A birthday cake and a perfect bowl of fruit to end a wonderful meal at Chez Panisse.
Chez Panisse’s chocolate pave cake and famous fruit bowl dessert. Credit: Kate Currier

Aug. 28, 1971 is a notable date in local lore: That night, Berkeley’s Chez Panisse served its first meal. The Alice Waters-helmed restaurant invented the contemporary concept of farm-to-table dining and helped the world realize that eating seasonal and local food isn’t just a way to improve things for the earth, it can be an artistic pursuit in the kitchen and a luxury in the dining room.

It’s likely that Chez Panisse has been planning for its 50th anniversary for years. After all, its 40th was quite the affair, but this year’s plans (like so many these past 18 months) were thwarted by the pandemic — the same pandemic that’s kept the restaurant dark since March 2020. 

Other than a special takeout menu (more on that in a minute), Chez Panisse’s commemoration is extremely subdued. Here at Nosh, we’re following that lead, with an appreciation of the restaurant’s enduring beauty from one of our longstanding contributors, a suggestion on how to mark the event at home, and some recommendations of Chez Panisse feature writing to enjoy.

Let’s plan for a real party for when the restaurant reopens in October. — Eve Batey, Nosh interim editor

The sign at Chez Panisse. Credit: John Metcalfe

The enduring beauty of Chez Panisse

Joanna Della Penna, who writes the monthly openings and closings roundups for Nosh, reflects on the restaurant’s first half century.

Chez Panisse turns 50 on Saturday and one day very soon, so will I. One of us looks great for their age, and it’s more than a little unfair. 

Rooted in scrappy, counterculture, wing-and-a-prayer California beginnings (something else that we share), Chez Panisse should show the hard-earned patina of half a century: Years of ambitious cooks, demanding customers and critics, tireless service and attention to detail, excellence on the plate — not to mention the continued fight for agricultural sustainability and seasonality, and persistence against fast-food culture.

The restaurant has overcome two fires, and now Chez Panisse and its younger, upstairs cafe face, with poise, a seemingly endless pandemic that has leveled the industry. After five decades of toil, scrutiny, crisis and celebrity, no matter how good the restaurant’s bones, they should creak. 

But instead, Chez Panisse presides over Shattuck Avenue, the lovely exterior and polished interiors (currently closed but we know they still gleam) fresh and elegant, like one of the perfectly ripened fruits on the menu.

The “mother” that has borne a food movement and dozens of notable chefs and talents still presents as a hopeful mademoiselle rather than a weathered grande dame.

And let’s be honest, a similar youthful spirit can be attributed to Chez Panisse’s indefatigable, famous local owner. Is the secret seasonal food? Berkeley magic? I like to hope so. But maybe it’s just good genes.

At a weary time when any restaurant anywhere is lucky to last a year, let’s appreciate our own enduring neighborhood icon that continues to inspire the world after 50. Happy birthday, Chez Panisse. Thanks for classing up the place, and for giving the rest of us motivation to persevere, creaks and all. — Joanna Della Penna

A pedestrian walks past the entrance of Chez Panisse on an early Sunday morning. October 25, 2020.
A pedestrian walks past the entrance of Chez Panisse. Credit: Pete Rosos

A subdued celebration

Chez Panisse won’t be hosting any special events this weekend. A spokesperson for Chez Panisse told Nosh that Waters will “share celebratory remarks among close friends and family of Chez Panisse” at 10 a.m. Saturday, but that’s not an address that’s open to the public. 

The closest to any sort of shindig is this week’s Chez Panisse Sunday Market, its weekly outdoor shopping event. In addition to the usual local produce, pantry staples, wine and baked goods the event always offers, this week expect live music from noon-3 p.m. [Ed note: this piece originally noted that free ice cream would also be offered, but a spokesperson for Alice Waters contacted Nosh Thursday evening to say that they have decided against the ice cream portion of the event “because we were afraid it might attract more people than are safe during COVID.” — EB]

In addition, Chez Panisse’s Sunday take out menu is a special “birthday celebration” lineup of Chez Panisse favorites and treats. The menu is below, orders can be placed here at noon on Friday, for pickup Sunday from noon-3 p.m.

Hungry for more?

Chez Panisse has inspired miles of column inches mulling its origins and enduring influence. Here’s a tasting menu of some of its sweet, savory and salty coverage:

Joanna Della Penna

Freelancer Joanna Della Penna has written about food, people and the arts in the Bay Area since moving here from the East Coast in 2001, and was Gayot's Northern California regional restaurant editor for...