by Marilyn Noble
In the world of fine dining, restaurants come and go. Only a handful seem to stand the test of time and survive for more than a few years. Le Bernardin in New York, Canliss in Seattle, the French Laundry in Napa – all are among the few who have managed to deliver a consistently excellent dining experience without resorting to trendiness or being the next hip place.
Chez Panisse is one of those places. Alice Waters, known fondly as the mother of American cuisine, founded Chez Panisse in 1971, and today it remains in the same funky neighborhood a few blocks away from the University of California campus. Waters began by sourcing her ingredients – organic, seasonal, and still-bearing-dirt fresh — from local farms long before it was the trend du jour, and that practice at Chez Panisse continues today. In the meantime, she’s written cookbooks, won awards, started a foundation and a program to teach school kids about growing and eating healthy food, and been instrumental in the growth of the Slow Food movement in the U.S. and around the world.
This past spring my son moved to the Bay Area and now lives just a few minutes away from the venerable Berkeley establishment. When my family asked how I wanted to celebrate a big decade birthday this year, I told them I wanted us to have dinner at Chez Panisse.
I had heard from several people that Chez Panisse had become a faded glory; that the food wasn’t any better or more creative than any other farm-to-table place; that the service could be uneven, snooty, and aloof; and that it probably wasn’t worth the hefty price tag. Still, with all of my involvement in the food world and having met Waters on several occasions, I felt like I had to at least have the experience of eating there once.
I’m happy to report that, at least on the night we were there, the naysayers couldn’t have been more off the mark. The staff was warm and friendly, the atmosphere was gracious and unpretentious, and the food was a celebration of the best of summer in California. It was a magical evening.
We walked in the door a few minutes early for our reservation, and the host gave us the option of waiting on the newly rebuilt front deck (a late night fire in 2014 destroyed the front of the place) or going upstairs to the bar. We made the second choice, and the by time the smiling bartender handed us our glasses of wine, the host was there to seat us. We had opted for the formal prix fixe dinner in the downstairs dining room, rather than ordering off the menu in the more casual café upstairs.
Once we were seated at our table, our server appeared with an aperitif – prosecco with mulberry and a hint of rosemary – and a plate of anchovies and heirloom cherry tomatoes sprinkled with a little mint. The tomatoes were so sweet they tasted like candy, and we were able to settle in to enjoy the evening and each other’s company. The first course was a tartare of California halibut and King Salmon with a fennel salad and cucumbers. The halibut was so fresh it had a buttery consistency that almost melted in the mouth. Even the non-seafood-eating member of the party said he enjoyed it.
The succeeding courses were artfully presented and the flavors melded perfectly – fettuccine with sweet corn, chanterelles, squash blossoms and basil; and the main course, grilled rib-eye with marchand de vin butter, grilled onions, straw potato cake, and wild rocket. Everything tasted as if it had just been picked, probably because it had. With each course we had wine, and our server knew how to make recommendations based on our tastes, food pairings, and budget. The final flourish was a mulberry ice cream and rose parfait vacherin (a type of meringue) with fresh-off-the-tree peaches.
At our server’s invitation, I walked through the kitchen, where the atmosphere was peaceful and not chaotic. Everyone was focused on their tasks – obviously a group of professionals. The front-of-the-house staff was also professional, yet friendly and welcoming. We never felt rushed, and the courses came out at the right pace. No one even blinked when we discreetly took a few non-flash pictures with our phones. It was a perfect dining experience.
As someone whose usual dining out fare is a burrito from the taco stand around the corner or a late-night salad at the local downtown Littleton pub, eating in a place like Chez Panisse is a rarity and a special treat. But if you appreciate good food, I would encourage you to splurge once in a while on a really great experience. At the very least, investigate your local fine-dining scene. A new breed of chef is following in the steps paved by Alice Waters and Chez Panisse four decades ago. They’re sourcing high-quality, fresh ingredients from local farmers and ranchers and cooking seasonal, whole foods without pretension or fussiness. And that’s a trend worth supporting.
Chez Panisse offers two options for dining. The downstairs restaurant offers a fixed dinner menu that varies on a daily basis. The upstairs café is open for lunch and dinner and offers a full menu that also varies on a daily basis. Reservations are available one month in advance.
Marilyn Noble is Rio Nuevo’s cookbook and blog editor, and has written four cookbooks including Southwest Comfort Food and The Essential Southwest Cookbook. She is also the co-chair of the Southwest/Mountain Ark of Taste committee and the Colorado governor for Slow Food USA.