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BERKELEY, Calif. ( MainStreet) -- In the fickle restaurant world, a milestone such as the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse isn't an everyday event. The slow-food, locally sourced foodie landmark of Chez Panisse got its start in 1971 as a neighborhood cafe founded by Alice Waters and a group of investors with a name inspired by a 1930s French film. In 1980 the restaurant expanded to include a more-casual (and usually easier to book) upstairs cafe and in 1990 a charitable foundation aimed at educational programs that uses food to "nurture, educate and empower youth." Five years later it launched The Edible Schoolyard to integrate locally sustained cuisine into public school curriculum and food programs through organic gardens.
For most of the world, especially the right-leaning, Berkeley seems a far-away pilgrimage, but it's actually just 15 minutes by cab from downtown San Francisco -- and a mandatory culinary journey for anyone fancying themselves true foodies. Chez Panisse is to many quite simply the freshest meal they will ever eat.
Chez Panisse, 15 minutes from San Francisco by cab, may simply be the freshest meal many will ever eat.
Open every day but Sundays, the restaurant features a daily menu reflecting seasonal and locally grown produce with ingredients often plucked from the field within hours of eating. Quirky nuances prevail, such as menus cheaper at the beginning of the week for local clientele. The more home-style Monday menu has meals for about $60 -- $25 less than on the weekends. And the place can feel like home. Its rustic storefront facade seems from another time with its hand-painted signs and wrought-iron fence ensconced in ivy under a looming Bunya pine tree. Inside the first-floor dining room, an arts and crafts aesthetic prevails, starting with the wood-paneled walls and stained-glass ceiling.
The restaurant's co-chefs include Frenchman Jean-Pierre Moulle, who has been with the restaurant since 1975, and David Tanis, who has been there since 1980 under the guidance of executive chef, owner and founder Alice Waters. Visitors sneak peeks of all the chefs in action in a show-stopper open kitchen that has been a training ground for some of the California's top cooking talents, including Suzanne Goin, Ben Ford and Jeremiah Tower. But for the devoted fan, seeing Waters is akin to an Angelina sighting.
As for the food, no two visits are ever the same. An August sampling of a nightly menu features a prix fixe Monday menu of grilled porcini toast with squash blossom salad followed by a braised kid goat with homegrown romano beans and just-picked blackberry tartlet with chartreuse for dessert. Pricier Fridays include an additional aperitif and extra course of Santa Barbara spot prawns and main course of squab with roasted figs and liver toast with garden lettuces -- a much more lengthy meal.
Upstairs, the more casual cafe has a la carte or prix fixe menus du jour available for lunch and dinner. The cafe uses a separate open kitchen with a prominent charcoal grill and wood-burning oven. It feels like a private salon, and Waters herself can often be found enjoying dinner there with friends (on one night that included an opera serenade from atop the table). The cafe's signature pizzettas are topped with seasonal mushrooms or locally grown sweet peppers with salads of garden lettuces or zucchini topped with pine nuts, pecorino and mint. Mains include rotating dishes such as a wood-oven roasted Monterey Bay squid with escarole and bean salad or pan-fried chicken breast with tomato-oregano sauce often touted as the most flavorful, fresh dinner of your life.
The last weekend of August will feature a series of events to mark the 40th anniversary, including an Aug. 26 affair hosted by the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery and OPENrestaurant Art and Food Collective at the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum with artist Ann Hamilton. Additionally, the restaurant will close to host a series of celebratory dinners, with all sales benefiting The Edible Schoolyard organization.
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