Folks passing through the North Berkeley district formerly known as the Gourmet Ghetto saw a familiar Bay Area activity Tuesday — a protest and picket line, complete with flags and signs. But this protest wasn’t about police misconduct or a foreign war. On Tuesday, East Bay residents came out to support César, that 24-year-old tapas spot and bar, which is set to be evicted by its next-door neighbor, Chez Panisse.
The narrative hasn’t changed much since Nosh first broke the story in January. César, a beloved Spanish restaurant co-founded by a group of Chez Panisse veterans and the then-husband of Chez Panisse co-founder Alice Waters, will close in July, as Waters hopes to open her own bar in the space.
There’s not much César can do to fight the closure. Chez Panisse is the leaseholder of the 1515 Shattuck Ave. building César occupies, and, according to longtime César bartender Jim Mellgren, its owners explored every legal option they had after getting word of the eviction last year. The law was pretty clear, though, and Chez Panisse has every right to show César the door.
It’s a situation that frustrates Kara Quinty, a César employee for the past four years. She says she applied again and again to work at César, and was thrilled when the bar finally had an opening for her. “It’s actually funny,” she told me Tuesday. “César offered to hire me right after I interviewed at Chez Panisse, which offered me a job, too. I had to pick.”
Even now, Quinty says she’s happy that she made the choice she did. “I did a list of pros and cons,” she said, “and I knew I’d make a lot more money at Chez Panisse. But this vibe at César is impeccable. I had to choose mental health and happiness over money.”
Quinty said that she’s been coming in on her days off to organize Tuesday’s protest, making signs and posters and “finding other ways to fuel the revolution.” Other César workers said the same, that they have spent countless hours in recent months trying to think of a way to keep the bar as it is.
“This is all we can do,” Carol Urzi told me as she stood outside César, “Save César” sign in hand. Like so many protesters I talked to, she spoke reverently of Chez Panisse and Waters, saying that “we need both restaurants” in Berkeley. And, like so many, her fondness for Waters and what she’s accomplished is now complicated by sadness and disappointment, as “I don’t understand why Alice wants to take César away from us.”
Urzi is a longtime area resident and patron of both spots, but her heart clearly lies with César. Tuesday was Chez Panisse’s first day back in full business in nearly two years, after the business shuttered at the beginning of the pandemic.
While Chez Panisse’s imposing gate remained closed, César’s airy dining room, which opens directly onto the street, was still hosting patrons as soon as it was able. “It was the only place some of us felt like we could still connect,” a protester going only by Linda told me.
Cedric Shackleton has been going to César since the beginning. He’d just had cataract surgery, and “took an Uber from the hospital to the protest,” he said. “César is a place where you can come in alone, and you leave with friends you’ll keep for the next ten, 20, more years.” A man next to him put his arm around Shackleton’s shoulders as he spoke, clearly emotional. “One of my best friends, I met the first time I came here, some 23 years ago,” he said. “I’d be lost without all the friendships I made there.”
That theme of friendship permeated the protest, which often had the tone of an exceedingly joyous class reunion (if there is such a thing). “I just saw an old friend I haven’t seen for 20 years,” one man shouted jubilantly. Other folks caught up for the first time since the pandemic, gossiping and trading photos of kids and grandkids born during the pandemic.
The generally happy tone of the demonstration was even directed to the diners who, around 5 p.m., started pulling up to Chez Panisse in Ubers and luxury sedans. “Please tell Alice not to take César away from us,” protester Chris Boas said to every patron as they walked in. “Enjoy your dinner.”
Few patrons even acknowledged Boas, even though under other circumstances they might have been eager to hobnob — he’s a heavy-hitting attorney and the founder of several fintech companies (he didn’t volunteer this information, I Googled him), and arguably the kind of person you might expect to be dining at Chez Panisse. But though he has dined at both restaurants, “César makes you feel at home,” Boas said.
Standing next to Boas was Michael Lewis, the famed journalist and author (The Big Short, Moneyball) who’s lived in Berkeley since 1998. Lewis is arguably one of César’s highest profile regulars, and one of its most vociferous defenders. “I have come up with six of my books at César,” he said. “All my best ideas happen there. What am I going to do, how am I going to get any work done if Alice takes it away?”
Lewis said that he sent Waters a note after he got word of her plans to move into César’s space. “She responded, very sweetly, and said that I was going to love what she was planning to put in there,” he said. “I think she just doesn’t get it.”
Lewis wasn’t the only person who said something like that. Some protesters I spoke to suggested that Waters was too far separated from the average area resident to understand their emotional connection to César. Others started to speak critically of Waters, then stopped short. “She just doesn’t listen to people,” protester Marty Schiffenbauer began, then said “I don’t want to speak ill of an important revolutionary,” he said. “ I just wish she’d let us keep César. It’s important, too.”
As of publication time, 3,167 people have signed a Change.org petition asking Waters to reconsider her plan to evict César and open her own bar in the space. Also, as of Wednesday morning, neither Waters nor her restaurant have commented on the demonstration, though many Chez Panisse staffers were fondly greeted by the protesters as the former reported to work. That makes sense — working side by side for decades builds bonds. That said, though Chez Panisse told César staffers that they’d all be offered jobs at the new bar, when it eventually opens, “no one wants to work for them,” César general manager Cameron McVeigh said. “We had two meetings, I passed out all the literature. No one wanted to stay if they take César away.”
At the height of the protest, the demonstration even spread to the median of Shattuck. Cars slowed, many honking in support as drivers rolled down their windows to yell “We love César.” A news crew from KTVU pulled up, shooting an interview with Waters inside the restaurant then gathering footage of the protest outside. “How long are you folks going to stay out here,” I asked Lewis. “I don’t think we’d figured out an ending,” he said.
As the sun started to set, the protest died way down, and that’s when the only off-note of the demonstration occurred. A woman, dressed in black with a flowy jacket some might describe as “Bohemian,” stopped to scold Quinty, the César employee, for, it seemed, the entire protest.
“You’re being mean,” she yelled. I asked her name, she declined to give it, then kept addressing the protesters as she went up the Chez Panisse stairs. “You should all be ashamed of yourselves,” she said, then kept yelling to Quinty from the gated area behind Chez Panisse’s tree. “Did she just flip me off?” Quinty asked, peering at the woman through the branches. “I think she flipped me off!”
Quinty took a breath, and watched the woman walk into Chez Panisse, presumably to sit down for a meal. She turned back around, and held her picket sign a bit higher. As she did that, I remembered some of the things Quinty had told me earlier in the night, about her experiences with problematic customers when she worked in fine dining, and how she views César’s patrons as her family. That that was the reason that, though she’s poorer in pocket for working at César instead of Chez Panisse, she’s richer in spirit. “That was weird,” I said, “are you OK?”
“Oh, I’m OK,” she said. “It’s OK. Don’t be mad at her,” she said of the angry woman. “We don’t know what she’s going through right now. We never know what anyone’s going through right now.”