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Oct 19, 2008 03:03 PM

Chez Panisse--How's the food, really?

Cheers SF Chowhounders. I've read so many wonderful things about the famous Chez Panisse. I'm a neophyte foodie in SD who will be in the SF area around Christmas and am very curious about Panisse. I consider myself a quasi-vegetarian (no beef or pork, rarely chicken, love fish and veggies), but not very adventurous with food. I'd love to get feedback on the food at Chez Panisse, and if it's worth the drive from SF to Berkeley to see what all the fanfare is about! For the most part I am just curious about this famous restaurant and cafe that seems to have started the local, sustainable food craze in CA (and now across the country). Thanks in advance for the feedback.

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  1. It depends on you.

    There are basically two groups with feelings about Chez Panisse. One group want innovation and cutting edge food. They usually hate Chez Panisse and don't get it. The other group that admires the skill of presenting the absolute top of the line meat, produce, fish, etc and letting the ingredients star.I'm a huge fan of Chez Panisse. Anyone who can make a tomato memorable to me five years later so that I can still almost taste it in my memory ... well, high marks in my book.

    It is NOT adventurous eating, but deceptivley simple.

    If you go to the cafe you don't need to make a major commitment like the downstairs restaurant. If you do choose downstairs, let them know what your preferences are at when you make a reservation (wont eat beef, pork or chicken). The upstairs is a la carte so you would have more control over your meal.

    Anyway, having lived in the SD area (Vista), a trip over to the East Bay might be worth your while. Across the street from Chez is one of the best cheese shops on the west coast, the Cheeseboard.

    Also, the one thing I really, really mourned living in the SD area was not being near the Berkeley Bowl. The produce variety is amazing. Worth just walking through. Henry's and Jimbo's wasn't doing it for me ... not remotely close. I would get really annoyed by what those stores were selling. Currently the Bowl is selling maybe 25 different varieties of apples ... that is just one categorie ... 10 types of bananas, a dozen or more melons, etc.

    I hope you visit a farmers market when up here. That was something else I missed. The Saturday SF Ferry Plaza market is the one to go to, but Berkeley has some really good ones.

    If you like Chuao chocolate, you might be interested in a new place in Berkely called Chocolate Blue. The owner once worked at Charlie Trotters. I loved those Chuao passion fruit caramel candies, but Chocolate Blue makes one that is even better to me.

    There a lot of East Bay activities that would make your trip worthwhile. There are a few chocolate tours, a sake factory tour, vodka and spirits tasting at Hangar One ... so you could expand your drive to include other things.

    Hope you report back if you go about what you think.

    1. The restaurant is famous for a reason. The food is fantastic. I look for any excuse to drive there for a meal - and I live in Sacramento. So it's not hard to guess whether I think it's worth a drive across the Bay Bridge.

      The fact that you're "not very adventurous" shouldn't be much of a problem. The focus is on great ingredients; preparations tend to be fairly simple. Take a look at the menus online ( ): we're not talking molecular gastronomy here.

      If you choose to eat in the cafe, there will be plenty of non-red-meat dishes to choose from. If you go to the restaurant, check the menu and let them know several days in advance if something runs afoul of your dietary restrictions; they'll graciously accommodate you.

      There are a lot of fantastic restaurants in San Francisco. There is no compelling need to drive across the bay for a meal. But the quality of the food and the iconic status of the establishment make it a trip that's well worth your while.

      1. I think especially as a quasi-vegetarian you would love the cafe -- try it!

        1. I would just go if you're curious. It's the only way to take care of it. I've heard of very few bad meals, if ever. Your rational seems like a worthy see what's it's all about, find the genesis of many modern food trends...and the food is excellent.

          I'll second what others have said...simple stuff absolutely shines. The two things I remember were amazingly simple but never had anything close before or since...pasta with truffles and a lobster tail roasted in grape leaves.

          If price or time is an issue, go for lunch at the cafe and/or make a half or third day trip out of it.

          1. Chez Panisse is good, no doubt about that. However, it won't blow you away. Yes, the ingredients are excellent, but if it's good cooking you're looking for, I don't find Panisse do be near the top. The downstairs, now at $95 for a four course meal on the weekend is a real rip-off. You almost just pay to say that you ate at Chez Panisse. If that's what you want, then fine, but I'd go to the cafe (still a little pricey for what it is...).

            However, if you're a vegetarian, there are two places in SF I'd recommend that are an easy match for Panisse (and better, as far as I'm concerned). If you're willing to drop dime, go to Coi. Daniel Patterson's food is unique, excellent, refined, and very vegetarian-friendly. If that place is a little too much ($120 for a nine-course set meal), go to Canteen. The vegetarian options there are excellent, and at similar prices as Panisse cafe, you're getting a better deal, from a much more interesting chef.

            As a favorite chef of mine once said: "Chez Panisse isn't a restaurant. It's a personal grocery shopper."

            19 Replies
            1. re: The Gourmet Pig

              The OP said they were not adventurous eaters, so COI would definately be out. This frequent Chowhound poster and blogger said that after spending $188 at COI he felt it was too much money for too little food.

              Here's the link to his blog with his hilarious, to me, review with photos. The OP can decide if that is what she wants.

              A small excerpt from the above blog "...the grand entrée, which was ... Beck Farms Pheasant. What I got were these two medallions of pheasant meat that were tasty but not very satisfying. I felt I was a giant eating a tiny meal. On the plate were these itsy bitsy pieces of roasted cauliflower florets (you could barely call them florets as much as they were cauliflower crumbs). "

              That being said, COI is high on my list to try. Canteen gets high marks. But there are a lot of good restaurants in SF. They come and go. There's always the chef and restaurant of the moment.

              However, 20 ... maybe even 10 years from now ... those names will be forgotten to be replaced by the hottest chef of the moment. While I believe Chez Panisse will always be a part of culinary history ... and I'd take bets they will still be in business.

              So to see what it is all about might be worth while.

              But then again, as I said in my other post, some people look for more innovation. If you look at that quote, your favorite chef is quoting Alice Waters or a dozen other people that quote is attributed to. If you search the boards there are lots of posts about who really said that.

              1. re: rworange

                Since the OP mentions "no beef or pork, rarely chicken, love fish and veggies" I think they should look at the Coi's menu. It is clearly the best restaurant in the city for getting a great meal without the usual gourmet protein suspects (beef, veal, lamb, duck). More than one poster here has called it the best vegetarian restaurant in the city.

                Coi has an undeserved reputation for the avant garde. Bauer was closer to the mark when he said, "Few chefs have such a meticulous focus on both product and technique.... two recent revisits to Coi have shown that his approach has continued to morph into a style that is not only highly individual, but could only happen in the Bay Area. I can't think of a single restaurant that has such a unique sense of place."

                The food at Coi has two major influences, first that of Alice Waters and the emphasis on local top-quality ingredients, and second, the post-modern school of Ferran Adria with it's texture transformations and intellectual playfulness. However, Coi is definitely Bay-Area and leans much more towards the ingredient side. Coi is the the restaurant that Chez Panisse would have become had it progressed any in the past 35 years.

                The menu can be found on the restaurant website, available from this link...

                373 Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94133

                1. re: Paul H

                  Yes, but it is that the post-modern school of Ferran Adria with it's texture transformations and intellectual playfulness. that might not appeal to someone not adventurous.

                  I seriously doubt Chez Panisse would have ever 'evolved' into COI. It is the anti-Chez Panisse ... not a bad thing, but CP doing anything but simply perfect seem inconceivable.

                  If anything it is Patterson who will be having the pressure to constantly re-invent his menu or be left in the beet dust. Had Chez Panisse changed it's style I would see it more like Ubuntu which still relies on absolute perfection in what is on the plate in terms of quality while taking some elements of each dish out of the norm in terms of execution.

                  1. re: rworange

                    Oh come on, now you are being silly. It's just as reasonable to suppose that Alice Waters is a cul-de-sac off of the roadway of fine dining as to assign that classification to Ferran Adria.

                    Despite what emerges from some posts around here, Alice Waters didn't invent restaurants or eating. The history of fine dining is long and features a lot of illustrious names: François Massialot, Brillat-Savarin, Georges Auguste Escoffier, Paul Bocuse, the publication of Larousse Gastronomique, Alice Waters, Ferran Adria, etc. These folks weren't following fads, they all were building on the past and creating the evolution of fine dining.

                    It's silly to think that Chez Panisse is the pinnacle of fine dining, that, in Berkeley in a pleasant arts-and-crafts bungalow, we have reached the "end of restaurant history." Everything needs to change and evolve or it will die.

                    Chez Panisse is now a museum. I like visiting museums, but don't think it is especially useful to create a religion of the past.

              2. re: The Gourmet Pig

                I totally agree with the Gourmet Pig, and want to add: if you have access to great ingredients and are a careful cook, CP is not at all impressive. However, if you want bragging rights, or to see for yourself what all the hype is about, then definitely go so you can add your voice to the mix.

                1. re: Claudette

                  "Not impressive" if you have "access to great ingredients and are a careful cook"

                  The great ingredients you dismissively speak of are not available to any one person, unless you are beyond obsessive. Stocks for example. You're going to butcher whole lamb, pork, fish to enable you to make Chez Panisse style stock? Roast the bones. Make fumet. Double stock, blond stock, brown stock? You're going to fly down south and buy some Chino vegetables? While you're at it rendevous in Bolinas with your mushroom forager. Those desserts are painfully simple. Perfectly ripe fruit is available at Andronicos? Rotisserie roasts with fruit wood are easy to simulate on the Weber. A pizza stone duplicates a wood oven. You have refrigerator space to cure pancetta, and a vinegar barrel too.

                  Chez Panisse is not so much a restaurant. It is a relationship. It's a web of paths formed over decades. Saying that it is dead, or that it leads, or that its hype misses the point. Go ahead and grouse if molecular food on a metal apparatus is more "current". Current and cutting edge at Chez Panisse happens every day when ingredients are accepted and rejected. It can't grow old because all it is is a daily snapshot.

                  1. re: keg

                    Please allow me to differ: I grew up in a poor immigrant family that had fruit trees and a veggie garden in our backyard, with stocks made from scratch, and animals butchered in the kitchen sink. My dinners at CP cost a lot of money for very underwhelming tastes of things that were easily eclipsed by my rememberances of things past, as well as numerous meals at other restos. Don't be so dismissive - everyone's entitled to his/her own opinions and assessments.

                    1. re: Claudette

                      Little can live up to a memory.

                      As a reality check, I shop at the best farmers markets, cheese shops, meat shops, etc in the area and think nothing of throwing big bucks at high quality food.

                      True I'm not a good cook, but that's why I buy top quality I let the ingrediants do the work for me.

                      However, Chez Panisse is getting the best of the best and I am often blown away by my meals at CP.

                      And even if I did have the top cooking skills I don't have the equiment or ovens they have.

                      What is a real shame is the OP, being out of the area doesn't have a perspective on the tastes of each poster. Even I don't have a clue what your preferences are restaurant-wise, Claudette.

                      And this isn't addressing any one person, but it is too bad that the OP has delegated Chez Panisse to 'eh' ... if I happen to be in the area status. Some of the reposnses were just what I said in the OP, Chez Panisse doesn't match their particular style of dining which tends to the more complex, cutting edge type of dishes.

                      1. re: rworange

                        rworange, as I stated above, I am still curious about CP and I do not dismiss it as "eh". However, because I have a limited time available to travel outside of SF and finances are tight, I find myself being extra careful about where I spend my time and money. Ostensibly CP has a great history and a prolific chef, Alice Waters.

                        1. re: ginael

                          I've been following this thread with some amusement. It's no brainer to me. CP is a terrific, sometimes extraordinary restaurant. It's famous, deservingly so, and should not be missed. While others may have their personal favorites, CP is highly respected, not only for its history, but for its continuing success at providing delicious food in a tradition that they invented. What more could you ask for?

                      2. re: Claudette

                        I grew up in a wealthy suburb. My Vermont grandparents were never well off financially, but gardened, pickled, and canned extensively. That is why I know what freshness and traditional food storage methods are about. I've never had more satisfying food than my grandmother's pork roast, dumplings, and kraut in any restaurant.

                        Chez Panisse is different. The equipment, the scale, the skill, the sources are what I'm trying to bring to your attention. I'm encouraging you to be less dismissive, or please open your own restaurant. Alice Waters is not getting rich from the margins at CP. They pay top dollar to many great purveyors who have found sustainability serving a community of restaurants.

                        1. re: keg

                          Why so defensive about my choice to possibly not spend my money at CP? There is a fine line between being "dismissive" and making up one's mind based on opinions. I thought the point of this board was to seek advice from others, and to use critical thinking based on these opinions as well as based on other information. No one said anything about Waters making a huge profit from the margins.

                          1. re: ginael

                            You'll notice in the upper left corner that I'm addressing Claudette's comment, not yours.

                            CP has a tendency to galvanize people. They are certainly not infallible, but they've made their reputation on foraging for the very best ingredients they can find, and then not screwing them up. It's not for everyone. I think there are a number of other choices, but personally I'm always happy paying the bill at CP.

                            I'm defensive about CP because I worked for Tower, Waters, and Bertolli, and I feel a lot of people take swings at it without really knowing that much about it..

                            Buon appetito!

                        2. re: Claudette

                          I too grew up with fruit trees and a vegetable garden out back, along with 150 chickens, half a dozen hutches full of rabbits, a flock of ducks, and a couple of geese. We bartered with the neighbors for milk and veal.

                          When you grow food, quality is distributed on a bell curve that ranges from terrible to sublime. Sometimes you get a pear or tomato or gallon of milk that's sublime, sometimes you get one that's terrible. If the food is raised carefully without an eye to transportation and retail sale, the average quality will be higher than what you find in a grocery store. But there's considerable variation nonetheless.

                          CP has a relationship with people who grow food that's special. The stuff that's average or below may go to a wholesaler. The good stuff may be sold at a farmer's market. The best stuff goes to restaurants that are willing to pay a premium for it. And of the best stuff, CP pays a premium for and receives the creme de la creme.

                          I still grow some of my own food and buy much of the rest at farmers' markets and from artisinal producers. And I can state for an absolute fact that the ingredients used at CP are significantly better than those available to the general public at any price.

                          Childhood memories are a beautiful thing. But you can't really expect reality - past or present - to measure up. Everybody is entitled to an opinion about a place, and some folks just don't enjoy the CP experience as much as others like me. But to claim that the ingredients used are comparable to run-of-the-mill stuff from a backyard garden is simply incorrect.

                      3. re: Claudette

                        With all due respect, Claudette, I have access to amazing ingredients living in Santa Cruz and consider myself to be a thoughtful and pretty good cook, yet Chez Panisse continues to impress me. My last meal was almost exactly two years ago for my birthday, and I still remember every morsel.

                        The chef that I work with used to work at CP and still talks about how ridiculously top-notch every ingredient was...they got the best of the best from local vendors that we will never see at the farmers market. It was a culinary artist's wonderland perhaps at the expense of maintaining food costs or maximizing profit margins. This was some time ago so things may have changed a bit, but I personally get that feeling of "wow" when I eat their food and take in the "style" that is Chez Panisse. A fig leaf under a ramekin of raspberry souffle...a petite bowl of olives...the earth-toned plates from Heath Ceramics. Touches that have evolved over decades that other new places try to emulate.

                        When I look at their cafe menu, I'm in awe at how reasonable the prices remain. With their name and reputation, they could jack up the prices and still fill up the place. I don't see it as a museum or temple at all; it's a cozy place to get a great meal. Gosh, I need to head back there soon...

                      4. re: The Gourmet Pig

                        Small correction: the $120 tasting menu at Coi is an eleven-course meal.

                        1. re: The Gourmet Pig

                          Thanks to all for these in depth, passionate remarks. I'd expect nothing less from Bay Area foodies! As for the COI rec, it sounds a bit pricey for me. I found the comments re: CP being more of a museum to pay respects to, quite interesting. Perhaps I want to go there for a very superficial reason, which is to experience an Alice Waters creation that has been chronicled in books, magazines, newspapers, etc. If I happen to be in the East Bay region, I'll definitely stop by CP's cafe, because it sounds like that is a bit cheaper with a la carte options, which is what a picky eater can hope for. Cheers.

                          1. re: ginael

                            I understand the museum thing. And I completely disagree with it.

                            Saying that CP is a museum is like saying that that the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley is a museum. It misses the point. Sure, you can go and look at the pretty pictures, but the real reason for being there is to see the beauty that inspired the artist in the first place.

                            Ansel Adams isn't the most innovative photographer to have ever lived. And Alice Waters isn't the most innovative chef. But CP isn't about the chef, it's about the ingredients. Artifice isn't the point. Quite to the contrary, the place built its reputation on framing the picture as well as possible and getting the hell out of the way.

                            You can't confine a mountain or a garden to a frame. The underlying beauty will be there long after the chef/artist is gone. But somebody who can show you that beauty is no less an artist for it.

                            1. re: ginael

                              If you happen to be in the neighborhood? Sound reasoning.