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Food-lovers from all over the world make the pilgrimage to the renowned Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café. Housed in a charming Craftsmen house on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, Chez Panisse has become an institution of eating in America. And so I found myself there, walking the same steps as countless others, to lunch at the café recently.
Seasonal, sustainable and local are the mantras of Chez Panisse, and choosing ingredients that follow these standards are what have earned the restaurant, café and their owner, Alice Waters, well-deserved fame. After traveling in France three decades ago, Waters noticed how familiar the French were with where their food came from, eating mostly what was in season from local farmers.
In 1971 she opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley and slowly started a revolution in how America eats. Over time, the restaurant and café have found farmers and ranchers that are dedicated to sustainable agriculture and fresh ingredients. The meals at Chez Panisse revolve around these foods, so there are no flashy sauces or intricate presentations, just the highest quality produce, meat and fish cooked simply to bring out the best flavors.
Up the steps from the street, one comes to a sheltered deck with benches for waiting and a wisteria vine for shade. Diners thrilled to have made the reservation list snap pictures of each other on the benches and others mill about waiting for their turn at a table. Inside, stairs lead up to the café, which is open for lunch and dinner. The entrance to the more formal restaurant is just inside the door on the first floor. Through windows I can see the restaurants’ crew hard at work on prep for tonight’s dinner. Meanwhile, I climb the stairs to my own table and the long-awaited lunch.
The dining area is long and narrow with a counter and open kitchen on one side. Diners and wait staff perform a calculated dance enabling them to pass each other in the crowded space without colliding. I am shown to a table at the rear of the building, cozily tucked in amongst a row of tables with a banquette for seating. An eye-level strip of mirror runs the perimeter of the room right above the banquette, lending a view of the restaurant to diners facing the wall. Warm wood tones, natural light from high windows and interesting paintings lend a relaxed atmosphere.
True to Waters’ philosophy, my fig salad with hazelnuts, figs and pecorino tossed with rocket (arugula) was spare and simple. The figs and roasted nuts were a good counterpart to the sharp shavings of pecorino. Fried oysters and shrimp with celery root and watercress salad was a gutsier dish with sparkling fresh, briny seafood fried to crisp perfection paired with a slaw-like celery root salad and remoulade sauce on the side. Other appetizer offerings include local sardines on toast, several other salads, a pizza from the wood-burning oven and a celery soup with savory.
For my main course I ordered wood-oven-baked California sea bass with lush shell beans. Capers and thin slices of perfectly ripened heirloom tomato punctuated the starchy, delicious beans. Sitting atop it all was a large filet of white bass, golden on top from the hot oven. It was mild and velvety in texture, which was the perfect companion to the late summer vegetables alongside it. Another wonderful offering includes Bellwether Farm ricotta and spinach ravioli with chanterelle mushrooms and hand-cut noodles with tomato, pesto and ricotta. The bill of fare also included a three-course tasting menu, standard in both of Waters’ restaurants.
To finish, a large bowl of fresh ginger ice cream with chocolate sauce and cookies was brought to the table. The spicy, satin-like ice cream enrobed in bittersweet chocolate was a study in indulgence accompanied by two crinkly chocolate cookies. It was a satisfying way to finish the meal.
Vegetarians will find several things on the daily café menu to fulfill their hunger, although for vegans the selection is limited to mostly salads. Still, if the opportunity arises to visit Chez Panisse Café, I suggest taking it regardless of your dietary needs. It’s a historic place that celebrates the good food grown in the Bay Area.