Chez Panisse. Photo: ulterior epicure/Creative Commons

Michelle Vaughan and Felix Salmon are Berkeleyside friends who live in New York City. Michelle is an artist and Felix is a finance blogger for Reuters. They’re passionate about their food so when we heard they were coming to Chez Panisse for the first time, we asked them to record their thoughts. Here’s their tale:

Michelle: Coming to San Francisco this time for me was for one occasion, and one occasion only: my husband’s birthday. He needed to be in SF for work the day before, and instead of him spending it alone, I volunteered to fly out. With one proviso:  that he get an amazing reservation for a decadent meal.

So Felix set his alarm inside his computer calendar to alert him exactly one month before so he could book through Open Table. He came back to me, “I booked us a reservation.” And I said, “Oh really, where?” And then he showed me the computer screen: Chez Panisse, 2 people, 9:15pm.

Felix: The alarm thing in the computer didn’t work very well, but when Michelle and I were in a restaurant in Orange County last month, I remembered the Chez Panisse idea and got a resy using the Open Table app on my iPhone. I love Open Table, but I think that it sometimes works less well with old-fashioned restaurants.

Michelle: We have dreamed about going to this restaurant for years and years. It’s never happened. So you can imagine my excitement and I booked an air ticket right away.

Felix: Which of course was my cunning plan: I got to spend my birthday in San Francisco with my wife, which was great.

Michelle: Fast forward to F’s birthday: we’re on the BART traveling from San Francisco to Berkeley all dressed up and anticipating a fabulous night.

Felix: Berkeley’s big! And Chez Panisse is not very close to the BART. I was expecting something a bit more Jane Jacobs and downtown, rather than a restaurant-you-really-need-to-drive-to. Michelle was wearing heels, turning the walk from the BART into a bit of a schlep.

Michelle: We arrive at Chez Panisse bang on time.

Felix: We thought we had time to explore Berkeley or grab a drink beforehand, not so much. It basically took us an hour from getting on the BART in SF.

Once we got to the restaurant, I was immediately struck by the architecture: it’s a beautiful and unique restaurant, architecturally, and I adore the way it looks and feels. You feel immediately at home, with all the warm wood; it’s informal yet high-end at the same time. But it can get a bit crowded.

Michelle: It’s asparagus season so there is a big pile in a basket near the entrance. I love that, stating: this is in season, and this is what you’re going to eat.

Felix: The greeting was a bit chaotic, there was a lot of milling around in a crowded corridor before the hostess finally appeared, and she had to deal with a couple of other people first. She needed my last name to find my reservation — no California informality here — and said the table would be ready in 5-10 minutes, they were running a little late. I looked around the corridor, and had to ask if there was a bar. Oh yes, she said distractedly, it’s upstairs. She’d come and fetch us when the table was ready.

The bar was nice, if also crowded; we ordered a couple of cocktails and looked around. Five minutes passed, then ten…

Michelle: Our reservation was for 9:15, so I’m already pretty hungry, as is Felix. We wait and wait.

It was a long wait. Drinks were finished. I mention to Felix it was poor expectations management to have us up here so long, and not check in to see how we are or give us an update on when we’ll be seated. But we are patient.

She finally comes up and we walk down to the dining room. We sit down and soak up the room. No art, just very attractive woodwork somewhere between Mission and Art Nouveau, I was having a hard time deciphering which. It was elegant but not snobby.

We receive our beautiful paper menus (green onions illustrated on the cover), which stated a fixed tasting. Fine, makes things easy — four courses: asparagus salad, Maine lobster and scallop risotto, braised and grilled pork shoulder with gnocchi, peas and fava beans. Neapolitan ice cream for desert. Great, we are ready.

The waiter comes to discuss the wine menu, which Felix is trying to choose from. He narrows down to a few — asks for a Pinot Noir that is earthy, light and has lots of character. We like a barnyard kick. The waiter wavers a little, unsure if they had something to match his request. So Felix asks about an Italian choice, and the waiter says, “Ah yes. That is fantastic and should be what you’re looking for.” (Or something to that effect.) We’re happy, he walks away and then returns with the bottle. He says, “Well actually it’s not from Italy, but from Slovenia. You will enjoy it.” Slovenia? Really??? The fact of the matter is, the wine was good. Slovenia: who knew? But it was listed as Italian and the waiter who seemed to know something about it, didn’t interject in the beginning to let us know it was in fact misprinted and from somewhere else, which annoyed Felix. I was still thinking about Mission furniture and how trendy it was for yuppies in the mid-nineties.

Felix: Our waiter seemed friendly, if slightly aggressive. Certainly chatty. He told us that the Chez Panisse conception of locavorism extends to flying in lobster from Maine, which I wasn’t very excited about, since I don’t think Maine lobster travels very well and much prefer it in situ. Eventually he came to take our wine order; he said that an interesting-looking red Trousseau from Jura was going to be quite heavy, so I asked about a 2004 Pinot Nero from Friuli in Italy. He started waxing rhapsodic about it, and told us that it was aged in clay, which sounded so weird and funky that I had to order it.

When he came back with the wine, he didn’t present to us so much as announce its arrival. Here you go, he said, a Pinot Nero from the Italian-Slovenian border. Then he looked at the back label, and said oh look, actually it’s from Slovenia. (It was called Movia, if you want to look it up.)

I’ll try any kind of weird and wonderful wine, so the fact that the wine was from Slovenia didn’t bother me too much, in fact it was quite exciting. And the wine was good. But it is very odd that it was listed on the wine list as being from Friuli in Italy. And it’s also odd that the waiter who knew so much about the wine didn’t know what country it was from.

Michelle: Then the first course comes. The asparagus was delicious. We finish.

Felix: The asparagus, we both agreed, was perfectly cooked, and tasted better than just about any asparagus either of has ever had. In the annals of asparagus, this was undoubtedly first-rate asparagus. And it lived up to the Chez Panisse reputation of cooking first-rate local food simply, and just letting the natural flavors come out.

I did feel that a bit of effort with respect to the plating would not have gone amiss: just because it’s been cooked simply, doesn’t mean it can just be slapped down on the plate. If anything, when the food is cooked so simply, the rest of it becomes more important, including the way the food is presented, both on the plate and by the waiter. It’s the only way for the restaurant to show respect for the food and for its customers.

Michelle: We wait. The second course comes… our waiter had said earlier that this dish was really divine, but actually: meh. It was OK. Neither of us were bending over backwards.

Felix: The second course was nominally a risotto, but it came out more like a random pile of undercooked rice mixed up with light-brown liquid and the occasional lump of something seafoody. This was no unitary risotto: it had disassembled itself into its constituent parts, none of which seemed to have enjoyed the experience. The lobster and scallops were perfectly good, but hardly revelatory, and actually, for a restaurant which prides itself on letting the food’s flavors shine out, they were kinda buried in the rice. That wonderful light, spring-fresh flavor that one gets in great risottos was missing; instead, the dish was stodgy, and I certainly got no hint of the sheer joy I get from eating Maine lobsters in Maine. My lobster rule stays.

Michelle: And then for the third course. Except we didn’t get it. We waited and waited. Our plates had been removed and we just sat there. Our waiter was MIA. I wish I had been more attentive to my watch so I could tell you the exact amount of time which went by during each course — but what I can say is that all of it was too long. I finally had to find another waiter and tell him, “Listen, we haven’t seen our waiter in a really long time. We don’t have our mains, what’s going on?” and with that, he rushed back. Our food came out immediately after, our waiter apologized and gave us a glass of wine on the house. That was nice. But it doesn’t make up for our time lost, and that cohesive fine dining experience one should expect from Chez Panisse… we ate our pork and fava beans: they were OK. Nothing spectacular. And nothing wrong either. Everything tasted good, but it didn’t taste GREAT. It wasn’t that creative. I won’t even describe the Neapolitan ice cream because I think you get it. So what, right?

Felix: The wait between the second and third courses really was a joke. And we did seem to lose our waiter somewhere along the way, dealing with various different servers and even the hostess at various points. They did give us an extra glass of wine when Michelle ran out, and no one was ever unfriendly. They were just a bit absent. All of which is pretty unforgivable given that this is a restaurant which in theory knows weeks in advance exactly how many dishes it’s going to be serving that night, and exactly when each one is going to be served. If it wanted to, it could, like Alinea, time everything down to the minute. Instead, it seemed to be collapsing under some kind of unexpected strain. Maybe the chef got sick and couldn’t come in, something like that? I have no idea. But that was the impression.

The main meat course was two cuts of pork, cooked two ways: shoulder and loin, I think, braised and grilled. Something like that. If anything a bit high-concept for the down-to-earth Chez Panisse, and certainly so much cooking was done to the pork that I can’t tell you whether the pork itself was particularly good. The loin was better than the thin and dry slices of shoulder, which sat there forlornly looking as though their highest ambition in life was to be a filling in a sandwich.

The dessert course was a big disappointment for me: while I ate the strawberry ice cream, I left the vanilla and the chocolate — they just weren’t interesting. Mine did come with a candle, and a piece of paper saying happy birthday.

And finally came the coffee: bitter, far too strong, with none of the natural sweetness in a well-drawn espresso. We asked a couple of people if they could call us a cab, and eventually somebody did.

The room was full of a wide variety of interesting-looking Berkeleyans, but  I didn’t get the vibe that most of them were there for the food. (One table was clearly there for the wine, another seemed to be putting together a PowerPoint presentation.) Maybe it’s a pleasant place to have a nice meeting or meal out, catch up with colleagues or friends. And that’s a very important part of what a restaurant should be. But some restaurants aim higher than that.

The bill, when it came, included a 17% service charge; I can’t remember whether that was mentioned on the menu. But in the end we spent over $340 on dinner at Chez Panisse. I can certainly think of places where it’s possible to spend that kind of money on worse food, but I can also think of a lot of places where you get much more joy, professionalism and creativity.

Michelle: We walked out that night completely let down. We both love what Alice Waters has done for food and farmers, and I can only assume when she’s in the kitchen cooking it’s a fabulous experience. But the restaurant is another story — just putting together local, fresh food is not enough these days to get me excited. I can do that in my own kitchen, and if we want disorganized service, believe me, we can serve that up just fine at home. What we were expecting was to be dazzled, like we were the following day for lunch at the Slanted Door. That was spectacular (pineapple-anchovies anyone?).

Sure we’re spoiled in New York, with local chefs from downtown to Brooklyn experimenting, competing and getting weird. Corton and Eleven Madison (for very special nights out), Spotted Pig/Breslin (when Fergus Henderson visits, it’s the bomb) and Momofuku Ssam Bar are tried and true NYC favorites… I’d rather be pounded by rock music while some pierced hipster slaps down creative bowls of deliciousness at Momofuku, than deal with a disorganized fancy restaurant any day.

Felix: The legacy of Alice Waters is everywhere: in thousands of restaurants and farmer’s markets around the country the Alice Waters gospel is preached to the converted. It has been built on with fervor and imagination, and millions of Americans eat tastier, healthier food as a result. But I think that Chez Panisse is no particular exemplar of what Alice Waters really stands for. It’s not accessible; the food is not all that spectacular; and the overriding impression is of a past-its-prime institution trading on its name.

Michelle: Alice Waters is very important as a food activist, and we totally support the Edible Schoolyard. One is being built in East New York, Brooklyn, it’s going to be great. I am helping support a regional outdoor market which will hopefully open permanently in downtown. It will be different from a green market. She’s incredibly active, and I think influenced Michelle Obama’s decision to plant a vegetable garden at the White House.

We very much support all these efforts, which is part of the reason we were so damn excited to visit the restaurant! So we crashed hard when they just kind of threw it out there and then disappeared.

What do you think, Berkeleysiders? Did Michelle and Felix have bad luck? Was there somewhere else in Berkeley they should have gone for a celebratory meal worth flying across the country for?

Photo of Chez Panisse by Empty Highway on Flickr

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  1. The phrase “resting on its laurels” comes to mind for me. The last three times I’ve been there I’ve been amazed at how over salted their dishes are. I expect that from MacDonald’s but not Chez Panisse.

    The service is impersonal, and frankly, I get treated better at Macaroni Grill.

    The prices they charge for ingredients that are downright humble are just not worth it. Recently the entrees they offered were pasta, chicken, mixed seafood, and meatballs. I was not impressed. I wound up getting the meatballs, with polenta and greens, to the tune of $25.00. Speaking of Macaroni Grill, I can get almost exactly the same thing there for half the price, they are not over salted, and the wait staff actually looks at me and smiles.

  2. You’re dead right there. No point in eating lobster anywhere else, and I try not to eat it more than 100 feet from the high tide line.

  3. Hi, please remove my photo from this post. I think this is an unbalanced take-down that I don’t want my photo illustrating. I have emailed you already. 

    Having worked there I know that the quality and way that kitchen operates justify the price tag. If you don’t like the way their tipping works and don’t educate yourself before plopping down that much money (which you must have been aware you were going to pay having made a reservation) then don’t go. 


  4. Only partially true. She’s not the chef anymore, and hasn’t been for years. But she was the chef there for eight years at CP’s inception.

  5. Sorry it took me some time to catch up to the spam. We’ve gotten rid of it
    this time. They’ll always be back in some clever form. And we’ll get rid of
    that. Thanks for helping.

  6. What interesting spam!

    The text seems to fit right in with the other comments on the article, but clicking on the name links to a British website selling knock-off Lacoste clothing.

    The spammers are getting a lot more subtle these days.

  7. I have a notion of how to bootstrap the restaurant that CP wants to be starting with a little take out place – let’s start by killing off KFC-type options. Poulet has the right idea for a starting point or a lifestyle business.

  8. Suits arriving in limousines. NOT a Berkeley restaurant. I live across the street from the Edible Garden. It’s lovely, and run primarily by adult volunteers.

  9. I’ve had great meals at Chez, and not-so-great meals at Chez. The last meal I had, just a few weeks ago, was GREAT. Simple, but great. I will return again and again, my pocketbook allowing, just to hazard one of the great meals. Plus I find that the experience at Chez is always lovely, the wine list fabulous. It’s not just about the food itself, it’s about the totality of the experience, the psychic energy that I derive from the place. Alla youse (that would be Brooklynese for “all of you”) who hate the place or think it’s just so five-minutes-ago, just freakin’ stay away, okay? And let those of us who love it enjoy it.

  10. Shelly:

    We all know that the menu at CP keeps changing, that is, of course, part of the “schtick” of the restaurant. On the surface, it provides the impression, or veneer, of innovation or experimentation. In fact, though, there has been very little, if any, true experimentation at CP in a very long time, perhaps decades.

    Sure, the menu changes, but when a simple roasted chicken is replaced by a completely unimaginative pork stew, then a completely pedestrian set of grilled lamb chops, where is the experimentation or innovation? Is it in a bowl of mixed green with a spoonful of old-school vinaigrette, or, perhaps, the neapolitan for dessert?

    In a way, the constant changing of the menu is nothing more than a tired conceit, perhaps even a cop out so that the kitchen never truly has to live up to the much higher of excellence that truly great restaurants achieve only through a combination of experimentation AND practice.

    No one can get a truly sublime, world-class dish right if it is only served once. By doing it this way, CP makes sure they never have to raise the bar…that’s their “out.”

  11. The problem may be Chez Panisse’ reputation as a Temple of Gastronomy, a Shrine, and The Site of the California Revolution rather than what it is – a restaurant. What was once done only by CP is now done by innumerable other restaurants – sometimes as well, and sometimes better. I live in Berkeley, I’ve eaten in the café many times, and Downstairs in the Holy Sacrum on special occasions. The meals range from absolutely memorable to – what Felix and Michele experienced.
    What I think one must consider is that the kitchen is constantly experimenting. I’ve been to other high end restaurants that barely change the menu over time. Some of the experiments are delicious – and others as trite and poorly done as Neopolitan ice cream. Consistency is not what you experience at Chez Panisse – and those who have continued to go there over the years are aware of that.

  12. @G: I know, right? I think a lot of these people don’t cook very much, and certainly not under pressure!!!!

  13. as a trained cook i am truely appalled at these comments i am reading. you all forget the people that make your food! we are underpaid, overworked, misunderstood people! everyone wants their food to be cheap, but you know what… its the labour of love that adds to the cost! remember the love the next time you gasp at a bill please!

  14. EBGuy,

    Gather has great food, reasonable prices, and some of the nicest wait staff in town. Go there!


  15. Wasn’t this post about Felix and Michelle’s disappointing adventure? At Chez Panisse? Qu’est-ce qui se passe maintenant???

  16. I thought I was the only one weary of Thomas Lord’s self promoting windy digressions but apparently not, see below.

    (And when you’re done reading, if you advertise on Berkeleyside, email the staff asking why you pay for self promotion and he does not? Click the bright blue lettering of his name to see the tender new shoots of his software empire.)

    Peter Rose
    January 11, 2010 at 1:16 pm
    Mr. Lord,
    You have dominated this blog, not with the high quality of your debating skills, prose, or information shared, but with the volume of your posts. Please think about the fact that you have created more posts than anyone else on this blog and yet it’s obvious you have never stepped foot onto local school grounds. Please think about why you compulsively comment on a topic about which you have no direct experience–in fact, you might self-reflect on why you seem to be so interested in every little thing that happens on this blog.
    Unlike you, I don’t have time to step outside and watch the street in the morning. I don’t have time to compulsively respond to every comment on this blog, as you seem to be doing, or even read every comment . And yet you are posting on other blogs as well as this one concerning our local education issues???
    You have diminished the quality of this blog and I resent it. I don’t have time to scroll through a lot of useless pontificating. You confused test scores with budget data in your attempt to defend your belief that resources have been distributed in a lop-sided way to privileged students. You questioned the maturity of a recent graduate who characterized himself as struggling and argued with him over the accuracy of his self-assessment. What a waste of time for readers of this blog! You showed complete ignorance over qualification requirements for AP classes at BHS–you probably didn’t even know that BHS pays AP test fees for kids who can’t afford them and offers free tutoring for kids who need help. You interpreted the state ed code in a goofy way and accused the person who posted the actual statute as interpreting it. It calls for one community member for every school representative. If you can’t figure out why this type of balance is important, then you have not understood how conservative ideologues in Kansas and Delaware replaced evolution theory with creationism in their public schools. And you sure don’t understand how FTEs are unequally distributed to small schools at the expense of most of the kids at the high school. That’s the real measure of resource allocation, by the way.
    Enough. Either practice basic blog etiquette or be a blowhard elsewhere. You’re taking advantage of a captive audience of people seeking information on what in the world is happening at Berkeley High, since the information is not forthcoming from the administrators.

  17. I tend to choke on my food when you hit $100. Can anybody comment on whether Gather is worth all the recent buzz it’s been getting.

  18. “None of the above disputes the fact that immediate worldwide adoption of sustainable, organic farming practices would completely eliminate the threat of global warming. Emissions produced by the few who survive the famine would be inconsequential.”

    Nor does *that* mediate the fact that the continued path of petro-ag, GM crops, and the mismanagement of soil and water will turn the green revolution into the desertification event while, as a side effect, killing large swaths of fresh and ocean water. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

    Two things are (in my view) good: Yes, keeping an open mind and pushing as consumers and as doers to maximize sustainable food production wherever we can. Yes, preparing as best we can for non-trivial possibility of a collapse of petro-ag and the resulting mass starvation and migration.

  19. Felix and Michelle,

    Thank you for you refreshing honesty. I too regret your unsatisfying experience at Chez Panisse. This may help align your expectations more realistically in your the next visit…

    The food:

    While Alice Waters hardly invented locavorism or farmers markets, her zeal, timing and shrewd self promotion have helped popularize them to a new generation.

    She does, however, deserve much credit for steering American culinary theory and practice away from how food tastes and towards what it stands for.

    As the mother of ‘epionics’, she’s supplied the vocabulary for exploiting the marketing potential of food as “cause”. It’s through her influence that the words sustainable, artisanal, organic, etc. now universally convey ethical superiority, altruism and other value added product benefits untapped by traditional food marketing.

    This explains the lack of significant success among traditional evaluators like yourselves (and those employed by the Michelin Guide) who consider restaurant dining a sensory experience rather than a political one.

    Ms. Waters most lasting legacy will likely be the moral sheen conferred on her adherents which has removed societal stigma(s) formerly attached to duck plucking and boiling the hair off pigs. As a result, many expensively educated and unskilled liberal arts graduates now see a brighter future in food.

    The service staff:

    The good ones are those banking on hopes that the tedium of waiting tables, tending bar or peeling vegetables will be offset by the resume entry and the doors it opens elsewhere (notable examples in alphabetical order: Bertolli. Mazzera and Miller). Those who don’t leave deal with the grind by setting their own standards for service. Absent much informed patronage, they get away with it.

    The ambiance:

    If it feels like you’re sitting in an old parlor, it’s because you are. That would be its usual location in houses of the period. And how fitting a setting that is for a family pageant portraying honest happy peasants (think Marie Antoinette’s rustic village at Versailles) in revolt against tyrannical agribusiness. A farce fought nightly in two seatings, the scenery reassembled daily before opening. Tickets available on one months notice. $$$


    None of the above disputes the fact that immediate worldwide adoption of sustainable, organic farming practices would completely eliminate the threat of global warming. Emissions produced by the few who survive the famine would be inconsequential.

  20. The arrogance I was referring to was in the no-choices part of the menu: the fact that there wasn’t even a choice of say two different second courses.

    I’d be interested to know what the minimum check is for 2 people at CP. Our price was $75, but I believe you when I say it can go down to $60. But add on their 17% service charge, and tax, and you’re up in the $150 range. And of course you’re likely to want to drink *something* — especially if you’re asked to wait in the bar for 20 minutes before your meal starts.

  21. Brooklyn Boy:

    Right. There’s fixed price, fixed menu, and fixed seating for the premium meal. CP has 2 out of three of those.

    As a business, fixed menu implies fixed price though, of course, you can also have a fixed price without the fixed menu.

    As a kitchen, fixed menu (or fixed menu with a couple of minor choices) is a huge simplification that opens up a lot of opportunity for culinary expression. Take note of how there is so much attention given these days to the concept of smaller menus often being better – fixed menu is that to the max.

    As a kitchen, fixed seating only makes much sense with a tiny or fixed menu but the two combined opens up a vast wealth of culinary expression opportunities that don’t exist otherwise. As soon as you can say “Dinner is served promptly at 6:30 and again at 8:30” with a limited or fixed menu – your culinary options go way, way up. Without fixed seating, no matter how expensive your ingredients or sophisticated your technique – you’re in the fast food (aka “quick serve”) business.

    Quick serve (even “fine dining” quick serve) is attractive as a business because if you manage it well in a typical setting, you can be damn efficient with inputs and labor. (Ever watch, for example, the TV show “Hell’s Kitchen”? And that’s a pretty sanitized version. I can’t believe people pay good money to eat in places like that when they have any other choice.)

    But if you don’t want to do that, a sharply limited if not fixed menu and fixed seatings is liberating for chefs. That’s where everything comes together, food-craft-wise. It’s just that it’s impossible to know how much inputs to buy and the waste level is always high except when you are riding the crest of a wave of popularity and are guaranteed full houses every night.

    So that’s why you *should* run such a kitchen as a cascade: you have the limited or fixed menu / fixed-seating premium option for which you deliberately and always over-buy. Around the surplus plus augments you implement a casual dining option with a daily menu. E.g.: Hey, the premium diners are having lamb steaks? Today the casual diners enjoy some lamb salad. And then you still have some left-over so serendipitous take-away rounds out the bill.

    In term of the front of house you have to integrate these things so that you don’t waste a seat. It sounds from comments above like when CP had fixed seating, fixed menu and a casual option – they segregated the casual seating and thus had casual diners waiting around for a meal while there were empty seats in the fine dining area. Thus, they were leaving money on the table (and engaging in low-level class warfare).

    In a restaurant with a fancy, ambitious kitchen that as its signature wants to cater to big spenders, the front of the house should be subordinate to (designed around) the logic of the kitchen, not the other way around. It sounds like that’s exactly where CP stumbled. If this thwarts cultural expectations of the premium diners (e.g., they have to rub elbows with the casual diners) well… the role of such a restaurant is to create culture not be enslaved to it.

  22. Ayse –

    I think there is a serious misnomer regarding “prix fixe.” Prix fixe does not necessarily imply fancy or simple, inexpensive or expensive.

    Usually, however, especially in the case of an expensive restaurant with clear ambitions of grandeur, there will be what we Americans call a menu, with choices, as well as one (or more) prix fixe options.

    In most restaurants, in fact, the prix fixe meals themselves will come with choices.

    But not at CP.

    At CP there is never any choice. It’s one predetermined meal period. Even prison cafeterias give you a choice.

    You write that you can dine for two people for $120 without wine. You can, but it all depends what the house is charging for the one prix fixe on the night you snag a reservation. On some nights, the prix fixe costs $95…that’s $190 for two people.

    That’s hardly a bargain for a no-substitutions menu that most who have reserved will have no idea about, since menus are only printed one week at a time.

    I will agree with you that CP is not a French country inn. And yes, it was loosely inspired by French country inns and so on, but, again, the real attraction of the place is as the shrine to California Cuisine and its high priestess, Alice Waters.

    Again, I think Alice more than fully deserves her role as high priestess; it’s just too bad the restaurant itself is so mediocre.

    And so with this mediocrity, coupled with the pretension, and cost, the original inspiration has become little more than conceit.

    You write that CP provides no choice just like you do in your home. But do you run a restaurant out of your home that employs 117 people and charges from $60 to $95 per person (and more) for dinner?

    I challenge anyone to come up with another restaurant with this degree of reputation and at this price point that allows no choice whatsoever and zero choices. Not even for dessert. In the case of the original post, they got a Neapolitan. I think the last time I willingly had a Neapolitan was when I was 10 years old.

    You imply that providing the customer at least a small degree of choice would somehow commercialize and sully the purity of CP.

    Personally, I think that’s complete hogwash. It would instead challenge CP and its staff to a far greater degree of excellence.

    A lot of restaurants coast on their reputations as shrines. Galatoire’s in New Orelans, St Elmo’s in Indianapolis. Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami. Note that none of these establishments have anything nearing the foodie cachet of CP.

    But CP has also been coasting. For a long time. It gets away with it because of Alice’s stature as high priestess.

    My own opinion is that CP deserves every bit of criticism it receives, that it needs a good kick in the pants to turn it into not only a truly grand restaurant, but ultimately–and ironically–to return it to the spirit of innovation and optimism that were the very essence of the California Cuisine Alice helped to create three decades ago.

  23. Ayse,

    Thanks for the history. If I understand you correctly, it sounds like when there were fixed seatings for the fixed menu there was segregated dining areas – which sounds to me like a horrible mistake. My belief is strengthened by your description of people waiting upstairs for seating while downstairs was under-used. I can’t imagine what they were thinking – it sounds like a more flexible use of the space would have kept the place running at capacity. Other than the segregated dining areas and the difficulty fully booking the fixed seating option, I can’t fathom how their could possibly be (good reason) logistical problems in the kitchen — but with those problems, I can easily imagine it. The kitchen didn’t have logistical problems except such as came from the front of the house. It also sounds a bit like that was an early and problematic ambition towards a highly pretentious style of service downstairs. It’d be interesting (from that pointless kibbitzing perspective) to do some forensics on the books from back then.

    Actually, putting back on my imaginary “King of CP” crown – I’ve one more thing to add. So we’ve got unified dining spaces. A fixed seating, fixed menu premium option. A daily menu more casual option. To that… add a serendipity-menu take-away street food option (for the left-over left-overs); subtract some of the service pretensions; offer a value-oriented wine list — and then you’ve got something. As it stands, it sounds like this place can’t decide if it wants to be a rustic country inn or the dining room of a four star international hotel.

    I bet I could make that place thrive handsomely and be universally loved – at the cost of being able to extract profit at only a quite modest rate in this highly competitive local market.

    Hey, if any reader is flush enough and crazy enough to back a new start-up restaurant up on Shattuck north of University and wants to trust a loud-mouth amateur with only tangential experience and awareness of the real business issues — I have a notion of how to bootstrap the restaurant that CP wants to be starting with a little take out place – let’s start by killing off (in terms of economic role) KFC-type options. Poulet has the right idea for a starting point or a lifestyle business.

    And maybe, just maybe, that’s one of AW’s main excellent contributions (as evidenced by comments above about better but philosophically related places): to raise the bar and inspire others to best her. Does anyone else besides me recall the “fine dining” restaurant scene of the early 1970s? Straight out of Orwell’s “Down and Out in London and Paris”? Maybe she doesn’t get the entire credit for moving things past that but I doubt she gets less than a substantial share of the credit.

  24. Brooklyn Boy, you say, “Finally, there is the issue of cost. If CP were truly a country auberge in the south of France with la maman or le papa cooking a simple meal in the kitchen, all for a modest price, that would be one thing. But CP is not a simple inn, nor is it by any stretch of the imagination, inexpensive ($340!).”

    $340 is the cost of the poster’s meal, when they added on significant wine and other costs. You can dine downstairs at Chez Panisse for $120 for two people for the menu. They have a fine wine menu which includes offerings for $60 that I consider to be truly exceptional wines.

    Not to mention that Chez Panisse — much as anybody might have liked it to be otherwise — is not in fact a French country inn. It is a restaurant inspired by and emulating French country inns, but it is in Berkeley, California, where food, real estate, talent, and general business costs call for a different price point — and there are plenty of people willing to pay that price so clearly it’s not too high for the market. I could have bought an estate in rural France with the down payment on my Bay Area house. You cannot reasonably argue that Alice Waters should be able to provide a similar experience for the same price in a totally different market.

    The problem our poster seems to have is mistaking prix fixe for “extra fancy with arrogant chef” when it just means “limited menu choice.” I was simply providing a very obvious counterexample. There are lots of reasons to choose prix fixe. That’s how my own dinners are served, for example; nobody gets to pick and choose from a menu at my house.

    Thomas, you made this suggestion: “If I were made king of CP-in-Berkeley tomorrow and had to snap-decide a plan of action immediately – I think I might well go to having a prix fixe, *two fixed-time seatings*, fixed-menu option for the premium price — and a casual daily menu sharing the same space for those without or missing reservations. That would support really good cooking and a highly frugal kitchen while keeping prices reasonable.”

    That is how Chez Panisse was operating when I first ate there about 15 years ago (we were heartbroken when they started taking reservations for the cafe, because it was no longer possible to impulsively nip up there for a late dinner). It was a) not working well logistically in the kitchen to do two seatings a night in the dining room, and b) not getting quite as many people in as needed to pay the bills, and c) there were crowds of people hanging around upstairs waiting for seating during peak hours, meaning the tables near the bar were horrible. There may have been other reasons for the change, but those were the ones I heard about.

  25. Ayse-

    Prix fixe is not arrogant at all. But even the simplest country inn in France will usually have “la carte” where one can choose dishes and “le menu à prix fixe.”

    A restaurant as expensive and as highly regarded as CP ought to have at least a minimal choice, especially if one considers that–in the majority of cases–those who have reserved have absolutely no idea what they will be served when the dine there.

    Finally, there is the issue of cost. If CP were truly a country auberge in the south of France with la maman or le papa cooking a simple meal in the kitchen, all for a modest price, that would be one thing. But CP is not a simple inn, nor is it by any stretch of the imagination, inexpensive ($340!).

    For that can of cost I think one ought to expect a lot more than what CP delivers, that is if CP were truly a restaurant. But as we have discussed earlier, it is really, instead, a shrine.

    As a shrine it fulfills its role brilliantly, fanatic apologists and all.

  26. Ayse: can you compare the business models of these “simple country inns” to CP? As I (no doubt far from perfectly) understand these fabled inns they are:

    * in far less competitive environments

    * associated with other business activities such as rooms to let

    * have a captive market

    * serve during fewer hours and limit (or withhold) options beyond those hours

    * are vastly less expensive to dine at

    * have vastly less fussy service and service expectations

    * are generally associated with estates that monetize themselves in many additional ways

    and so forth.

    (And I do understand that tourism has led to a number of pseudo simple country inns in France, as well. I’m referring to the classical source of inspiration here.)

    I understand from what you say and what I’ve read A.W. say that CP is highly influenced by that model but in business terms it would seem to offer only an expensive (and apparently unstable) simulacrum in an inappropriate and incongruous urban environment. If the economic factors are as serious a factor as I think they are, perhaps the owner(s?) of CP should relocate to wine country after buying an estate. Then they could “export” (so to speak) wine and produce hosting a flagship inn at only modest profitability.

    (Yes, it’s a potentially obnoxious habit to kibbitz about Other People’s Businesses as I’m doing but we’re long, long down that path in these threads about CP and AW already so…. 🙂

    If I were made king of CP-in-Berkeley tomorrow and had to snap-decide a plan of action immediately – I think I might well go to having a prix fixe, *two fixed-time seatings*, fixed-menu option for the premium price — and a casual daily menu sharing the same space for those without or missing reservations. That would support really good cooking and a highly frugal kitchen while keeping prices reasonable.

  27. Prix fixe is not “arrogant”. It’s a business choice. Simple country inns in France are prix fixe, because they are not pretentious enough to muster a menu of choices and they choose to do one thing and do it well. That’s the model Chez Panisse uses.

  28. So I had an amazing meal on Tuesday night at Craft in LA, full of locally grown and sourced food, they even have a full-time forager whose job it is to discover new farmers and food sources. This is the legacy of Alice Waters, and it’s a great one, in a restaurant with utterly delicious food. On a purely taste-of-food level, I can’t imagine anybody preferring CP to Craft. (Equally, I can’t imagine anybody preferring Century City to Berkeley, but that’s another question.)

    I think the majority of comments here have been supportive of what Michelle and I are saying, but of course we are just one datapoint, we’re not professional restaurant critics, and the conversation is much more valuable than just the post which kicked it off. I’ve certainly learned a lot about Slovenian wine, and had another one in LA which was also really good!

    I do however think it’s obvious from the passions which can be seen in this comment thread that writing about restaurants in general and CP in particular is a good thing, and that it shouldn’t be left just to official restaurant reviewers. I did actually do a bit of homework before booking and toyed with the idea of eating in the cafe, which is a common recommendation, but ultimately reckoned that if I was only going to CP once, and it was a special occasion, then I’d try out their high-end experience. I was disappointed, and although my expectations might have been high, they were also ratified by the price and by the arrogance of having a fixed menu. I *like* arrogant chefs, but when you go down that road you set high expectations in your diners. And those expectations simply weren’t met on this occasion.

  29. I’m sorry, I just can’t help responding to those who think that BART-to-CP is a “serious hike.” I’m a 94-pound weakling, standing 4’11” in stockings. I hate almost all exercise except for yoga. I walk that “serious hike” every day because I live near CP and work near BART. I often go out of my way to add blocks to my walk because it’s just not enough of a walk. A serious hike, to me, is the Met on 81st and 5th to Veselka on 10th and 2nd. (Fellow NYers will know what I mean….) Just sayin’. And BTW that baby walk from CP to BART is just what you need after a meal.

  30. mary:

    I’m a New Yorker. I don’t own a car. I take the subway and walk everywhere. I am used to long walks: I walk to and from work every day, 2.5 miles in each direction.

    But even to me the walk from the Shattuck BART to Chez Panisse is a serious hike. It’s 7/10th of a mile and, at a normal pace, would take about 15 minutes.

    In any case, regardless of how one feels about this distance, one point is indisputable: Berkeley is not an urban environment such as New York, Boston, or the city of San Francisco. It’s the suburbs, with a small business district concentrated around Shattuck and University, albeit a dense, older suburb with sidewalks, some apartment buildings, but most of the housing stock in Berkeley is composed of single family homes with lawns and driveways.

    That doesn’t diminish Berkeley’s charm in any way. However, if the writers of the original post were expecting Berkeley to be more urban, they simply had the wrong impression.

  31. Cheese Penis has been inconsistant for years. Upstairs can be very good or very average depending on the stars or so damn abstract influence. Blind luck at best.
    Downstairs. After eating there four times, I won’t go back. Too expensive and not good enough for a fixed menu.

    A several years ago I was a vendor to CP, Wild mushrooms. Long cold wet sloughs
    through banned access watersheds etc. Selling to CP for $10@ pound. You can bet the suckers paid mucho more at the table. One morning I was told the Gleaner no longer bought the produce but each chef bought for themselves. When told this I noticed a large plastic tub filed with mushy wet small mushrooms. These were picked by gangs of day laborers that line up and sweep the forest floor
    doing unnecessary damage to the fragile system. The idiot chef told me I was out
    and the plastic tubs were the new regime. Sloppy ingredients for yuppy chefs.
    Cheaper though.. Alice is Figure Head not a chef………

  32. I had the exact same experience last year when I ate downstairs for the first time. Same wait, crowded spaces, absentee waiter and blah food (with a couple nice surprises). It was worth going but I would never go again (and pay, that is)

  33. It goes without saying that a wine’s origin should be properly labeled. But I hope you’ll take this as an opportunity to learn more about Slovenian wines, most of which are made in wine regions that are really extensions of those just across the Italian border, such as the famed Colli Orientali of Friuli (Brda, where Movia is, like Colli means ‘hills’), and the Carso — where, in fact, there is a significant ethnic Slovenian population and the borders have been historically contested.

    In fact, I’ve heard and read that Aleš Kristančič of Movia uses grapes from both Italy and Slovenia. Again, not a justification of the incorrect listing, but an indication that Slovenia shouldn’t provoke so many “??”s.

    And, conversely, internationally famous winemakers on the Italian side include names like Zidarich and Josko Gravner.


    Jonathan Taylor

  34. Last summer my family and I (we are from the East Coast) had lunch at the Chez Panisse cafe (upstairs). Like you we were disappointed. The food was adequate, the presentation boring, the service offensively condescending, but the greatest disappointment was the menu – it was August, and the selections were things like pork chops with cabbage and beets – things you’d want on a drizzly December evening. Nothing summery or light or fresh to be seen.

  35. I’m not a huge Chez Panisse fan — I have eaten there maybe 3 times, and I’ve also had a few meals in the cafe upstairs. It could be my reverse-snob reaction to the difficulty of getting a reservation — I tend to want to go out to eat without very much advance planning, and so, when I have to make an effort, my expectations shoot up.

    Or it could be that it’s pretty easy to get fresh ingredients here in Berkeley, and I like to cook, and I’ve been indoctrinated in the Alice Waters way of doing things, and so . . . I tend to think my own cooking is pretty darn good.

    Having said all that, it sounds like the meal wasn’t inspired and the service was very much lacking, and that’s always a major disappointment in a high-end restaurant.

    As for the other diners not being there for the food — well, who knows. And really, it’s disappointing that New Yorkers such as yourselves feel that a restaurant that’s only about 10 minutes from the BART station is accessible only by car. Heels or no heels.

  36. I can’t believe you had Neapolitan ice cream for dessert. What was it, Italian Night in the Bay Area?

    Maybe high expectations are a negative thing. But for food experiences, I would like to suggest that you consider taking a long weekend and going closer to home, to Charleston, SC — where the legacy of Alice Waters is going very strong. I don’t think I have ever set foot in a place with so many wonderful and interesting restaurants per capita (along with the usual complement of boring and mediocre and loud and overpriced ones as well). And if you get there, consider going to McCrady’s, which was my favorite of the bunch (I spent an entire summer working there — food was the highlight!).

  37. At Chez Panisse there is a big difference between “upstairs” and “downstairs”. (or “cafe” and “restaurant”) The food upstairs is average quality, more expensive than average, shorter lead times on reservations. The food downstairs is the really fancy stuff, long waits for reservations, very expensive, IMO quite good, but not really a value buy. (Although really expensive food is never really “worth” the money)

    You didn’t really specify explicitly, but you said they took you upstairs; so you may have expected the top-notch gourmet food and only gotten the lower-quality meal.

    I’ve done both and there is definitely a big difference between the two.

  38. I too am sorry that you had a bad experience at Chez Panisse. I have been there a number of times and have had great experiences, both with regard to food and environment and service, most of those times. Once, I wasn’t too excited by my entree, as it was over produced and not very interesting.

    Having said that, I’m probably older than you and lived in NYC for 25 years before moving to California, most of that time with the luxury of a very generous expense account. So in the ’80s and ’90s I had quite the foraging adventure into most of Manhattan’s (and Brooklyn’s) greatest restaurants: from La Grenouille and La Cote Basque to Adrienne, Grocery, and Le Bernardin, to Becco and Hatsuhana and Aureole. Indeed, it’s impossible to remember them all, let alone list them.

    In addition, I consider myself a foodie: I love to cook and am good at it, I try to be a locavore, I eat organic whenever possible, I’m interested in the science of food. I’m also quite critical about my dining experiences, no matter where those take place.

    I’m stressing my food credentials because, given the range of experience I’ve had in eating great food prepared by great chefs at great restaurants, my favorite restaurant is…Chez Panisse. Sure, it’s not always perfect. But then again I had a couple of underwhelming nights at Le Bernardin, and a terrible meal at Aqua, and never thought that Le Cirque warranted notice.

    Having said that, I really do think that as diners, we must remember that HUMANS cook and serve in restaurants, and humans make mistakes. Chez Panisse–whether under the direction of Alice Waters or David Tanis–is no different. But my own experiences there, both upstairs in the cafe, and downstairs in the prix-fixe dining room, have been as close to perfection as one can get. Despite a couple of dish fails (which I say with my tongue deeply in my cheek.)

    I’m going to guess that your misadventure that night was just karmic (I would never describe Chez Panisse as a restaurant one MUST drive to! It’s 12 minutes away from Downtown BART, fer gods’ sake! I walk that route every day. Plus wearing heels to walk anywhere is silly; heels are for riding in a car), you had some weird astrological transit happening, or someone put a curse on your night out. Your restaurant review sounds heavy with some kind of agenda–it’s the reason serious restaurant reviewers never write a review from just one visit. I can’t shake the feeling that you had a bad night all around and are putting it on our dear CP.

  39. This is my experience of Chez Panisse too. Really pure and simple cuisine is just a tough sell for a fancy restaurant. In my book you have to be made of money to spend your food dollars at CP, because it always runs the risk of just being a really focused version of, well, normal food.

  40. Right on.

    This was true 15 years ago when my wife nibbled on some bread in th afternoon from Cheese Board and declared that was the better food experience.

  41. I’m sorry you had a disappointing experience on your sole visit to Chez Panisse! I’ll say this – as others have said, experiences there can vary widely; it’s the nature of this restaurant (largely because the menu changes nightly, about which more in a moment), although it sounds like something was terribly wrong on this occasion.

    I would strongly recommend, though, that you not only get more data before judging, but learn more about the restaurant. For example, I am surprised that you did not know, when you made the reservation, that Chez Panisse serves only one menu per evening, and that this menu changes nightly. It also varies in price, and is never terribly expensive — although, as you discovered, it’s possible to rack up quite a bill depending on what you spend on wine, cheese courses, etc. The menus at Chez Panisse are not only about great ingredients; it was also one of the great innovators of California cuisine, and there is an experimental component and a combination of styles and techniques, although traditional by today’s standards, that seems to have been missing from your expectations. In short, you should look at the menu to find out what is planned for the night you wish to go.

    I’m not saying you didn’t get a sub-par meal & service. Obviously you did, and I have to say it really sounds like something was wrong – on the wine front alone, that does not sound like the CP I know. I’m just saying that, before you condemn this restaurant as a has-been, you should learn more about it and collect more data. You should think about what the value of an establishment that focuses on regulars is, what that says about their goals and orientation.

    It’s a place that is incredibly dear to my heart. And I want to see it judged on the right criteria and sufficient experience.

  42. I got to add one more data point here: I’ve eaten in the cafe twice and never downstairs. My first cafe experience was fine, pretty good but not super special. The second time my experience upstairs matched Felix’s and Michelle’s downstairs: crowded room, inconsiderate waitstaff, alternately hurried and lagging service, and surprisingly limited and uncreative menu choices. I’m grateful to Alice Waters and Chez Panisse for creating this Berkeley cuisine, but at this point, I’d as soon go to the many other places that have built on what they created. Chez Panisse seems to be operating on its legacy at this point.

  43. You asked the question about what fabulous spots there are in Berkeley for a special meal, and these days I feel nothing can beat Trattoria Corso. Down home Italian food done brilliantly – with a lively atmosphere at a table or the bar, silent Fellini movies if that’s your idea of good background aesthetic – or seats at the kitchen bar if you prefer to flirt with the cooks.

    Homemade pulled mozzarella with tomatoes and basil in summer or walnuts and sorrel in winter, phenomenal pork chop on the bone with huge soft carmelized onions, baked polenta that goes with everything, and the best honey-laced semifreddo this side of Italy – the menu goes on and on and I’ve never had anything that wasn’t excellent. Combine that with an all-Italian wine menu with ¼ and ½ glass servings so you can try lots of new stuff, and a long list of fresh cocktails if you are so inclined.

    We are lucky to have a lot of excellent eat spots in our area, but this is my favorite.

  44. CP Regular,

    Spurring conversation is absolutely, a good thing–as seen above and as you point out, so here we are.

    Also, I don’t disagree that eating in different restaurants, across countries, nations, locales, is an excellent place from which to write a review or make an informed evaluation, and certainly that information can be very valuable for readers who want to go out and enjoy a meal at the same place. But dining at a restaurant once, hardly gives you a proper stick with which to measure, in my view.

    As for CP’s reputation–perhaps it has an “inflated reputation,” as you suggest, no-doubt a problem for first time goers if the experience doesn’t match the expectation. I just don’t think, though, that comparing CP to Momofuko (known for their inventiveness) and Alinea (ultra modern), is a fair analogy if that was the kind of food, or experience the writers were looking for.

    Bug again, speaking as someone who grew up in a restaurant with a long history and reputation, that doesn’t always fulfill people’s expectations (nor live up to their own), 60 years on, I think most often, when given the opportunity, restaurant owners welcome critical reviews and even complaints, so that they can work to create a better experience for all their guests.

    Be well.

  45. I’ll kick in two thoughts:

    1) If there is some famous X (restaurant, person, place, etc.) about which your expectations from afar have been so built-up over the years that the merely imaginary version of X you have influences your thinking in other matters? Avoid actually encountering X – the imaginary version is probably worth more. The real thing is very likely to disappoint.

    2) The economics of fine dining don’t make a lot of sense: it always comes down to quantity (seatings per night) and/or brand-based price support (like heavily marked-up wine and high corkage fees). I think Ms. Waters made a branding mistake applying “slow food” to a restaurant: all seriously commercial fine dining is fast food. I suspect that a few glances at C.P.’s time planning sheets and purchase orders would confirm that, in most people’s view. Fine dining is distinguished from fast-food chains, generally, by relying more on manual labor and spot markets and less on factories and huge purchasing contracts. The paradox is that extra labor costs and supply chain premiums put on greater pressure for some mix of high turn-over and ridiculous prices.

    Home cooking can be “slow”: there are lots of dishes that can be made and techniques that can be applied at home by amateurs that produce results that are superior to and can’t be replicated in a commercially viable fine dining restaurant. You’re not paying for slow food at those places – you’re paying for fast food. Hence the disappointment of being left too long waiting at the bar or for the third course. Just as McDonald’s racks up fries, ready to cook, in anticipation of the lunch rush – we expect the same of a restaurant like C.P. whether we admit or not.

  46. Romney –

    Why is it wrong to compare CP to restaurants in different experiences and locales? Should we assume that all locales are just as good as one another? Isn’t comparing intrinsic to the way we evaluate _any_ food?

    It seems to me that evaluating food is best done by those who have experienced many different locales and cuisines and can make fruitful comparisons between them. That is, being a credible judge of food requires an education in which serious and initially open-minded exposure to broad traditions is an important part (which is not to say that depth of knowledge is not also useful/important.)

    As I said above, I think the CP Cafe is a perfectly respectable restaurant for what it does. The problem, of course, is that the formal restaurant does, in my opinion, have a vastly over inflated reputation that lead to the kind of disappointment we see in the original blog positing. It is spoken of as one of the greats, but many people find that it falls far short of its reputation. I’m happy to live near it and enjoy its pleasures, but I would be sorely disappointed if I made a special trip from NYC where eating there would be a highlight.

    Finally, I think you bring up an interesting point about who should be reviewing what restaurant on the internet. Certainly there are far too many people who feel free to post scathing remarks of restaurants (but also overly adulatory ones) with little thought. But the letter above — whether one agrees with it or not — seems to me a sincere and serious effort to think about their experience at the restaurant. Readers can read it and get a sense of whether they are likely to agree with the writers or not, based on their style, their beliefs and assumptions, their reactions to various things. In short, it strikes me as representative of a type of internet criticism that should be applauded. (Again, that doesn’t mean one need agree with it.) It generates a community of people who care about food and share their experiences, and it has generated this conversation.

  47. Wow, there are alot of comments about a restaurant experience! More serious subjects get maybe 2 or 3! (I know, we’re serious about food in Berkeley, but still!).

    I have only eaten at the cafe, and have only had a range of great, wow-types of meals to very good meals. I would go more often but even the cafe is not cheap, plus I like having CP as a place for special meals — don’t want to get too spoiled!

    I feel bad that the article’s authors have gotten beaten up a little bit here, although I agree that their high expectations are at least a significant part of their feelings of disappointment.

    Anyway, all in all, I continue to love CP and think they prepare wonderful exciting foods that while being simple are truly elegant and a thrill to my tastebuds.

  48. it’s hardly a wonder you didn’t enjoy your meal with so much time spent analyzing it and/or comparing it to places like Momfuko, in NYC–a completely different experience and locale. Also seems like somewhat of a cheap shot–is everyone out to vilify CP these days?

    CP doesn’t profess to be fancy or reinventing itself after every vogue moment in food, and that’s what makes it, to me, compelling. It’s about clean flavors, excellent produce, cooked in a simple fashion. The downstairs head chef has been cooking there for over 30 years-I guarantee you he is not tired, or outdated–I just cooked with him myself this past weekend, and he is very much a taste master. “He is the real deal,” as another chef (and highly rated himself by Bauer, etc) said to me following that night.

    That said, dining upstairs has always been delicious and wonderful and my preferred spot for sharing a meal out if I have the money to do so. And granted, when you are paying a hefty price for a dinner out (and one you have lots of expectations around), you want good service and good food, and I’m sorry that you felt like you had neither. it can happen at the best of restaurants, as we all know. But, rather than writing a public letter, why not send them a note, so they have the chance to improve themselves? Or better, yet, talk with the house manager right then and there?

    In the new wave of blogging and internet sharing, everyone thinks they are a restaurant critic. Blasting it across the universe can do great damage–perhaps not to CP-but definitely to smaller restaurants and family owned businesses. It also spurns hateful comments, some seen here above. Why not give them the opportunity to correct where they went wrong, and spark up a conversation? I think you would be better served next time by that small gesture.

    And for disclosure-I’m not a CP chef, or even a CP insider. But I do love good food and think CP has a delicious history worthy of its legacy.

  49. Maybe it’s because I live in Maine, but I never eat lobster outside of the state. It’s just not the same.

  50. CP is not a restaurant, it’s a shrine. As a shrine, though, it deserves its reputation fully, because, of course, this is the birthplace of California Cuisine and, by extension, an entirely new conception of food in America. As a restaurant, though, it has, in my opinion, always been very inadequate. Of course, because it is a shrine people give it tremendous leeway.

    First of all, there is the issue of the one prix fixe menu, with no choices of substitutions allowed. One is obliged to reserve often months in advance without any idea what will be served. What if the menu features an item you don’t particularly like? Tough.

    This makes CP less like a restaurant and more like a roadhouse. Let’s not forget that the first “restaurant” in the United States is commonly thought to be Delmonico’s in New York City, which was founded in the 1830’s. Clearly, there had been eateries for travelers before then, but the one aspect of Delmonico’s that raised it the status of restaurant was the fact that diners could choose their meals.

    Now, mind you, there is nothing especially objectionable about CP being a roadhouse, except, of course, when you consider the hefty price.

    In one way, CP is more of a legacy restaurant than anything else, not so different from Antoine’s or Galatoire’s in New Orleans. Nobody excepts a great meal in those places either, but you go to commune with an exciting chapter in American culinary history. The difference is that the grand Creole restaurants in the Big Easy celebrate the cuisine on the late nineteenth century, while CP celebrates the California Cuisine of the late sixties.

    At last, though, it is easier to have a good time at Antoine’s than at CP, where all the hushed reverence can be a little much.

    In another way–and this is perhaps even more confusing given CP’s status as a “foodie” shrine–CP is structurally more like a traditional American steakhouse than a true gourmet restaurant. At a steakhouse they serve a limited selection of dishes, all servd very simply. And you will pay an arm and a leg. Same at CP, although instead of grilled steak, it’s a simple selection of locavore food.

    I grew up in Berkeley (although I now live in Brooklyn) and have vivid memories of eating at CP as a teenager with my mother in the late seventies. On that first visit I still remember being shocked at the amount of gristle I found in my meat. I have been back to CP a few times since and have never had anything close to what I what consider a fine meal.

    Then there is the issue of the service, which is, frankly, pretty shocking. For those not well versed in the culture of Berkeley, the service is really just a reflection of the city itself. I would describe it as Berkeley aloof. Of course, there many other “aloofs” in the world, including, notably, Parisian aloof. What’s confusing to outsiders about Berkeley’s aloof is that most are expecting California friendly.

    I have literally had better meals at the Hyatt in Kansas City, at The American Restaurant, where standout chef Debbie Gold prepares far better locavore food at a fraction of the cost. Of course, without Alice Waters, Debbie Gold might be cooking beef stroganoff and creamed spinach, so Alice definitely deserves the credit for a sea change in our culinary culture.

    CP is a shrine to the New Jersey hippie francophile who became a restaurateur. While we can all disagree on how well she has pulled it off (I believe that CP is the most overrated restaurant I have ever eaten in) one thing is certain: She turned into a tremendous gold mine.

    Where else would people voluntarily reserve months in advance for a no-substitutions menu, have at best a so-so meal, suffer Berkeley aloof service, and pay $340 for two people. And the place is packed every night.

    Alice, you go girl!

  51. So, Salmon is forced to wait a few minutes before eating and subsequently trashes this place? Annoyingly elitist writing here.

  52. We eat at Chez Panisse often, and we’ve been going there for more than 15 years. If you’re not expecting it to be a trendy locavore paradise, the food is amazing, and I agree with the above comment about biting into something and having it be a transformative experience. I ate a fig there once, ten years ago, that I still think about. That more than makes up for the rare (VERY rare) thing I eat that doesn’t quite do what I think the chef was going for.

    (On a side note, a couple months ago we had an amazing dinner there — I had a piece of chicken that had been cooked under a brick, and it was easily the best chicken I’ve eaten in my life, sorry mom.)

    I don’t know that there’s a huge difference between upstairs and downstairs: we usually eat upstairs because we can get reservations a week in advance easily, and there’s a price premium for downstairs that we generally don’t want to pay. But downstairs has always been a special treat, at least for the end of the week seatings when the kinks in the week’s menu have been worked out. I love the characters you see downstairs; people who are there more for appearances than food eat downstairs, and the personal drama is why we opt for that.

    I’ve had my share of bad service experiences there (the last time we went, our waiter messed up our wine order), but the food always makes up for it. I think it might be different if I were expecting one visit to be the defining moment in my food life, or, frankly, if I were spending $340. Luckily, my first meal there was a peak experience, and I think it might have cost $150 for two (and that was downstairs).

    As for walking from downtown, it’s a weak New Yorker who can’t walk 6 blocks in heels. Honestly.

  53. I agree that the cafe at CP is the only viable option — but I had one of the worst meals ever for the price (which was substantial) at Baywolf — underseasoned, overcooked food served at below room temperature, swimming in cold, flavorless broth — it was a nightmare. I almost wrote them a letter of complaint (which I never do). Which I guess goes to show — any of these places, even when they’re good, have off nights. And off dishes — I went to Boulevard and had a duck and foie gras dish that made my stomach turn with its squishy texture. Wouldn’t go to any of those places again, frankly. I agree though with the notion of Oakland food as vastly superior to the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley. Try Cafe Flora in the art deco section of Telegraph — it’s awesome.

  54. Some of the best places to eat “in Berkeley” are actually in Oakland. Baywolf, for instance.

  55. I eat at the Cafe regularly, but my one trip to the formal dinning room left me completely underwhelmed. The cafe is good at what it does, but in the grand scheme of things, it too is only so noteworthy. I think that anyone who knows the greats of US dining — for instance, Jean Georges in NYC — can’t help but be disappointed at CP (or the Cafe, for that matter) if they come expecting anything approaching that type of culinary brilliance at CP. Local food and all the rest is a great contribution, but it alone does not a great restaurant make.

  56. I’ve been to CP once and did not have a great experience. You would have been much better off going to Corso. Better food and much closer to BART. I’m very excited to see a mention for Eleven Madison in NYC. I’ll be eating there in a few weeks!!

  57. I have always had wonderful experiences at Chez Panisse, but I have only ever eaten in the cafe. I am usually eating on a budget (even on a “splurge” meal like one at CP), so the cafe is my preferred choice for its flexibility in meal pricing. Like I said, I’ve never done the downstairs fixed menu, but I’ve never had a bad meal at the cafe upstairs!

  58. Thanks everyone for all the recommendations, we will try out some of these other places next time we’re in SF. I don’t expect this is the last time we ever go to CP, but next time upstairs, without a doubt. We had read some reviews before but the reservation had been made at that point, and yet we were still very optimistic.

    Felix and I are not so much as “foodies” as we are “serious eaters” (coined by the great food writer, Calvin Trillin). I’ll finish a meal and be thinking about my next meal – whether it be from the deli or soup dumplings in Chinatown. I love to eat. If you’re curious you can check out Felix’s blog where we sometimes record our kitchen mishaps:

    Oh, and the BART commute looked like it was doable from Google maps. We walk everywhere in NYC, I don’t blink at walking cross town. But sometimes we forget that 8-10 blocks in most other cities can be much longer blocks, indeed this was the case. Otherwise I would have sported flats!

  59. I’ve been to Chez Panisse three times and enjoyed it each time, but that said, it’s NOT the best restaurant in the Bay Area. I’d second Manresa, which everyone should go to.

  60. Sorry you didn’t enjoy your meal. Having lived in the East Bay for almost 20 years, I’ve probably eaten at the Chez a couple of dozen times, lunch and dinner. Can’t say I’ve ever had a bad meal there; conversely, I’ve always found the food quite excellent. I’m not a foodie, though, and I don’t give two hoots about the wine list. Fussing about the provenance of the wine seems silly, however–Slovenia was once part of Italy. Perhaps your expectations were a bit too high. Hope you flew first-class.

  61. On the walk from BART to Chez Panisse. It’s 0.6 miles from Downtown Berkeley and 1.1 miles from North Berkeley. I’ll leave it to others to judge whether that’s a schlep or an easy jaunt.

  62. Sorry to hear you guys were stymied by a combination of:
    a) poor service
    b) not doing your research

    Having lived in Berkeley for a few years and SF for a few years and eating at CP many many times, I have come to the following conclusions:

    1) Eating at the café (upstairs) is 500x better than downstairs. It’s the same kitchen, but upstairs it’s a la carte. All the locals eat upstairs, keeping the downstairs only for tourists. I’ve never had a service problem upstairs.

    2) Eating upstairs at the café is just about one of the best food deals in the US. You get access to some of the best sourced food in the world, yet entrees rarely cost more than $25 and many amazing dishes (e.g. simple pastas) start around $16 for entrees.

    3) I have never gone to Chez Panisse and not had a revelatory moment. There is always some point where you bite into something familiar (a grape, a leek, a plum) and suddenly your mind is blown. Alice has access to produce the way that no one else in the country does. She has relationships that go back decades so that when a certain farmer’s one special tree fruits, she gets first pick of the stock. When you are ordering at CP (and this is why upstairs is better than the prix fixe down), stick with local produce that is cooked simply. The $6 dessert fruit bowl that is always on the menu is often the most amazing dish in the house (despite the flack it gets). It sounds like you got this experience with your asparagus, but then your fixed menu took you off-track.

    Definitely go back next time you’re in SF. It is always worth it, and very very affordable. I’ve had dinner for 2 people, 3 courses, with wine for under $100.

    Oh, and North Berkeley BART is marginally closer than the downtown Berkeley stop.

  63. I’m surprised – although not really – that you would have held Chez Panisse up to the exalted standards you claimed. Its index at Zagat’s took a tumble a while ago. Among tasting menus, CP has certainly been eclipsed by Coi, French Laundry, Manresa, Dining Room at the Ritz, possibly even Gary Danko. It’s not got “one-star-with-a-bullet” status like Commis.

    Such a name, such history.

    I would rather eat next door at Cesar than CP, these days. A recent time that I ate at CP downstairs – maybe 5 years ago – I started with pre-dinner at Cesar, then ended up there for post-desert drinks. *That* was lavish.

    I feel a great debit to CP, especially upstairs. I remember first tasting Kumamotos there, and zinfandel sorbet, but the world has moved on. I would think cursory research would have told you that, and brought you in with more reasonable expectations.

  64. This article should be retitled “Self-Proclaimed NYC Foodies Think They’re Better Than Chez Panisse.”
    Also, spending half the article complaining about the location of Chez Panisse and your OWN poor planning is weak. You’re a New Yorker – you should be able to walk a few blocks without whining like a child. Get over yourself.

  65. I have eaten at CP since the early 90’s. Without exception the food and service have been laughably sub-par. This is the sad reality of the restaurant downstairs. I have eaten in more three stars than I can recall and have been cooking professionally for 30 years and no chef with any real credentials thinks the “chez” is anything more than pretend cooking. Sadly the cooks who leave there think they are qualified. That is the saddest joke.

  66. This whole discussion makes my teeth hurt. Get over yourselves, people! And Chez Panisse is an easy walk from Berkeley BART unless you’re in stiletto heels.

  67. I tried to book a reservation at Chez Panisse for our 5th Anniversary and thought 3 weeks was enough time, it wasn’t. Gladly, though, I booked a reservation at Gary Danko thank’s to tripadvisor. It was amazing and since it was a weekday, not too busy.

  68. Yeah, meh.

    I’ve been to cp only four or five times, mostly downstairs, for various special occasions. Overwhelmingly -not- memorable. Not bad. Just not memorable. And one time, excruciatingly achingly sleep-inducingly slow. I’m all for slow food. but we were there for four and a half hours and it wasn’t cuz we were having a time of it.

    I’m grateful that cp made my food everywhere tasty. I truly believe that they improved things for everyone. But I just can’t afford to spend money like that for food that (thanks to them) I can now get everywhere.

  69. we’ve had(years ago) 2 meals downstairs,both disappointing,but both offered my vegetarian husband a vegetarian menu. on both occassions we made pbj’s when we got home because we were still hungry. upstairs is a lot better, and we go frequently. the service, specially if they know you, is better,too. and the nettle pizza, salads, and fresh pasta terrific

  70. Hi Jasmine: We never expected Alice Waters to be in the restaurant’s kitchen. From all the food reading I’ve done over the years, writers have loved the experience of her simple, fresh food when she’s cooking for them in a one-on-one environment. But isn’t the restaurant suppose to reflect her style and cooking, with knowledgeable staff/good service? Obviously we know chefs come and go, and that night may have just been a bad one (like Charles wrote, perhaps he’s on his way out). We’ve all experienced that at various restaurants. But our intention was have a special meal for Felix’s birthday, one we traveled for, so our let-down was probably greater than people who live close by and eat there on a regular basis.

    It’s nice to see the debate going though, and perhaps something for people traveling from out of town to consider. Once we read several blogs/reviews after, it was evident the majority of folks like the café and skip the restaurant. Fair enough.

  71. FYI, it’s a major misconception that Alice Waters would ever be in the kitchen cooking. Alice Waters is not the Chez Panisse chef, indeed, she’s not a chef at all, nor has she ever been. She’s the owner of the restaurant.

  72. As an ex- east bay resident and present New Yorker, i truly do not think the downtown Shattuck stop is that far of a walk from CP. definitley no longer than my walk from York Ave to the 6 line. And you get to walk past Virginia Bakery. Having been to CP a couple of times, it is mostly good, simple food- but i am sure there are inconsistencies. At the same time, there are SO many good restaurants in Berkeley and SF that meet and often beat new york.

  73. They should have rented a car and driven down to Manresa in Los Gatos. David Kinch is just as dedicated to sustainable local ingredients, with fabulous creativity in his dishes as well.

  74. We have had great food every time we’ve been, both up and downstairs. We went on Valentine’s 2009 and it will be one of the most memorable meals in my life in terms of service and execution. The service could be better in general but I’m there primarily for the food. The 17% service charge is noted on the menu.

    To Tricia: Local food isn’t necessarily cheap, especially when its all organic. I go to the Berkeley’s organic famers market on Thursday and buy from the farms Chez Panisse uses, and its NOT cheap. It tastes great but you pay the premium. The fixed menu price maxes at $95 for Thurs-Sat I think. Not cheap by any means, but they writers did have wine which could have been $50-$75 of their total bill.
    In theory are paying for the Chef’s expertise in addition to just the food costs, but unfortunately it sounds like they were not on their A game.
    From my experience its been worth the money to eat at CP, but everyone values things differently.

  75. Adrian–
    Agree with you on the call regarding Movia winery (fantastic producer of wines by the way. I’m enamoured of a great deal of what Ales produces there, although as of late, he seems to be heading a bit towards the deep end of madness with a few of his projects). The Italian/Slovenian border has been maleable over the course of time so it wouldn’t necessarily improper to call wineries in the area both Italian and Slovenian.

  76. The Italian-Slovenian border splits the Movia “estate”, so some grapes are grown on the Slovenian side, others on the Italian side. Waiter should have just sold the Pinot Nero as Slovenian…I would have been more specific in calling out the waiter. That’s just either laziness on the part of the waiter, or poor training, which would be the wine director’s fault.

  77. CP’s finest days are long behind and really hasn’t added anything of note (aside from joke fodder) to the food conversation in ages. Yes, Water’s has done wonders of the course of her career to encourage locavorism, and this has become a standard practice with an entire sector of restaurants, who now provide this service in a far better way than Alice ever did.

    CP should be viewed as a museum, a historical landmark where a sginificant change in our eating future was forever changed. But then again, do you ever really expect to get great food in a museum?

  78. Andy: it was a champagne cocktail, to be accurate. And it was good! If the Maine lobster was tongue-in-cheek, that is a very clever chef’s joke.

  79. You also happened to be there the last night of one of the chefs downstairs. Being as he is rumored to be moving to New England, sustainable Maine lobsters was tongue-in-cheek.

    Chez does what its been doing since its inception and extremely well. I’m afraid people associate the food with Alice waters and at this point its unfair and your going to be hyper critical. The food is delicious every time I’ve been, and its been a lot.

  80. I am curious about the “cocktails” they ordered while waiting. They only have beer and wine on my infrequent visits with insistent out of towners. I was once told by the barkeep that I wasn’t supposed to numb my taste buds with my usual vodka rocks, which is kinda funny because vodka has no taste.
    Have they changed their policy, or do they just not serve me alcohol?

  81. It has been three years since my last meal there, but my experiences at Chez Panisse have been nothing but exemplary. Both food and service have been occasions to remember.

  82. I prefer the upstairs cafe. Food is the same, you just get to choose what you want -you get less of it and there is less attitude. However the sevice does seem to be slipping the past couple years — the last time I went to the cafe they tried to charge us for 3 bottles of wine instead of the 2 we ordered.

  83. Chez Panisse has become a wildly inconsistent restaurant, both in food and service. I have so many bad experiences there over the past ten years or so, that memories of its former glory can no longer entice me through its doors. It used to be something vital and important in the life of our town and will always have an important place in the history of late twentieth century cuisine.

    But its current inconsistency and indifference to its patrons comfort is just appalling.

  84. It’s been up & down for me. The cafe is a better bet, I find. I go there from time to time and will continue to do so as mostly it’s more up than down.

    That said, there are places I like more in Berkeley. CP is a landmark, but expensive and hardly the only place for good food in Berkeley.

  85. I’ve been to Chez Panisse three times and have never had a good experience. Once, I actually got ill.

    The upstairs cafe, on the other hand, is a great spot for a rainy-day lunch or dinner with friends. The food is equally as fresh as downstairs, but you can choose your meal from a full menu (vegetarian dishes available). The ambiance is casual and enjoyable.

    Honestly though, there are so many great restaurants in Berkeley that I’d skip Chez Panisse all together and try Venus, Gather, Rivoli, Lalimes, Corso or any other number of amazing spots that serve fresh, organic, seasonal, local foods a’la Alice but without the pretense.

  86. The couple could have mapped the walk from BART to CP ; )

    I’ve had up and down experiences at CP. Sometimes it is divine, sometimes it is underwhelming. The staff can be excellent and forgetful at the same time.

    I’m not sure where CP fits in or what it wants to be. After one particularly poor meal some years ago I wrote them a letter stating that it felt like a tired restaurant aimed primarily at tourists. It feels like it needs a refresh of sorts. It needs to be re-invented/updated after so many years. It seems to need a leader, a “Steve Jobs” of sorts. It needs a daily Alice Waters to set and maintain the vision on a daily basis.

    We prefer the cafe to the downstairs. The downstairs is too haughty.

    That said, I will still go again and again. There are other very good restaurants in Berkeley, but none the same as CP.

  87. The food at Chez Panisse is very simple. It is cooked so to present its flavors and freshness. I am not surprised they felt let down. The food is good but not very interesting, especially compared to some other Bay Area restaurants like Boulevard. But that’s what Alice Waters is all about — simplicity.

  88. Yountville. CP is long past being anything but a name, although the cafe is good for a casual lunch.

  89. I’ve been wanting to go to Chez Panisse for a very long time as well. Now that I have a real example of the dining experience I’m wary of going! Plus, what does a vegetarian with with a menu like that? The expense of the meal seems totally bonkers. I guess Michelle & Felix also had to pay for the airfare of the lobsters on top of their own air travel. If food is local it should be reflected in the prices. That seems a bit outrageous.