a combination of styles and techniques, although traditional by today’s standards, that seems to have been missing from your expectations. In short, you should look at the menu to find out what is planned for the night you wish to go.

    I’m not saying you didn’t get a sub-par meal & service. Obviously you did, and I have to say it really sounds like something was wrong – on the wine front alone, that does not sound like the CP I know. I’m just saying that, before you condemn this restaurant as a has-been, you should learn more about it and collect more data. You should think about what the value of an establishment that focuses on regulars is, what that says about their goals and orientation.

    It’s a place that is incredibly dear to my heart. And I want to see it judged on the right criteria and sufficient experience.

  • David Blum

    Right on.

    This was true 15 years ago when my wife nibbled on some bread in th afternoon from Cheese Board and declared that was the better food experience.

  • T.W.

    This is my experience of Chez Panisse too. Really pure and simple cuisine is just a tough sell for a fancy restaurant. In my book you have to be made of money to spend your food dollars at CP, because it always runs the risk of just being a really focused version of, well, normal food.

  • Gina T.

    I too am sorry that you had a bad experience at Chez Panisse. I have been there a number of times and have had great experiences, both with regard to food and environment and service, most of those times. Once, I wasn’t too excited by my entree, as it was over produced and not very interesting.

    Having said that, I’m probably older than you and lived in NYC for 25 years before moving to California, most of that time with the luxury of a very generous expense account. So in the ’80s and ’90s I had quite the foraging adventure into most of Manhattan’s (and Brooklyn’s) greatest restaurants: from La Grenouille and La Cote Basque to Adrienne, Grocery, and Le Bernardin, to Becco and Hatsuhana and Aureole. Indeed, it’s impossible to remember them all, let alone list them.

    In addition, I consider myself a foodie: I love to cook and am good at it, I try to be a locavore, I eat organic whenever possible, I’m interested in the science of food. I’m also quite critical about my dining experiences, no matter where those take place.

    I’m stressing my food credentials because, given the range of experience I’ve had in eating great food prepared by great chefs at great restaurants, my favorite restaurant is…Chez Panisse. Sure, it’s not always perfect. But then again I had a couple of underwhelming nights at Le Bernardin, and a terrible meal at Aqua, and never thought that Le Cirque warranted notice.

    Having said that, I really do think that as diners, we must remember that HUMANS cook and serve in restaurants, and humans make mistakes. Chez Panisse–whether under the direction of Alice Waters or David Tanis–is no different. But my own experiences there, both upstairs in the cafe, and downstairs in the prix-fixe dining room, have been as close to perfection as one can get. Despite a couple of dish fails (which I say with my tongue deeply in my cheek.)

    I’m going to guess that your misadventure that night was just karmic (I would never describe Chez Panisse as a restaurant one MUST drive to! It’s 12 minutes away from Downtown BART, fer gods’ sake! I walk that route every day. Plus wearing heels to walk anywhere is silly; heels are for riding in a car), you had some weird astrological transit happening, or someone put a curse on your night out. Your restaurant review sounds heavy with some kind of agenda–it’s the reason serious restaurant reviewers never write a review from just one visit. I can’t shake the feeling that you had a bad night all around and are putting it on our dear CP.

  • Patrick

    At Chez Panisse there is a big difference between “upstairs” and “downstairs”. (or “cafe” and “restaurant”) The food upstairs is average quality, more expensive than average, shorter lead times on reservations. The food downstairs is the really fancy stuff, long waits for reservations, very expensive, IMO quite good, but not really a value buy. (Although really expensive food is never really “worth” the money)

    You didn’t really specify explicitly, but you said they took you upstairs; so you may have expected the top-notch gourmet food and only gotten the lower-quality meal.

    I’ve done both and there is definitely a big difference between the two.

  • Barbara

    I can’t believe you had Neapolitan ice cream for dessert. What was it, Italian Night in the Bay Area?

    Maybe high expectations are a negative thing. But for food experiences, I would like to suggest that you consider taking a long weekend and going closer to home, to Charleston, SC — where the legacy of Alice Waters is going very strong. I don’t think I have ever set foot in a place with so many wonderful and interesting restaurants per capita (along with the usual complement of boring and mediocre and loud and overpriced ones as well). And if you get there, consider going to McCrady’s, which was my favorite of the bunch (I spent an entire summer working there — food was the highlight!).

  • mary

    I’m not a huge Chez Panisse fan — I have eaten there maybe 3 times, and I’ve also had a few meals in the cafe upstairs. It could be my reverse-snob reaction to the difficulty of getting a reservation — I tend to want to go out to eat without very much advance planning, and so, when I have to make an effort, my expectations shoot up.

    Or it could be that it’s pretty easy to get fresh ingredients here in Berkeley, and I like to cook, and I’ve been indoctrinated in the Alice Waters way of doing things, and so . . . I tend to think my own cooking is pretty darn good.

    Having said all that, it sounds like the meal wasn’t inspired and the service was very much lacking, and that’s always a major disappointment in a high-end restaurant.

    As for the other diners not being there for the food — well, who knows. And really, it’s disappointing that New Yorkers such as yourselves feel that a restaurant that’s only about 10 minutes from the BART station is accessible only by car. Heels or no heels.

  • Bloix

    Last summer my family and I (we are from the East Coast) had lunch at the Chez Panisse cafe (upstairs). Like you we were disappointed. The food was adequate, the presentation boring, the service offensively condescending, but the greatest disappointment was the menu – it was August, and the selections were things like pork chops with cabbage and beets – things you’d want on a drizzly December evening. Nothing summery or light or fresh to be seen.

  • It goes without saying that a wine’s origin should be properly labeled. But I hope you’ll take this as an opportunity to learn more about Slovenian wines, most of which are made in wine regions that are really extensions of those just across the Italian border, such as the famed Colli Orientali of Friuli (Brda, where Movia is, like Colli means ‘hills’), and the Carso — where, in fact, there is a significant ethnic Slovenian population and the borders have been historically contested.

    In fact, I’ve heard and read that Aleš Kristančič of Movia uses grapes from both Italy and Slovenia. Again, not a justification of the incorrect listing, but an indication that Slovenia shouldn’t provoke so many “??”s.

    And, conversely, internationally famous winemakers on the Italian side include names like Zidarich and Josko Gravner.


    Jonathan Taylor

  • Ted

    I had the exact same experience last year when I ate downstairs for the first time. Same wait, crowded spaces, absentee waiter and blah food (with a couple nice surprises). It was worth going but I would never go again (and pay, that is)

  • Michael Newbury

    Cheese Penis has been inconsistant for years. Upstairs can be very good or very average depending on the stars or so damn abstract influence. Blind luck at best.
    Downstairs. After eating there four times, I won’t go back. Too expensive and not good enough for a fixed menu.

    A several years ago I was a vendor to CP, Wild mushrooms. Long cold wet sloughs
    through banned access watersheds etc. Selling to CP for $10@ pound. You can bet the suckers paid mucho more at the table. One morning I was told the Gleaner no longer bought the produce but each chef bought for themselves. When told this I noticed a large plastic tub filed with mushy wet small mushrooms. These were picked by gangs of day laborers that line up and sweep the forest floor
    doing unnecessary damage to the fragile system. The idiot chef told me I was out
    and the plastic tubs were the new regime. Sloppy ingredients for yuppy chefs.
    Cheaper though.. Alice is Figure Head not a chef………

  • Kent Gordis


    I’m a New Yorker. I don’t own a car. I take the subway and walk everywhere. I am used to long walks: I walk to and from work every day, 2.5 miles in each direction.

    But even to me the walk from the Shattuck BART to Chez Panisse is a serious hike. It’s 7/10th of a mile and, at a normal pace, would take about 15 minutes.

    In any case, regardless of how one feels about this distance, one point is indisputable: Berkeley is not an urban environment such as New York, Boston, or the city of San Francisco. It’s the suburbs, with a small business district concentrated around Shattuck and University, albeit a dense, older suburb with sidewalks, some apartment buildings, but most of the housing stock in Berkeley is composed of single family homes with lawns and driveways.

    That doesn’t diminish Berkeley’s charm in any way. However, if the writers of the original post were expecting Berkeley to be more urban, they simply had the wrong impression.

  • A 94-pound weakling

    I’m sorry, I just can’t help responding to those who think that BART-to-CP is a “serious hike.” I’m a 94-pound weakling, standing 4’11” in stockings. I hate almost all exercise except for yoga. I walk that “serious hike” every day because I live near CP and work near BART. I often go out of my way to add blocks to my walk because it’s just not enough of a walk. A serious hike, to me, is the Met on 81st and 5th to Veselka on 10th and 2nd. (Fellow NYers will know what I mean….) Just sayin’. And BTW that baby walk from CP to BART is just what you need after a meal.

  • So I had an amazing meal on Tuesday night at Craft in LA, full of locally grown and sourced food, they even have a full-time forager whose job it is to discover new farmers and food sources. This is the legacy of Alice Waters, and it’s a great one, in a restaurant with utterly delicious food. On a purely taste-of-food level, I can’t imagine anybody preferring CP to Craft. (Equally, I can’t imagine anybody preferring Century City to Berkeley, but that’s another question.)

    I think the majority of comments here have been supportive of what Michelle and I are saying, but of course we are just one datapoint, we’re not professional restaurant critics, and the conversation is much more valuable than just the post which kicked it off. I’ve certainly learned a lot about Slovenian wine, and had another one in LA which was also really good!

    I do however think it’s obvious from the passions which can be seen in this comment thread that writing about restaurants in general and CP in particular is a good thing, and that it shouldn’t be left just to official restaurant reviewers. I did actually do a bit of homework before booking and toyed with the idea of eating in the cafe, which is a common recommendation, but ultimately reckoned that if I was only going to CP once, and it was a special occasion, then I’d try out their high-end experience. I was disappointed, and although my expectations might have been high, they were also ratified by the price and by the arrogance of having a fixed menu. I *like* arrogant chefs, but when you go down that road you set high expectations in your diners. And those expectations simply weren’t met on this occasion.

  • Prix fixe is not “arrogant”. It’s a business choice. Simple country inns in France are prix fixe, because they are not pretentious enough to muster a menu of choices and they choose to do one thing and do it well. That’s the model Chez Panisse uses.

  • Ayse: can you compare the business models of these “simple country inns” to CP? As I (no doubt far from perfectly) understand these fabled inns they are:

    * in far less competitive environments

    * associated with other business activities such as rooms to let

    * have a captive market

    * serve during fewer hours and limit (or withhold) options beyond those hours

    * are vastly less expensive to dine at

    * have vastly less fussy service and service expectations

    * are generally associated with estates that monetize themselves in many additional ways

    and so forth.

    (And I do understand that tourism has led to a number of pseudo simple country inns in France, as well. I’m referring to the classical source of inspiration here.)

    I understand from what you say and what I’ve read A.W. say that CP is highly influenced by that model but in business terms it would seem to offer only an expensive (and apparently unstable) simulacrum in an inappropriate and incongruous urban environment. If the economic factors are as serious a factor as I think they are, perhaps the owner(s?) of CP should relocate to wine country after buying an estate. Then they could “export” (so to speak) wine and produce hosting a flagship inn at only modest profitability.

    (Yes, it’s a potentially obnoxious habit to kibbitz about Other People’s Businesses as I’m doing but we’re long, long down that path in these threads about CP and AW already so…. :-)

    If I were made king of CP-in-Berkeley tomorrow and had to snap-decide a plan of action immediately – I think I might well go to having a prix fixe, *two fixed-time seatings*, fixed-menu option for the premium price — and a casual daily menu sharing the same space for those without or missing reservations. That would support really good cooking and a highly frugal kitchen while keeping prices reasonable.

  • Brooklyn Boy


    Prix fixe is not arrogant at all. But even the simplest country inn in France will usually have “la carte” where one can choose dishes and “le menu à prix fixe.”

    A restaurant as expensive and as highly regarded as CP ought to have at least a minimal choice, especially if one considers that–in the majority of cases–those who have reserved have absolutely no idea what they will be served when the dine there.

    Finally, there is the issue of cost. If CP were truly a country auberge in the south of France with la maman or le papa cooking a simple meal in the kitchen, all for a modest price, that would be one thing. But CP is not a simple inn, nor is it by any stretch of the imagination, inexpensive ($340!).

    For that can of cost I think one ought to expect a lot more than what CP delivers, that is if CP were truly a restaurant. But as we have discussed earlier, it is really, instead, a shrine.

    As a shrine it fulfills its role brilliantly, fanatic apologists and all.

  • Brooklyn Boy, you say, “Finally, there is the issue of cost. If CP were truly a country auberge in the south of France with la maman or le papa cooking a simple meal in the kitchen, all for a modest price, that would be one thing. But CP is not a simple inn, nor is it by any stretch of the imagination, inexpensive ($340!).”

    $340 is the cost of the poster’s meal, when they added on significant wine and other costs. You can dine downstairs at Chez Panisse for $120 for two people for the menu. They have a fine wine menu which includes offerings for $60 that I consider to be truly exceptional wines.

    Not to mention that Chez Panisse — much as anybody might have liked it to be otherwise — is not in fact a French country inn. It is a restaurant inspired by and emulating French country inns, but it is in Berkeley, California, where food, real estate, talent, and general business costs call for a different price point — and there are plenty of people willing to pay that price so clearly it’s not too high for the market. I could have bought an estate in rural France with the down payment on my Bay Area house. You cannot reasonably argue that Alice Waters should be able to provide a similar experience for the same price in a totally different market.

    The problem our poster seems to have is mistaking prix fixe for “extra fancy with arrogant chef” when it just means “limited menu choice.” I was simply providing a very obvious counterexample. There are lots of reasons to choose prix fixe. That’s how my own dinners are served, for example; nobody gets to pick and choose from a menu at my house.

    Thomas, you made this suggestion: “If I were made king of CP-in-Berkeley tomorrow and had to snap-decide a plan of action immediately – I think I might well go to having a prix fixe, *two fixed-time seatings*, fixed-menu option for the premium price — and a casual daily menu sharing the same space for those without or missing reservations. That would support really good cooking and a highly frugal kitchen while keeping prices reasonable.”

    That is how Chez Panisse was operating when I first ate there about 15 years ago (we were heartbroken when they started taking reservations for the cafe, because it was no longer possible to impulsively nip up there for a late dinner). It was a) not working well logistically in the kitchen to do two seatings a night in the dining room, and b) not getting quite as many people in as needed to pay the bills, and c) there were crowds of people hanging around upstairs waiting for seating during peak hours, meaning the tables near the bar were horrible. There may have been other reasons for the change, but those were the ones I heard about.

  • Ayse,

    Thanks for the history. If I understand you correctly, it sounds like when there were fixed seatings for the fixed menu there was segregated dining areas – which sounds to me like a horrible mistake. My belief is strengthened by your description of people waiting upstairs for seating while downstairs was under-used. I can’t imagine what they were thinking – it sounds like a more flexible use of the space would have kept the place running at capacity. Other than the segregated dining areas and the difficulty fully booking the fixed seating option, I can’t fathom how their could possibly be (good reason) logistical problems in the kitchen — but with those problems, I can easily imagine it. The kitchen didn’t have logistical problems except such as came from the front of the house. It also sounds a bit like that was an early and problematic ambition towards a highly pretentious style of service downstairs. It’d be interesting (from that pointless kibbitzing perspective) to do some forensics on the books from back then.

    Actually, putting back on my imaginary “King of CP” crown – I’ve one more thing to add. So we’ve got unified dining spaces. A fixed seating, fixed menu premium option. A daily menu more casual option. To that… add a serendipity-menu take-away street food option (for the left-over left-overs); subtract some of the service pretensions; offer a value-oriented wine list — and then you’ve got something. As it stands, it sounds like this place can’t decide if it wants to be a rustic country inn or the dining room of a four star international hotel.

    I bet I could make that place thrive handsomely and be universally loved – at the cost of being able to extract profit at only a quite modest rate in this highly competitive local market.

    Hey, if any reader is flush enough and crazy enough to back a new start-up restaurant up on Shattuck north of University and wants to trust a loud-mouth amateur with only tangential experience and awareness of the real business issues — I have a notion of how to bootstrap the restaurant that CP wants to be starting with a little take out place – let’s start by killing off (in terms of economic role) KFC-type options. Poulet has the right idea for a starting point or a lifestyle business.

    And maybe, just maybe, that’s one of AW’s main excellent contributions (as evidenced by comments above about better but philosophically related places): to raise the bar and inspire others to best her. Does anyone else besides me recall the “fine dining” restaurant scene of the early 1970s? Straight out of Orwell’s “Down and Out in London and Paris”? Maybe she doesn’t get the entire credit for moving things past that but I doubt she gets less than a substantial share of the credit.

  • Brooklyn Boy

    Ayse –

    I think there is a serious misnomer regarding “prix fixe.” Prix fixe does not necessarily imply fancy or simple, inexpensive or expensive.

    Usually, however, especially in the case of an expensive restaurant with clear ambitions of grandeur, there will be what we Americans call a menu, with choices, as well as one (or more) prix fixe options.

    In most restaurants, in fact, the prix fixe meals themselves will come with choices.

    But not at CP.

    At CP there is never any choice. It’s one predetermined meal period. Even prison cafeterias give you a choice.

    You write that you can dine for two people for $120 without wine. You can, but it all depends what the house is charging for the one prix fixe on the night you snag a reservation. On some nights, the prix fixe costs $95…that’s $190 for two people.

    That’s hardly a bargain for a no-substitutions menu that most who have reserved will have no idea about, since menus are only printed one week at a time.

    I will agree with you that CP is not a French country inn. And yes, it was loosely inspired by French country inns and so on, but, again, the real attraction of the place is as the shrine to California Cuisine and its high priestess, Alice Waters.

    Again, I think Alice more than fully deserves her role as high priestess; it’s just too bad the restaurant itself is so mediocre.

    And so with this mediocrity, coupled with the pretension, and cost, the original inspiration has become little more than conceit.

    You write that CP provides no choice just like you do in your home. But do you run a restaurant out of your home that employs 117 people and charges from $60 to $95 per person (and more) for dinner?

    I challenge anyone to come up with another restaurant with this degree of reputation and at this price point that allows no choice whatsoever and zero choices. Not even for dessert. In the case of the original post, they got a Neapolitan. I think the last time I willingly had a Neapolitan was when I was 10 years old.

    You imply that providing the customer at least a small degree of choice would somehow commercialize and sully the purity of CP.

    Personally, I think that’s complete hogwash. It would instead challenge CP and its staff to a far greater degree of excellence.

    A lot of restaurants coast on their reputations as shrines. Galatoire’s in New Orelans, St Elmo’s in Indianapolis. Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami. Note that none of these establishments have anything nearing the foodie cachet of CP.

    But CP has also been coasting. For a long time. It gets away with it because of Alice’s stature as high priestess.

    My own opinion is that CP deserves every bit of criticism it receives, that it needs a good kick in the pants to turn it into not only a truly grand restaurant, but ultimately–and ironically–to return it to the spirit of innovation and optimism that were the very essence of the California Cuisine Alice helped to create three decades ago.

  • Brooklyn Boy:

    Right. There’s fixed price, fixed menu, and fixed seating for the premium meal. CP has 2 out of three of those.

    As a business, fixed menu implies fixed price though, of course, you can also have a fixed price without the fixed menu.

    As a kitchen, fixed menu (or fixed menu with a couple of minor choices) is a huge simplification that opens up a lot of opportunity for culinary expression. Take note of how there is so much attention given these days to the concept of smaller menus often being better – fixed menu is that to the max.

    As a kitchen, fixed seating only makes much sense with a tiny or fixed menu but the two combined opens up a vast wealth of culinary expression opportunities that don’t exist otherwise. As soon as you can say “Dinner is served promptly at 6:30 and again at 8:30” with a limited or fixed menu – your culinary options go way, way up. Without fixed seating, no matter how expensive your ingredients or sophisticated your technique – you’re in the fast food (aka “quick serve”) business.

    Quick serve (even “fine dining” quick serve) is attractive as a business because if you manage it well in a typical setting, you can be damn efficient with inputs and labor. (Ever watch, for example, the TV show “Hell’s Kitchen”? And that’s a pretty sanitized version. I can’t believe people pay good money to eat in places like that when they have any other choice.)

    But if you don’t want to do that, a sharply limited if not fixed menu and fixed seatings is liberating for chefs. That’s where everything comes together, food-craft-wise. It’s just that it’s impossible to know how much inputs to buy and the waste level is always high except when you are riding the crest of a wave of popularity and are guaranteed full houses every night.

    So that’s why you *should* run such a kitchen as a cascade: you have the limited or fixed menu / fixed-seating premium option for which you deliberately and always over-buy. Around the surplus plus augments you implement a casual dining option with a daily menu. E.g.: Hey, the premium diners are having lamb steaks? Today the casual diners enjoy some lamb salad. And then you still have some left-over so serendipitous take-away rounds out the bill.

    In term of the front of house you have to integrate these things so that you don’t waste a seat. It sounds from comments above like when CP had fixed seating, fixed menu and a casual option – they segregated the casual seating and thus had casual diners waiting around for a meal while there were empty seats in the fine dining area. Thus, they were leaving money on the table (and engaging in low-level class warfare).

    In a restaurant with a fancy, ambitious kitchen that as its signature wants to cater to big spenders, the front of the house should be subordinate to (designed around) the logic of the kitchen, not the other way around. It sounds like that’s exactly where CP stumbled. If this thwarts cultural expectations of the premium diners (e.g., they have to rub elbows with the casual diners) well… the role of such a restaurant is to create culture not be enslaved to it.

  • The arrogance I was referring to was in the no-choices part of the menu: the fact that there wasn’t even a choice of say two different second courses.

    I’d be interested to know what the minimum check is for 2 people at CP. Our price was $75, but I believe you when I say it can go down to $60. But add on their 17% service charge, and tax, and you’re up in the $150 range. And of course you’re likely to want to drink *something* — especially if you’re asked to wait in the bar for 20 minutes before your meal starts.

  • lifelongberkeleyan

    Felix and Michelle,

    Thank you for you refreshing honesty. I too regret your unsatisfying experience at Chez Panisse. This may help align your expectations more realistically in your the next visit…

    The food:

    While Alice Waters hardly invented locavorism or farmers markets, her zeal, timing and shrewd self promotion have helped popularize them to a new generation.

    She does, however, deserve much credit for steering American culinary theory and practice away from how food tastes and towards what it stands for.

    As the mother of ‘epionics’, she’s supplied the vocabulary for exploiting the marketing potential of food as “cause”. It’s through her influence that the words sustainable, artisanal, organic, etc. now universally convey ethical superiority, altruism and other value added product benefits untapped by traditional food marketing.

    This explains the lack of significant success among traditional evaluators like yourselves (and those employed by the Michelin Guide) who consider restaurant dining a sensory experience rather than a political one.

    Ms. Waters most lasting legacy will likely be the moral sheen conferred on her adherents which has removed societal stigma(s) formerly attached to duck plucking and boiling the hair off pigs. As a result, many expensively educated and unskilled liberal arts graduates now see a brighter future in food.

    The service staff:

    The good ones are those banking on hopes that the tedium of waiting tables, tending bar or peeling vegetables will be offset by the resume entry and the doors it opens elsewhere (notable examples in alphabetical order: Bertolli. Mazzera and Miller). Those who don’t leave deal with the grind by setting their own standards for service. Absent much informed patronage, they get away with it.

    The ambiance:

    If it feels like you’re sitting in an old parlor, it’s because you are. That would be its usual location in houses of the period. And how fitting a setting that is for a family pageant portraying honest happy peasants (think Marie Antoinette’s rustic village at Versailles) in revolt against tyrannical agribusiness. A farce fought nightly in two seatings, the scenery reassembled daily before opening. Tickets available on one months notice. $$$


    None of the above disputes the fact that immediate worldwide adoption of sustainable, organic farming practices would completely eliminate the threat of global warming. Emissions produced by the few who survive the famine would be inconsequential.

  • “None of the above disputes the fact that immediate worldwide adoption of sustainable, organic farming practices would completely eliminate the threat of global warming. Emissions produced by the few who survive the famine would be inconsequential.”

    Nor does *that* mediate the fact that the continued path of petro-ag, GM crops, and the mismanagement of soil and water will turn the green revolution into the desertification event while, as a side effect, killing large swaths of fresh and ocean water. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

    Two things are (in my view) good: Yes, keeping an open mind and pushing as consumers and as doers to maximize sustainable food production wherever we can. Yes, preparing as best we can for non-trivial possibility of a collapse of petro-ag and the resulting mass starvation and migration.

  • EBGuy

    I tend to choke on my food when you hit $100. Can anybody comment on whether Gather is worth all the recent buzz it’s been getting.

  • lifelongberkeleyan

    I thought I was the only one weary of Thomas Lord’s self promoting windy digressions but apparently not, see below.

    (And when you’re done reading, if you advertise on Berkeleyside, email the staff asking why you pay for self promotion and he does not? Click the bright blue lettering of his name to see the tender new shoots of his software empire.)

    Peter Rose
    January 11, 2010 at 1:16 pm
    Mr. Lord,
    You have dominated this blog, not with the high quality of your debating skills, prose, or information shared, but with the volume of your posts. Please think about the fact that you have created more posts than anyone else on this blog and yet it’s obvious you have never stepped foot onto local school grounds. Please think about why you compulsively comment on a topic about which you have no direct experience–in fact, you might self-reflect on why you seem to be so interested in every little thing that happens on this blog.
    Unlike you, I don’t have time to step outside and watch the street in the morning. I don’t have time to compulsively respond to every comment on this blog, as you seem to be doing, or even read every comment . And yet you are posting on other blogs as well as this one concerning our local education issues???
    You have diminished the quality of this blog and I resent it. I don’t have time to scroll through a lot of useless pontificating. You confused test scores with budget data in your attempt to defend your belief that resources have been distributed in a lop-sided way to privileged students. You questioned the maturity of a recent graduate who characterized himself as struggling and argued with him over the accuracy of his self-assessment. What a waste of time for readers of this blog! You showed complete ignorance over qualification requirements for AP classes at BHS–you probably didn’t even know that BHS pays AP test fees for kids who can’t afford them and offers free tutoring for kids who need help. You interpreted the state ed code in a goofy way and accused the person who posted the actual statute as interpreting it. It calls for one community member for every school representative. If you can’t figure out why this type of balance is important, then you have not understood how conservative ideologues in Kansas and Delaware replaced evolution theory with creationism in their public schools. And you sure don’t understand how FTEs are unequally distributed to small schools at the expense of most of the kids at the high school. That’s the real measure of resource allocation, by the way.
    Enough. Either practice basic blog etiquette or be a blowhard elsewhere. You’re taking advantage of a captive audience of people seeking information on what in the world is happening at Berkeley High, since the information is not forthcoming from the administrators.

  • lifelong,

    Grow up, man.

  • Gina T.

    Wasn’t this post about Felix and Michelle’s disappointing adventure? At Chez Panisse? Qu’est-ce qui se passe maintenant???

  • Pingback: How to spend $321 at Chez Panisse – Berkeleyside()

  • John Bennett


    Gather has great food, reasonable prices, and some of the nicest wait staff in town. Go there!


  • G

    as a trained cook i am truely appalled at these comments i am reading. you all forget the people that make your food! we are underpaid, overworked, misunderstood people! everyone wants their food to be cheap, but you know what… its the labour of love that adds to the cost! remember the love the next time you gasp at a bill please!

  • Gina T.

    @G: I know, right? I think a lot of these people don’t cook very much, and certainly not under pressure!!!!

  • Shelly

    The problem may be Chez Panisse’ reputation as a Temple of Gastronomy, a Shrine, and The Site of the California Revolution rather than what it is – a restaurant. What was once done only by CP is now done by innumerable other restaurants – sometimes as well, and sometimes better. I live in Berkeley, I’ve eaten in the café many times, and Downstairs in the Holy Sacrum on special occasions. The meals range from absolutely memorable to – what Felix and Michele experienced.
    What I think one must consider is that the kitchen is constantly experimenting. I’ve been to other high end restaurants that barely change the menu over time. Some of the experiments are delicious – and others as trite and poorly done as Neopolitan ice cream. Consistency is not what you experience at Chez Panisse – and those who have continued to go there over the years are aware of that.

  • my experiences @ Chez Pannisse were pretty much the same. I never returned.

  • BrooklynBoy


    We all know that the menu at CP keeps changing, that is, of course, part of the “schtick” of the restaurant. On the surface, it provides the impression, or veneer, of innovation or experimentation. In fact, though, there has been very little, if any, true experimentation at CP in a very long time, perhaps decades.

    Sure, the menu changes, but when a simple roasted chicken is replaced by a completely unimaginative pork stew, then a completely pedestrian set of grilled lamb chops, where is the experimentation or innovation? Is it in a bowl of mixed green with a spoonful of old-school vinaigrette, or, perhaps, the neapolitan for dessert?

    In a way, the constant changing of the menu is nothing more than a tired conceit, perhaps even a cop out so that the kitchen never truly has to live up to the much higher of excellence that truly great restaurants achieve only through a combination of experimentation AND practice.

    No one can get a truly sublime, world-class dish right if it is only served once. By doing it this way, CP makes sure they never have to raise the bar…that’s their “out.”

  • Gina T.

    I’ve had great meals at Chez, and not-so-great meals at Chez. The last meal I had, just a few weeks ago, was GREAT. Simple, but great. I will return again and again, my pocketbook allowing, just to hazard one of the great meals. Plus I find that the experience at Chez is always lovely, the wine list fabulous. It’s not just about the food itself, it’s about the totality of the experience, the psychic energy that I derive from the place. Alla youse (that would be Brooklynese for “all of you”) who hate the place or think it’s just so five-minutes-ago, just freakin’ stay away, okay? And let those of us who love it enjoy it.

  • Joan

    Suits arriving in limousines. NOT a Berkeley restaurant. I live across the street from the Edible Garden. It’s lovely, and run primarily by adult volunteers.

  • Tim C.

    what’s the name of this discussion?..Rants and Raves?

  • I have a notion of how to bootstrap the restaurant that CP wants to be starting with a little take out place – let’s start by killing off KFC-type options. Poulet has the right idea for a starting point or a lifestyle business.

  • The Sharkey

    What interesting spam!

    The text seems to fit right in with the other comments on the article, but clicking on the name links to a British website selling knock-off Lacoste clothing.

    The spammers are getting a lot more subtle these days.

  • I live across the street from the Edible Garden. It’s lovely, and run primarily by adult volunteers.

  • Sickofthisspam

    Go away, spammer.

  • Sorry it took me some time to catch up to the spam. We’ve gotten rid of it
    this time. They’ll always be back in some clever form. And we’ll get rid of
    that. Thanks for helping.

  • Christine

    Only partially true. She’s not the chef anymore, and hasn’t been for years. But she was the chef there for eight years at CP’s inception.

  • angrywayne

    Hi, please remove my photo from this post. I think this is an unbalanced take-down that I don’t want my photo illustrating. I have emailed you already. 

    Having worked there I know that the quality and way that kitchen operates justify the price tag. If you don’t like the way their tipping works and don’t educate yourself before plopping down that much money (which you must have been aware you were going to pay having made a reservation) then don’t go. 


  • Guestest

    You’re dead right there. No point in eating lobster anywhere else, and I try not to eat it more than 100 feet from the high tide line.