I Want Chez Panisse to Be the Best Restaurant in California
Just a little rolling with the cultural punches
I love California. I identify as Californian. I’m a filthy hippie and a bright-eyed striver. I was born in San Francisco. I’m familiar with every bit of Chez Panisse lore and will shout at anyone who doesn’t get how innovative it was when it opened. I am a big fan of everyone I know who worked there. Its importance to California culture can’t be overstated.
You know more or less where this is going. I ate at the restaurant (not the upstairs cafe) for the first time and it was so disappointing I wanted to push the whole building into the Bay.
In his coverage of Chez Panisse, the LA Times’ Bill Addison wrote “I’d settled into my seat anticipating transcendent, almost otherworldly intensity from every bite. Instead I endured mere perfection.” Lucky him.
In terms of the food, my meal there was fine. Nothing special, but fine. But it doesn’t matter, because my dining companion, who has food allergies, was served a series of half-dishes and insulting substitutions that made the $250 cost actually offensive. (My dining companion is my boyfriend. Later on in the trip we went to an outpost of the Super Duper Burger chain and laughed about how much more welcoming it was than Chez Panisse. But I’m ride and kill, so I’m the one still upset about the lack of hospitality.)
I read the SF Chronicle’s Soleil Ho’s writings on the restaurant after my visit, and this made me choke: “I’d brought a friend with a gluten allergy and was impressed with the ease with which the staff accommodated: in lieu of an apple galette, out came a raft of crisp meringue. (‘That meringue was life changing!’ my friend kept yelling in the car back to San Francisco.) In fact, my friend’s two squares of sheep’s milk ricotta salata doused with olio nuovo outshone the gluten-blessed gougeres I’d received by a mile and change.”
This is upsetting because our own restrictions were “accommodated” by removing items from the plates. Most egregious was the pasta with smoked cod and creme fraiche. As you can imagine, the creme fraiche is needed to balance the smoked cod. Imagine a pile of dry noodles and smoked fish, no sauce. Does it sound good? It tastes worse.
When you make a reservation at Chez Panisse online, the form requests that you list any food allergies. So I did that, outlining the egg yolks and dairy that my boyfriend can’t eat. I called to confirm that the notes were received. The server asked about restrictions when we sat down, but I figured they just liked to cover their bases.
No, turns this was the first the kitchen had heard of the restrictions. Or at least that’s the impression we got, based on what it served.
The amuse bouche came on endive instead of buttered toast, the salad arrived without the listed cheese, the pasta - the most egregious, truly just half the dish - we’ve discussed, and the dessert … he got a scoop of sorbet, with a fruit sauce.
As mentioned above, Addison and Ho, greater lights than I, have written that the restaurant doesn’t live up to its cultural legacy. Being someone who reads food media, I had tempered expectations. They weren’t met even then, but they were tempered. I think of someone who saved up for a dinner at Chez Panisse, believing - completely reasonably - the hype, and being served what we were served. What a punch to the face. Without knowing how important it was and still is, Chez Panisse would be an evening of total disappointment: at this point, the history and the context are the only interesting parts.
The service is good at Chez Panisse, but it’s impossible to feel totally at ease when you’re served less food than everyone else because you have an allergy. (Speaking of feeling welcome, a ramp could have been installed on the front steps by now.)
It’s difficult to figure why management is making the decision to offer not-great food. (And it is a management decision - as with any business, bosses choose where to allocate resources.) Why, rather than maintaining Chez Panisse’s status as a leading light, have they decided to be better than mediocre … but not too much better? This is a restaurant that has served food that actually changed people’s lives. Unusual greens! Stank cheeses! Desserts that defy chemistry!
I care about the legacy. I care about it a lot. The first house I lived in is just a few blocks away from the restaurant, and my Berkeley cred is a little point of pride for me. I want people to go “oooo” when I tell them I spent my babyhood in the shadow (literally and culturally) of Chez Panisse.
Founding owner Alice Waters was truly a revolutionary in the 1970s, and there’s no need to stop being innovative. It’s time to rethink, if only to burnish Chez Panisse’s reputation and quality. A little more kitchen pizazz, and a lot more inclusivity, would go a long way. The west coast is the best coast, but we have to keep flexing.
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This newsletter is edited by Katherine Spiers, host of the podcast Smart Mouth.
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Oh geez, what a disappointment. Due to price point/reputation I would've expected them to be top-notch at accommodating dietary restrictions and it's sad to hear that the experience fell so short.
I hate to say it, having never dined there, but I think you have ample evidence that the management isn't all that invested in serving the best meal possible, but ARE interested in trading on a name a reputation built decades ago. Some old restaurants still have it...and some don't.