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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  • Tizzielish

    Of course Ms. Waters was visibly upset when she saw her life’s work has been damaged by fire. I feel some sadness for her that such personal feelings were closely observed and then reported in news reports. I know she is a local celebrity but personal tragedy seems like a good time to give even a ‘celebrity’ a little privacy.

    If it turns out to be arson, I am sure Berkeleyside will let us know. Sometimes fire departments keep suspicions of arson very private, for some reasonable policy decisions — such as firebugs want attention.

    Will the restaurant be closed at all? for how long? Employees suffering lost wages, anniversaries with long-ago-made reservations, food ordered for today’s menu . . . all kinds of complications. My empathy to Ms. Waters and her entire staff and her customers.

  • iicisco

    A SUS per that was joking with dispatch when they reported the fire.

  • Daniel Gies

    Any word on whether the big tree out front survived?

  • guest

    “Chez Panisse is regularly ranked one of the top restaurants in the world”?!
    Not by Berkeleyans. We all it the “Lone Star” cafe.

  • The_Sharkey

    I don’t think the building is Ms. Waters’ life’s work.
    She’s a chef and an author, not an architect. Her legacy is much bigger than one specific building.

  • BerkeleyResident

    We do?

  • serkes

    The Sharkey …that’s true, but the interior is a work of art in more ways than one.

    Ira

  • http://berkeleyside.com Tracey Taylor

    The tree seemed fine when I was there this morning. The fire was fairly isolated underneath the dining alcove and was quickly contained by BFD.

  • anne

    I have a picture of my daughter sitting on that bench after our last visit :(

  • Charles_Siegel

    I didn’t know until I read this article that the architect was Christopher Alexander, who is a hero of the traditional architecture movement.
    His theory of architecture actually fits right in with her method of using fresh, local grown ingredients. It would not make any sense to have Chez Panisse in a building designed (for example) as a blob coated with zinc.

  • The_Sharkey

    Fair enough. It’s a nice building, that’s for sure.
    But referring to the building as Alice Waters’ “life’s work”? Doesn’t pass the smell test.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rose.bellitzia Rose Bellitzia

    It is a wisteria out front, not a “tree”.

  • franhaselsteiner

    This is a more comprehensive story than the Chronicle’s. Thanks, Bside. And thank you BFD!

  • chip

    There is a big tree on the left of the steps…

  • Charles_Siegel

    I didn’t mean to imply that it was. I guess I shouldn’t have made this a reply to your comment.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I believe it is a Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana)

  • http://www.berkeleyside.com/ lknobel

    It is an Araucaria (which is also the pseudonym of the world’s most wonderful crossword setter).

  • Guest

    The restaurant houses her life’s work—if it weren’t for the restaurant, she wouldn’t be doing any of the other stuff, would she?

  • PorcelinaGrout

    Darn. I was planning to make a rez *tomorrow* to celebrate my 60th birthday with the fam next month! I’ve been carefully tracking the one-month-before on the calendar so I could get a Saturday! It is such a special treat to go to Chez Panisse, there is no place like it. I trust it will be back very soon, better than ever. All the best to the CP staff and to Ms. Waters.

  • Chris

    Good work BFD!

  • Lauren L

    given all the problems and suffering in the world, can you folks and Alice Waters get a grip? This is unfortunate, but a tragedy, it’s not.

  • 4Eenie

    …. and how is your comment helping to fight “problems and suffering in the world”?

  • Jane Stillwater

    This is terrible. I hope they can get it fixed in time for my birthday! My family always saves up all year to celebrate it there and dinner at Chez Panisse is really a big deal for me. Nice news coverage, Tracey. Better than the NYT even.

  • Lauren L

    it’s not! but all the attention and energy going into an unfortunate fire at a well insured upscale restaurant that most people in the world (and in berkeley) cannot afford to go to seems misplaced and ridiculous.

  • guest

    Can’t wait to see Alice singing Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”for the 11 o’clock news. Such histrionics over a medium size insurance claim.

  • Lauren L

    if this is terrible, you have a charmed life!

  • john

    nice and snarky

  • guest

    We sure do. And Michelin does too…”The One Star Cafe”. But then, what do the French know about food? As always in Berkeley, intentions are more important than results.

  • curiousjorge

    people who make beautiful things, upscale or otherwise, are just as much a part of our community as the people who get the brunt of the problems and suffering in the world. without their creativity the world will be a bleaker place. there’s no reason to begrudge Alice her success, or to rail against those of us who admire her work.

    Here’s a way that Alice is working to alleviate some of the problems and suffering in the world, in a way that brings her no personal wealth and enriches the lives of millions of poor people: http://edibleschoolyard.org/

  • serkes
  • nick taylor

    Examine your intentions please.

  • Iceland_1622

    Yes, I just caught news of this via a newspaper headline on Vine returning from CVS and was stunned as I have been so busy here and mostly out of any local happenings till just now. They are indeed very fortunate that this was knocked down very quickly and that sprinkler kicked in. Now some more serious stuff and what passes for Op/Ed. Note to Alice: Until I know differently, I suspect ‘street people’. It would have been very cold that night and even a small fire to keep warm or to heat crack would easily do this. That area is *not* fully secure and is just perfect for sleepers. Bad news big time, as street people torched the auditorium of the Presbyterian Church on Virginia in broad daylight not that long ago and it’s now a secure facility.

    I myself have had to leave even that one now burnt front bench as per the stinky intoxicated street people out front in daylight, who as you well know, wander into the main dinning room during damn dinner ripping things up and being arrested and or forced out. Then more arrive and do the same thing. Have the PD seek out that one very vindictive jerk who you had a restraining order against after he did his dirty damage in the main dinning room during dinner and see where he was that night ./ morning. Just suggesting things here. Berkeley seems to support and even enjoy this sort of thing i.e. an endless population of deeply disturbed street people with malice and other pathological agendas on their minds. Seal up the front end of the restaurant there and put in very discreet 24/7 security video cameras. Just for perspective our own new gated & fenced building on the North-side has *not* kept out the burglars as they easily will locate and seek out ways to get around, through or over it and have. I really wished it were otherwise, however this is not Southern France and I avoid the N. Shattuck neighborhood now in all honesty. So after the remodel, beef up the security and tie things up very securely at night. If it were my place I would have someone there on site every day till dawn as a very well trained all night ‘live in’ security and safety agent. Bonne chance!

  • guest

    Lauren, I couldn’t agree more. Reality is in short supply locally.

  • guest

    “…enriches the lives of millions of poor people…”

    How true! While Water’s culinary achievements are stellar, her invention of gardening with have far greater impact.