Chez Panisse, the legendary Shattuck Avenue restaurant that helped found the California cuisine food movement, is hoping to open a new restaurant in the East Bay within the coming months.
It’s news that should fill the hearts of the restaurant’s many fans with joy, the idea that Alice Waters’s iconic, 50-year-old business isn’t just surviving, it’s expanding during one of the most difficult periods American restaurants have ever known.
But it’s not that simple. To open this spot, it must first evict 24-year-old Berkeley tapas bar César. The plan has roiled some prominent members of the community, with many hoping Chez Panisse will decide against the expansion and keep César where it is.
Like Chez Panisse, César has long been considered a groundbreaker. When it opened in 1998, the full-service bar served tapas and Spanish food long before the cuisine was in vogue, and it became known as a place where its cocktails and food were both thoughtfully prepared and of high quality — a rarity back then, when bar food in Berkeley was more likely to be an afterthought of wings or fries.
César’s close ties to Chez Panisse went beyond just being next-door neighbors. Richard Mazzera (a 12-year veteran of Chez Panisse), Dennis Lapuyade (eight years at Chez Panisse) and Stephen Singer (Alice Waters’s ex-husband and father of Fanny Singer, the pair’s 38-year-old daughter) were the founders of the spot, giving it a name within the cinematic universe that Chez Panisse also occupies. You’ll find both those names, and Fanny’s, as well, in Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille Trilogy, a series of French films from the 1930s.
Pagnol’s characters, “Panisse and César, were best friends. They fought bitterly sometimes, but they were thick as thieves,” Jim Mellgren told Nosh. He’s a longtime bartender at César and co-author of the restaurant’s 2003 cookbook, César: Recipes from a Tapas Bar. He also acts as the restaurant’s spokesperson, and is leading the charge against César’s closure.
When Chez Panisse opened in 1971, in the converted house at 1517 Shattuck Ave., the neighboring building at 1515 Shattuck wasn’t even a restaurant, according to Mellgren. Eventually, the business in it closed, and Chez Panisse (or Waters, depending on who you ask — many folks speak of the two interchangeably, even though Chez Panisse is a business run by a board of directors) signed a lease for the structure with landlord Pui Wong. Chez Panisse then subleased the space to César, and has continued that arrangement for the last 24 years.
Current landlord Hosanna Wong told Nosh that Chez Panisse originally signed the lease with his father, Pui, and when his dad passed the family property business to him, it’s Chez Panisse that he’s always dealt with regarding the space. “They’re the ones who send us the rent checks,” Wong said. “And about a year ago, they let us know that they’d be taking the space back.”
Mellgren said that that’s when César first learned that its days were numbered. Its agreement with Chez Panisse is a renewable five-year lease, and the next five-year term was set to kick off in July 2021. Instead, he said, Chez Panisse told them they wouldn’t be renewing, but after some back-and-forth César got a yearlong extension.
According to Mellgren, “we explored our legal options,” but there wasn’t much to do, and by the end of the year they’d started telling patrons that by July 2022, they’d have to shut down.
Mary D. Broderick has lived in the neighborhood near both restaurants since the 1980s. She’s one of many residents who say they’ve written letters to Chez Panisse, asking them to rethink the proposed expansion. “You have always been a person who in public has talked about community bonding and I am sure you know this is what César has been for many of us for many years,” she wrote. “I do hope that you do keep your commitment to our community in your actions.”
Mellgren remains hopeful that public outcry will prompt Chez Panisse to reverse course. He told Nosh that he spoke to Waters over the weekend regarding her plans for the new restaurant, and said he left the conversation feeling frustrated and like “she doesn’t get what makes this place so special. … She could decide today not to do this and be a hero.”
It’s unlikely that it’s that easy, however. As previously mentioned, Chez Panisse has a board of directors, a board that presumably voted to end its agreement with César and open a new business. Sure, Waters holds undeniable sway over the board, but few big moves made by Chez Panisse are hers alone these days.
Waters told Mellgren that she wanted to “raise the level of everything there,” he said, including bringing her extremely high standards of organic and sustainable food sourcing to the new business. “She wants it to be French, and to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he said.
Varun Mehra, Chez Panisse’s general manager, couldn’t confirm any specifics on Chez Panisse’s new restaurant to Nosh on the record. In a written statement, he told Nosh that “it is too early to share a detailed concept or new name,” but said that “we know that the space will continue to be a welcoming bar with delicious food.”
According to Mellgren, Waters also told him that she wanted to retain César’s full, current staff at the new restaurant, but that he didn’t know how soon Chez Panisse would open after they reclaimed the property “and we can’t expect everyone to just wait.” In response, Mehta wrote that “since the announcement of [César’s] closure, we have reiterated our commitment to the staff of César who would like to continue on in this new chapter. We look forward to soon having the opportunity to present a more specific proposal for the individuals working there.”
It’s a tough situation to get your head around. Typically, the news that Chez Panisse, arguably one of the best-loved restaurants in Northern California — a spot that’s remained dark throughout much of the pandemic, prompting some to speculate that it might never reopen — is opening a new restaurant would be huge news, a breathless headline in every food publication that matters.
But, instead, there’s this cloud over it. For this new restaurant to live, another must die. “We’re a successful, viable business, beloved by the community,” Mellgren said, the bemusement clear in his voice. “We just want to continue doing what we do.”