The entrance to Chez Panisse on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. | CALTON/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
BY DONNA MINKOWITZ | There’s a moment in Ruth Reichl’s memoir “Comfort Me With Apples” when she describes dining for the first time at Alice Waters’ Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. There is “a forkful of silken veal in a sauce made of thick, sweet cream. ‘Try this, darling,’’ her German father tells her. “‘It tastes like my childhood.’” Transported, he recites a line from Goethe under his breath. Ruth also eats “the best bread ever served in America,” and tells how, during another dinner, her idol Waters slips a grape into her mouth. “Sweet, intense, slightly perfumed, the flavor resonated in my mouth for [an] hour… Alice Waters can offer you one single bite that blows you right away.”
Chez Panisse has been called the country’s best restaurant, and it’s famous for being the first — since 1971 — to focus on absolutely fresh, organic, and seasonal food, with everything made from scratch and a close connection to the farms that source ingredients. In fact, the place began a revolution in American cooking whose repercussions have been felt in every area of the country, even in unlikely realms like fast food and school lunches. Before Chez Panisse, even the swankiest joints often relied on frozen and canned produce, meat, and seafood.
I have always longed to eat there. I imagined the “mushroom soup so intense and untamed that it was exciting rather than soothing” that Reichl once imbibed, and the “light-as-air sheep’s milk ricotta” another critic, Jessica Yadegaran, once sucked down.
Chez Panisse: decades of longing, then an odd L-shaped table
Finally I finally got my chance. I was visiting San Francisco. I had my (hard to get) reservation in hand. I had decided years ago that the enormous amount of money would be worth it. With tax and 17 percent “service charge” but without drinks, the set four-course menu comes to $110 per person most nights.
On the phone, CP’s reservationist haughtily volunteered that the service charge paid for worker pensions, which, of course, I entirely support. In fact, the restaurant is known not just for its cooking, but for the allegedly wonderful treatment of its workers. (Later, wine director Jonathan Waters — no relation to Alice — who said he was acting as a spokesperson for Chez Panisse, told me that the restaurant does not actually have “pensions,” but a regular 401(k) plan for which it matches employee contributions.) The service charge is used (among other things) to pay for all the benefits accorded to every staffer: medical, dental, and vision insurance, paid vacation, and a yearly bonus that, Waters said, redistributes most of the profits. So it was with the heart of a hopeful, progressive foodie that I appeared at Alice Waters’ temple, after a long walk from the BART rapid transit, to walk in the door of the frankly odd-looking place. It is a grotto on stilts, with blue windows.
I entered. And stood getting hot in my coat and hat among the seated diners for a full 10 minutes, until someone finally greeted me. (There was no line, and the waiting area was empty; all seats in the main restaurant are by reservation only and I was right on time.) At last, one of the waiters paused from his busy duties to say, “Maurice will be right with you.” Five minutes passed before Maurice, whoever he was, finally was willing to notice me, seating me at a strange, L-shaped table facing cheerless wood paneling. The lightless, cramped space felt like someone’s depressing basement, and the surrealness of it all was heightened when my French-accented waiter handed me a queer little printed keepsake menu with a bad drawing of squashes on front, looking for all the world like a junior high school graduation program.
But when I asked the waiter to explain the difference between two of the sparkling wines by the glass, he was great. With succinctness and erudition, he said, “Oh, the Montlouis is really different from the cava, it’s much less heavy and brassy, although it’s lovely. Flowery.” Based on that description, I had it with my meal, and it was one of the best and most unusual white wines I’ve ever had, creamy and aromatic. (It is a nonvintage French wine from Francois Chidaine.)
My waiter — let’s call him Henri — delivered spiced olives and bread and butter along with the glass of Montlouis. The olives were okay. The bread, however, shocked me by being tasteless, white, and cold. I have had better bread in the bread basket at the cruddiest Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. The butter might have been Hotel Bar Butter for all it tasted like anything I wanted to eat. The only time I eat bread and butter is when I go to restaurants. Here, it was so not worth it that I had a brief consultation with myself and decided not to spend the calories.
Each dinner at Chez Panisse has a new set menu, with no substitutions allowed unless a diner wants an all-vegetable meal. My appetizer for the evening was, according to my printed keepsake, “Roasted shrimp-stuffed Monterey Bay squid with garden salad.” I tried it. Somehow, chef Jerome Waag had made squid, so often in danger of rubberiness, exquisitely thin, tender, and luscious around its vivid inside bites of shrimp. The ethereal squid was like a dumpling wrapper around its lush and sexy shrimp core. I wish I were eating some right now.
Next was the soup course: “Fall vegetable and Chino Ranch shell bean soup, flavored with rosemary and Parmesan.” The shell beans and Parmesan were tasty, but the soup was overpowered by an intense, overly acidic, tomato-paprika flavor. I had a few hopeful spoonfuls, but didn’t want to finish it even though I was still quite hungry. I sucked down my French sparkling wine and ordered another.
At a nearby table, a woman had brought her elderly, obviously ailing mother for what was clearly supposed to be a special meal.
“Isn’t it good, Mom?”
“MOM! ISN’T THE SOUP GOOD!”
The small restaurant was full of such groups of two and three, all painfully aware of wanting this to be a great moment in their eating lives. I can understand why — the place costs so much, and my fellow diners seemed to be eco-conscious, true believers in humane meats and well-paid dishwashers, not the one percent who usually spend that much on a meal. Families spoke in hushed tones and asked the waiter to take their picture. The ones who had ordered lots of wine seemed happiest.
Alas, my entrée, “Grilled Becker Lane pork loin,” was dry as dust, tough, and bland. The pork was barely touched with sauce, and I didn’t finish it, either. The chestnuts supposed to be served alongside were nowhere to be found. The “wilted greens” also on the plate were nothing special: steamed cooked greens. The “parsnip and celery root purée,” however, had a velvety texture and an extraordinary, appealing flavor that made me want to go on eating it all night; I wished the entire meal had been like that.
An “Apple-quince jalousie tart” rounded out the meal. “Jalousie” referred to the lattice crust on top. It tasted, er, like a rather bad apple pie with a store-bought crust, not buttery at all and tasting a little like cardboard. The cup of decaf I got with it was indifferent and a little weak.
It was with a sadness in my step that I walked back to the BART, looking for an open artisanal deli along the way so I could get something to eat. Except for the most utilitarian venues, restaurant dining is probably always about fantasy — the fantasy of a garden of earthly delights, of almost inconceivable pleasures. The fantasy of having all your wants fulfilled, and of being treated like a honored guest (or king). A pretty good percentage of the restaurants I go to in New York fulfill some of these fantasies, and some fulfill nearly all. CP fulfilled almost none of mine. I understand that it might be hard for any eatery to live up to my expectations of Alice Waters’ place, but for $110 per person I expected at least that most of the food would taste good.
By my experience, at least, Chez Panisse seems to have become a museum piece, more invested in its own prestige and history than in making delicious food or making diners feel at home. In the end, Waters’ vision may have changed the American food scene so well that many good restaurants in cities and suburbs are now far better than Chez Panisse.
So if you want to support the food revolution she began, donate to East New York Farms or to the Coalition for Immokalee Workers. End subsidies for corporate agribusiness, and ban factory farming. Don’t eat at Chez Panisse.
Chez Panisse (chezpanisse.com), at 1517 Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, is wheelchair accessible.