Chez Panisse delays reopening indefinitely

Berkeley’s most famous restaurant now says it hopes to reopen sometime in 2022.

At a small event to commemorate Chez Panisse’s 50th anniversary on Aug. 28, 2021, founder Alice Waters spoke joyfully about the restaurant’s future, but did not specify its reopening timeline. Credit: Eve Batey

Chez Panisse the 50-year-old Berkeley restaurant credited with redefining California cuisine and making “farm-to-table” a culinary buzzword, will not reopen as planned in October, it announced Wednesday. Instead, it will reopen sometime in 2022, at a date yet to be announced.

The world famous restaurant, which was co-founded by author and food activist Alice Waters in 1971, has for decades been known as one of the toughest-to-get reservations in the region. It closed its doors to diners when the pandemic began, eventually offering a lunch and dinner takeout menu and starting up a popular Sunday open-air market

Speaking with Nosh last November, general manager Varun Mehra said that the dine-in closure was largely due to the restaurant’s architecture, as diners gather in close quarters and with little ventilation — both significant issues given how COVID-19 spreads. When the pandemic appeared to ease in June (remember those halcyon days?), Chez Panisse management figured that within a few months, it would be safe to finally reopen. But they, like the rest of us, didn’t count on the delta variant, the reluctance of many to get vaccinated against the virus and the resulting new wave of infections that’s spread across the U.S.

Rumors that Chez Pannise’s plans might change started swirling in August, when staffers asked about the reopening at the restaurant’s 50th anniversary gathering deflected questions on when reservations would be available. When restaurant founder Alice Waters addressed the crowd at the event, she spoke vaguely of eventually welcoming diners back, but failed to mention a definitive reopening timeline. 

A few days later, Chez Panisse said that since it still had “many decisions to make around our plans to reopen the dining room in October … we are not taking any reservations yet.” This week, it announced those decisions, writing that “we have been maneuvering towards this complicated decision around the reopening of our dining room” and that “our next target is to open both the restaurant and café shortly after the new year. We do not have an exact date to announce yet.”

According to the announcement, a variety of factors are at play regarding the pause in reopening. In addition to general concerns around health and safety for workers and their family members, Chez Panisse cited “unpredictable school closures and required quarantines as they relate to staffing, restrictive and constantly changing safety protocols, the financial challenges of reduced capacity,” and “ the expense of unexpectedly being forced to close” as reasons the restaurant would not reopen in October. 

And, again, there’s the issue of its cozy and comfortable building, which was once so inviting but now might pose perils. “Chez Panisse is housed in an old craftsman bungalow with low ceilings and a few small windows,” the restaurant wrote.” We have installed a new air ventilation system for the back of the café, but in many areas of the restaurant, our options are quite limited.”

The goal, the restaurant wrote, is “to re-open permanently, steadily and without interruption,” something that it doesn’t believe is possible at present. “The ideal scenario this fall is that COVID cases drop, vaccines become available to younger children, and the restaurant industry settles into these new cultural paradigms.” 

Until then, Chez Panisse will continue its takeout program and Sunday market, at least through the end of 2021. At some point after that, Chez Panisse wrote, “we will eventually open despite the great uncertainty that many of us currently still feel,” but the restaurant is “looking forward to what is ahead, even if it takes a bit longer to get there.”

Eve Batey is Berkeleyside's interim Nosh editor. Email: eve@berkeleyside.org.