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Chez Panisse or Chapeau?

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Hi Chowhounders, I am looking to make reservations for fantastic food in a quiet, romantic setting for my boyfriend's birthday next month. If you had to choose between Chez Panisse and Chapeau, which one would you go to? How does Clementine compare?

Thanks in advance for the helpful advice!

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  1. Having been to both (Chapeau and C. Panisse) recently, I would have to vote for Chapeau. However, here's a little "compare and contrast":

    Unbelievably warm host, Philippe, makes you feel like family. Truly exceptional food, cheese plate, wine list have all the makings of a fine romantic dinner. And, the restaurant is very small (maybe 10 tables?) which adds to the intimacy. However, it's not remarkably quiet, and the lighting doesn't really lend itself to "ambiance", per se. And, tables are generally very close together, so you'll likely overhear your neighbors' conversations.

    Chez Panisse (assuming you mean downstairs):
    Also, wonderful food here. And there is something really nice about NOT having to wonder what to order - that being said, I don't think I'd take my extremely fickle b-friend to a restaurant where he didn't have any choices. The forward-most section of the downstairs dining room seemed to have more subdued lighting than the middle section in which we were seated. I'd request that specifically - otherwise, you might wind up by the kitchen or right at the doorway next to the hostess station. Service was fine, not overly attentive. We actually poured our own wine once, and our 2nd bottle was forgotten until after our red meat course had already been delivered. My sense is, you have to "watch out" for yourself lest the servers forget you - and this was EARLY at 6pm.

    As for a romantic dinner - have you considered Cafe Jacqueline? It's in the same price range as C. Panisse, and is designed for languorous lovers. The entire menu is souffles designed for sharing, and as souffles are made to order, and cook slowly, you'll find yourself seated there for well on 2 hours.

    1. Chez P. is really in a class by itself--remarkable food and a very particular kind of perfect Berkeley experience. The only deal is that there is just one set menu a night, no choices. If you or your b-friend have any food limitations--like no red meat or no dairy--you probably shouldn't go. (Check out the menus on their website www.chezpanisse.com to see the type o of food they serve.) Chapeau is quite nice but it's just one small room quite jam-packed with tables---you will be elbow-to-elbow with other diners.

      1 Reply
      1. re: dixieday

        One solution is to make your reservation at CP and a back-up at your second choice. Once the week's menu becomes available (I think it's posted online--ask if you decide to reserve), see if you'll be content with what's offered for your meal and act accordingly, canceling one or the other reservation.

      2. Can you get to Mill Valley? El Paseo is lovely.

        1 Reply
        1. re: susan blair

          El Paseo (strange name for a country French spot) is the most romantic restaurant around. And the service is very nice and the wine cellar is stellar.

        2. I love Chapeau and agree with much of what's already been said. I'm embarrassed to say I've never eaten downstairs at Chez Panisse, but it is a completely different price range. For what Chez Panisse costs, you could go to Gary Danko, where the food is excellent but the service and atmosphere also really excel.

          If you go to Chapeau, you must let Phillippe order your wine, including dessert wines.

          I had a lovely birthday last year at Clementine, and the atmosphere is cozier than Chapeau. The food was good, especially the chocolate cake, but I think not quite as good as Chapeau. Prices are comparable, and the service at both places is friendly and excellent. So really, all good options.

          3 Replies
          1. re: windy

            I love Chapeau. I've been there about four times and had a great time and great food. It is small and crowded. Not only should you let Philippe pick your wine, but the liver appetizer with a sauterne is an expereince not to be missed.

            1. re: windy

              I was once in love with the pain perdu at Clementine. (About a year or two ago.) Warmth, softness and just the right amount of an eggy custardy kind of pleasure. It's been a while, so I can't vouch for them anymore.

              Back then, I was actually quite pleased with Clementine's warm chocolate cake -- the scoop of crisp and cool coconut sorbet was thoughtfully placed a good distance apart from the warm cake. One could dessert at leisure, letting hot and cold mingle on the tongue instead of dealing with a dark puddle after a few minutes. In this respect, I found it superior to the warm banana chocolate cake at Chapeau. But I defer to windy's comments that reflect a more recent experience.

              1. re: Limster

                No, you're right, Clementine's desserts are excellent. With Chapeau, it's the wine I remember (and the lime mashed potatoes, and the cassoulet).

                Maybe the chowhound thing to do is dine at Chapeau and then hop on the 38 bus to Clementine for dessert.

            2. I agree that Chez P. is in a class by itself...you cannot go wrong upstairs or down...

              HOWEVER, since these responses are starting to wander away from your original question, and since you seem willing to cross the bridge to the East Bay, I want to put in a plug for Rivoli [Solano Ave. in Berkeley] and Bay Wolf [Piedmont Ave in Oakland]...I think that either one of these spots would be appropriate for the birthday dinner you're planning....each one has good food, and attractive dining rooms that aren't too noisy...good luck

              2 Replies
              1. re: Paulie

                I was at Chapeau one time several years ago and, while I enjoyed it, I didn't feel it was that special.

                Chez Panisse is great but I think you may have trouble getting a reservation with just a month's notice, especially if you want a Friday or Saturday night.

                For a romantic, quiet, special-occasion place I like Charles Nob Hill. You feel like you're in a private club, and the service is exquisite.

                1. re: Paulie
                  Nathan Landau

                  Different people have different ideas of what's romantic. I'd guess, though, for a lot of people the lushness of Rivoli's setting and food would be more romantic than Chez Panisse's unadorned presentation of food in a class by itself.

                2. I would not go to Chez Panisse. I have been there twice and have been totally unimpressed.

                  I generally don't mind set menu's-I have had the fixed price menu at French Laundry, Masa's, Fifth Floor and the other usual suspects and thoroughly enjoyed them.

                  Last time I went to Chez Panisse the set menu was a quiche I could have made at home, an uninspired roast chicken, and lemon eclairs (which I never would have picked off a desert menu in a million years.)

                  I don't mind shelling out a few bones for a special occasion, but I do not want a roast chicken as my main course! I want venison, lobster, black trumpet mushrooms, and the like. The execution was fine at Chez Panisse, but I don't want lemon eclairs just because they had some pretty lemons at the Berkeley farmer's market that morning.

                  I personally think (can you tell?) this place has been riding on it's reputation for far too long.

                  1. I have never been to Chapeau, although I have heard it's quite nice.

                    I love Chez Panisse. I will unequivocably state that it is my favourite restaurant. But I will say that's it's a very personal thing, and just like someone saying they like the Beatles, it's hard to really do justice to the experience without either feeding into, or trying to talk down, the hype.

                    Chez Panisse is NOT a fancy restaurant. If you want froo-froo plates piled with archetectural renderings (which is a lot of fun some times) you will not find this at Chez Panisse. If you "don't want lemon eclairs just because they had some pretty lemons at the Berkeley farmer's market that morning" then you don't want to go to Chez Panisse.

                    If you want honest simple food, prepared with the best possible quality ingredients, at the peak of their season - you will enjoy it. If you prefer letting the food be the experience then you will enjoy it.

                    There have been numerous comparisons on this board to the French Laundry, or any number of 2-3 star restaurants in Paris, but that is completely off the mark. If you expect that sort of experience you should go to that type of restaurant.

                    My reccomendation - don't eat downstairs (especially if you prefer a choice) only tourists eat downstairs, and of course don't try to go on a Friday or Saturday night, as Mr. Bourdaine calls them - "amateur nights."

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Paul C

                      I haven't been to either the Cafe or the Restaurant in several years. That said, I've known both well since their inceptions, reinventions, etc.

                      I've NEVER heard/read the Restaurant called touristy before. If that's true, it's a real sea change and breaks my heart.

                      I've always preferred downstairs to upstairs: the food, to my taste, has always been more delicious and less "inventive" and prey to individual line cook's whims. The atmosphere, to me, is more romantic than any other restaurant's, especially if I can be seated in the little front enclave. Maybe it's because I associate it with special occasions ann imbue it with high expectations too. But I love the look and feel of the dining room, the quiet hum, the perfect amount of light, the natural wood.

                      Upstairs is better people-watching and eavesdropping, but not what I'd ever characterize as "romantic." Too noisy, among other things.

                      I ate at Chapeau once; pleasant but in a different league, at least a year or so ago.

                      1. re: Fine

                        I spoke too strongely (a sin I am prone to.)
                        Downstairs is certainly not touristy, and it certainly fabulous. I was basically trying to say that the locals seem to eat upstairs. (I live in the East Bay, and work in the food/wine biz, and between me and my co-workers some one seems to eat there once a month or so, always upstairs, and never anything less than wonderful.)

                        1. re: Paul C

                          I agree with you Paul. A lot of first-time visitors tend to want to exclusively associate the full-fledged (and full-priced) Chez Panisse experience with Downtairs.

                          Upstairs tends to be more casual and local.

                    2. So -- where are Chapeau and Clementine?