Chez Panisse closed indefinitely, major rebuild needed


The early morning fire on March 8 started underneath the dining alcove at the front of Chez Panisse. Two sections of the front will likely have to be demolished and rebuilt. Photo: Colleen Neff

Chez Panisse is closed indefinitely after careful scrutiny of the damage caused to the famous restaurant by an early-morning fire on March 8 revealed that it needs significant demolition and reconstruction work that will take longer than originally anticipated.

The restaurant is canceling all reservations and not taking new ones at this point.

Both the top and bottom porches on the front of the building at 1517 Shattuck Ave. need to be removed and rebuilt, and structural repairs will affect both the upstairs café and downstairs restaurant, according to Chez Panisse’s owner Alice Waters, who posted a letter on the restaurant’s website.

“All the staff is pitching in to help with the cleanup — we are cleaning and repainting every inch and working to get Chez Panisse back open as quickly as possible,” she wrote. “The opening dates for both the café and the restaurant are still to be determined.”

The Berkeley Fire Department determined that the fire, which broke out at around 3 a.m. on March 8 under the lower dining room alcove, was caused by an electrical fault.

“We are satisfied that it was was electrical,” BFD Interim Deputy Fire Chief Avery Webb said today. “Our investigation ruled that it was not criminal.” He added that insurance companies will be making their own, independent evaluations. Original estimates put the value of the damage at $200,000, although that will likely have been revised given the new assessment. Sprinklers inside the building helped prevent further destruction.

Kip Mesirow, the original artisan builder of the restaurant, flew in from Vermont shortly after the fire and is heading up a team of woodworkers to rebuild both porches and redesign the façade of the building, Waters said.

The restaurant will post new updates on its website as progress is made on the reconstruction and can also be followed on its Facebook page.

Chez Panisse rebuilds, focuses on re-opening [03.13.13]
Fire at Chez Panisse damages front of restaurant [03.08.13]

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  • I sure hope the city of Berkeley requires Chez Panisse to include a movie theater after the rebuild.

  • guest

    not funny

  • Biker 94703

    Troll fail.

  • 4Eenie


  • Karen Hoyle

    No longer live in Berkeley, but I am sure sorry this happened…..Fast recovery to Alice Waters and staff

  • Susan K.

    I think to say that Kip Mesirow was “. . . the original artisan builder of the restaurant . . .” is incorrect. I love Mr. Mesirow’s work, don’t get me wrong. His copper light fixtures and re-habilitation of parts of the building are marvels. But the original home was built during the Craftsman era of design. Is the architect’s or builder’s name known?

  • Maurice Edmond Sailland

    Perhaps Chez Panissse could temporarily reinvent itself as a displaced food truck to keep a revenue stream going?

  • Susan: You’re correct to say Mesirow did not build the building but he was the lead builder of the restaurant within the building which, I believe, was originally residential. Christopher Alexander was the architect of the restaurant.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    or affordable dining.

  • The_Sharkey

    I’ve never really understood the obsession with Chez Panisse, but this is a real bummer.
    Even if you don’t like Ms. Waters or her restaurant, it definitely brought a lot of traffic into the Gourmet Ghetto and the loss of that traffic will probably do some damage to other nearby businesses.

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    how about builder of the restaurant interior…he has done much more than “cooper light fixtures and re-rehabilitation parts” try all of the interior details… wainscoting, benches, staircases, kitchen after the fire…A LITTLE TOO PICKY IF YOU ASK ME! the article doesn’t say builder of the house the restaurant is in…it says builder of the restaurant which is correct.

  • So Berkeley

    Glad no one was hurt and insurance will cover the cost, With that being said tear it down and put in a Taco Bell.

  • berkeleykev

    Susan is correct. The restaurant originally opened in 1971. After the fire in 1982 Alexander and Mesirow collaborated on the re-design and Mesirow did the re-building of the new spaces.

    Interesting to note that (the 1982) fire directly led to the creation of the space that we are all now so used to.

    “In 1971 Waters and Aratow opened the restaurant to a twice sold out house. Victoria Wise served as the first chef,[9] and Lindsey Shere, a friend of Alice’s, was the pastry chef.

    Due to Waters’ insistence on using the highest-quality ingredients she could find regardless of cost, coupled with her lack of experience working in—not to mention running—a restaurant, Chez Panisse struggled financially for many years after it opened. The restaurant also gained a reputation for its staff’s partying and illegal drug use, which contributed to the environment of the young Chez Panisse. Nonetheless, Waters and Aratow continued on, cooking country French-inspired meals with local California ingredients. In the process, Waters and the restaurant began building up their network of local producers, which continues to provide the restaurant with the majority of its ingredients today.[6]

    In 1972, Jeremiah Tower became the chef de cuisine of Chez Panisse, replacing Victoria Wise. While at Chez Panisse he was in charge of the kitchen and the menus. He left in 1978 and went on to open Stars, in the 1980s. He, along with Alice Waters, Paul Aratow and several other chefs, are often credited with creating the style of cooking known as “California Cuisine.” Paul Bertolli served as the head chef of Chez Panisse from 1982-1992. With Waters, Bertolli co-wrote the cookbook Chez Panisse Cooking. He later went on to become the head chef of Oliveto, an Italian restaurant in Oakland, California, and now owns the salumi company Fra’mani.

    Jean-Pierre Moulle joined the Chez Panisse kitchen in 1975, as Jeremiah Towers’ sous chef, and eventually worked his way to head chef. He continues to serve as head chef of the restaurant for 6 months out of the year. David Tanis, who started at Chez Panisse in the 1980s, holds the post for the other half of the year.

    Biographer Thomas McNamee has characterized the restaurant’s history as bipolar, with triumphs alternating with disasters leading to more successes. This cycle could be seen in the aftermath of a March 1982 fire that came within 10 minutes of destroying the building. Influenced by the book A Pattern Language, Waters collaborated with co-author Christopher Alexander on a redesign (principally by the great cabinetmaker, designer and builder Kip Mesirow) that removed the partially burned wall previously separating the kitchen from the dining room.[6]”

  • guestronome

    To lose, even temporarily, the world’s 534th best restaurant is a sad thing.

  • Ron Fields – Los Angeles

    Great idea. CP could keep truck going after they rebuild. Our “Greats” Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken (Border Grill) have one (“Truck Chefs”) running around Los Angeles both at functions and day to day on the streets with their tasty victuals. Its terrific! They are terrific!! Best, Ron Fields / LA

  • guest

    It may interest you that Bill Clinton, Harrison Ford, and Alice Walker among others seemed to afford Chez Panisse dining quite easily.

  • Mbfarrel

    I remember the house from before Chez Panisse. It seemed typical of its era. The architect might well have worked for Sears & Roebuck.

  • guest

    The term ‘gourmet ghetto’ is cringe inducing.

  • les5fleurs

    Regular folks (like me) spend far more $$ on football tickets, outlet malls and other stuff. Chez Panisse is an experience and a treat… and there is nothing elitist or for-celebrities-only about sitting at a wood table, putting a napkin in your lap and tasting a forkful of just-picked greens with homemade dressing. It might even change the way you fix a meal at home.