Fire at Chez Panisse damages front of restaurant

CP fire by Colleen Neff
The early morning fire started underneath the dining alcove at the front of Chez Panisse. The Berkeley Fire Department marshall said the cause was probably an electrical fault. Photo: Colleen Neff

[Update, 2:45 p.m.: Read a statement from Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters at the foot of this story.]

A fire that broke out at around 3 a.m. this morning damaged a front part of Chez Panisse restaurant at 1517 Shattuck Ave. Nobody was injured in the blaze and sprinklers in the building prevented significant destruction.

The restaurant’s owner, Alice Waters, was said to be very upset and visibly shocked when she arrived at the scene at around 6 a.m. Berkeley Fire Department Interim Deputy Chief Avery Webb said a passer-by called in the fire at 3:04 a.m. The cause was most likely an electrical issue, he said.

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Fire investigators were examining the scene and clearing debris at around 8:45 a.m. Friday March 8. Photo: Tracey Taylor

The fire started beneath the dining alcove that protrudes from the façade of the restaurant on Shattuck. “It was in an eight-foot-by-12-foot area underneath the portion of the dining room that is raised four feet off the ground,” Webb said. “Because of the openings, the fire spread into the alcove and there is damage to some structural beams.”

However, the single-alarm fire was contained fairly quickly — by around 3:30-3:45 a.m — and, Webb said, sprinklers in the restaurant prevented the fire from spreading.


Waters, the owner of the iconic restaurant which opened in 1971, arrived at the scene at about 6 a.m. “It was very upsetting for her,” Webb said. “There was a much larger fire at the restaurant in 1982 and this brought back bad memories for her.”

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A bench that was in front of the restaurant was badly burned and moved onto the sidewalk. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Webb said there is very little damage to the interior of the restaurant, although there is a lot of smoke impact — mainly the presence of the odor of smoke.

A fire marshall and two investigators who were at the scene Friday morning investigating the cause of the fire determined that the fire was most likely caused by an electrical failure. “The fire probably had an electrical cause,” Interim Chief Webb told Berkeleyside at the scene at around 8:45 a.m. after being briefed by the fire marshall. He said that this was not definitive, but the marshall’s initial findings suggested the fire was accidental.

Watch video, below, of Berkeley Fire Department at work at the scene of the fire Friday morning at 8:45 a.m.

Asked about the rumors that the fire may have been caused by arson, Webb said the Fire Department tries to go into all fire situations without pre-conceived ideas. Because of the area where the fire started, and because of the high-profile nature of the restaurant, there were inevitably suggestions that the fire might be suspicious, he said.

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Windows in the dining alcove shattered in the blaze, but most of the interior of the restaurant was undamaged. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Chez Panisse is regularly ranked one of the top restaurants in the world, and Waters, who through projects such as the Edible Schoolyard Foundation is also a highly regarded food activist, is viewed as one of the most influential figures in American cooking over the past 50 years.

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The area where the fire started, under the protruding dining alcove. Photo: Tracey Taylor

The fire at the restaurant in March 1982 fire was described as coming “within 10 minutes of destroying the building.” After that blaze, Waters redesigned the space with Christopher Alexander and cabinetmaker Kip Mesirow. The partially burned wall that had separated the kitchen from the dining room was removed, creating an early example of an open-plan restaurant kitchen.

Author John Harris, who worked at Chez Panisse in its early days, came to see the damage Friday morning at around 8:45 a.m. Assured that the extent of the damage was not too severe, he quipped: “Every time there’s a fire they do a remodel.”

At around 8 a.m. Friday, Berkeley resident Colleen Neff was buying bread at the Cheese Board across the street where much of the talk this morning was of the fire. She joined reporters and locals gathered outside the restaurant taking photographs and surveying the scene. It was shocking to see such damage at what everyone considers to be a Berkeley institution, she said.

“I was planning on taking out-of-town visitors here in a month,” she said. “I hope they are able to open again soon for their sake.”

Chez Panisse before fire
A photograph taken in Dec. 2011 shows how the front porch area of the restaurant looked before the fire. Photo: Ira Serkes

At 2:42 p.m. today, Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse, issued the following statement:

Early this morning an electrical fire broke out under the front porch of the downstairs dining room at Chez Panisse. Thankfully, no one was hurt and the damage was mostly contained to that area. We would like to thank everyone for their support—particularly the men and women of the Berkeley Fire Department who have now saved the restaurant not once, but twice!

Exactly 31 years ago today, we had our first fire at the restaurant that destroyed the wall separating the dining room from the kitchen. We never rebuilt that wall and it changed Chez Panisse completely, establishing that beautiful connection between the kitchen and the dining room. It is vitally important that things are renewed and restored and we have already begun the process of rebuilding. In the next few days, we will better understand the scope of the damage and be able to determine when we can reopen.

We are deeply touched by the outpouring of support from the community, our friends and extended family. Thank you!  It inspires us to think of what might be possible…

With love,

Alice and the Chez Panisse family

[Editor’s note: This story was revised after Berkeleyside gathered more information from BFD and on the scene.]

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