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Chez Panisse Cafe Review - Sadly, a must miss in nearly all regards. [Berkeley]

Full review with pics here: http://uhockey.blogspot.com/2009/02/c...

Text below:

Alice Waters needs no introduction – an innovator, a pioneer, a champion of the locally-grown/sustainable/organic movement, possibly a genius and certainly one of the most important names in American (and especially Californian) Cuisine. I’ve read Chef Waters books and have the utmost respect for her work from the kitchen to the Edible school yard. With that said, I was thrilled when I managed to secure lunch reservations at Chez Panisse Café for 3 people at 1:30pm on 02/18/09. I was thrilled when I saw the building, I was thrilled when I saw the menu, I was thrilled when I climbed the stairs, saw the kitchen, and sat down at our table. Perhaps my expectations were too high because I’m sure my thoughts will meet much dissention here, but honestly I don’t care – Chez Panisse Café is terribly overrated, overpriced, and vastly oversold on itself based on the hype generated by the restaurant downstairs.

While attractive, the main dining area of Chez Panisse Café was not only incredibly loud, but also incredibly crowded with booths along one wall and tables filling most of the interior space. Sitting with my mother and aunt at the table near the kitchen I will admit the view was great, but we could distinctly hear the conversations of three other tables – none of whom were related, but seemed to be increasing their volume in order to be heard over the hum of the rest of the patrons. Handed our menus by Karen on the way in we’d made up our mind after about 5 minutes but had not yet seen a server. Another 5 minutes passed before our server finally appeared – an aloof and unhelpful man named Cale – to take drink orders. Wine was offered (declined) and two iced teas and a water were orders – two iced teas that didn’t taste much better than Lipton and cost $5 each.

Cale disappeared and another waiter brought our drinks and some house bread – a decent ( albeit cold with colder butter) whole wheat sourdough. The bread was eaten and then the plate was removed – no refill offered, though given the quality I’d have not eaten more anyhow. Cale finally returned around 1:55 to take our orders, myself selecting two appetizers (one as a main,) my aunt selecting the pizza, and my mom selecting the chicken breast. Cale stopped my mother mid-sentence to say “we’re out of the breast, but we’re preparing the same dish with a leg cooked the same way so it is just as good.” My mother declined and instead selected the pizza as she doesn’t like dark meat and as Cale left we sat there trying to figure out what kind of magical chicken Chez Panisse serves that tastes has leg that tastes like breast.

After about 15 minutes my first dish arrived – along with my main and my mother and aunt’s pizza. As my salad was served cold I opted to start with the warm pizzetta served with Tomato sauce, spicy Monterey Bay Squid, and Marjoram. While the crust was relatively crispy and the squid clearly very fresh, the sauce was actually quite bland and I detected no spice aside from the overly pungent oregano/pine taste of the Marjoram. A decent stab at “California Pizza” with wonderfully fresh ingredients, it simply wasn’t that good and quite small for the $14.00 price tag.

My second dish, Bob's Cardoons and Potatoes with Black Truffles and Egg fared slightly better than the pizzetta and the cardoons were excellent in flavor, texture, and preparation. Unfortunately, aside from the Cardoons, the rest of the dish was highly mediocre with cold/mushy potatoes, an overly cooked egg, and…I guess the black dots were truffles, though they certainly weren’t flavorful or aromatic. At $11 this dish felt like a rip off, especially compared to the stellar truffle/egg preparation for $14 at Boulevard.

As mediocre and overpriced as my dishes were, the Pizza ordered by my mother and aunt lowered the bar further. At $18:50, the Pizza with Rocket Salad and Parmesan, was essentially a round of crispy cheese bread that did not taste much better than Little Caesars Crazy Bread with a giant salad of Arugula tossed on top. Again, very fresh ingredients aside, the dish was pretty sparse and ridiculously priced with its only saving grace the high quality Parmesan cheese on top.

At some point during the meal Karen (who seated us) blatantly grabbed another server to refill the water jug since Cale was nowhere to be found – a server who managed to knock my empty glass over and hit me with the jug in the shoulder in one classic maneuver – but my mother’s iced tea sat empty for a good 10 minutes before it was recharged. Meals finished we sat and waited for a some time while watching the kitchen operate with flawless precision (chopping, plating, mixing, etc) before Cale finally reappeared and handed us dessert menus. Already quite discontented with the experience we’d had dessert was declined and the bill was delivered – with the added 17% gratuity mentioned on the menu. While I am not a fan of automatic gratuity in general since the concept of a tip is that better service gets a better tips and automatic inclusion provides no incentive to perform better than average, I was particularly insulted by this addition and the line that allowed for “added gratuity” considering just how bad the service really was.

All told, this was the worst meal I’ve had anywhere in a long time and by FAR the worst meal I had on my trip to California. Poor service, average food, high prices, automatic gratuity, and a whole lot of pretense. While I still respect Chef Waters and her concepts, I think perhaps she should spend a bit of time at the café to see how things are going. At some point I’ll be back in San Francisco and perhaps I’ll check out the Mothership – but given my memories of the café, perhaps not.

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    1. I went to the CP Cafe once, won't go back. It was just plain unmemorable and the service was nothing special. For casual dining when in the East Bay (not that often), I much prefer Cesar, great food and nice people working there.

      On the other hand, Chez Panisse non-Cafe is terrific and meets expectations.

      1. Wow. I am sorry that you had such a bad experience. I've had great service in the cafe, though I admit it can be loud. It was the first restaurant I ate at after the birth of my daughter, who at 3 weeks was there with us, and they were nothing but charming.

        1. People seem to be in two camps with Chez Panisse. You are in the camp where it is not to your tastes. Having read through your other reports where you appreciate complex dishes, I am not surprised you don't like Chez Panisse. I would suggest crossing dining downstairs off your to-try list, no matter how far down. It wouldn't suit your tastes any better since the focus is on simple presentations with ingredients as the star.

          Wish you had tried Chocoletier Blue while you were in Berekely because I think you would have liked it very much. The owner was the chocolate chef at Charlie Trotter.

          I'm enjoying your reports though at this point my tastes are a bit differnent for the most part than yours. It makes me see what MIchelan sees in some of these places. I also like reading details about what it is that people like about places that I might not have gotten on my visit.

          Not only is it a help to other people considering these places, but it gives us an idea of what you do or dont' like so on future visits you'll get responses more tailored to your tastes. It seems service is almost as much a part of what makes a restaurant for you as the food so that would be a consideration.

          Chez Panisse
          1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

          4 Replies
          1. re: rworange

            rworange has some interesting and apt appraisals. i've been reading a lot of your blog the last couple of days, uhockey, and i've enjoyed it. i had a fun time experiencing your wonderful chef's menu at The French Laundry, and i applauded your favorable reviews of EMP and Gramercy Tavern in NYC. i took some perverse pleasure in your diss of Boulangerie in SF, though some commenters thought you missed the best offering there (the quiche) and could have gotten better sitdown service at one of their cafes rather than the bakery. But now you screw with Chez Panisse! i will admit that it has its attitude -- when i was in law school, a server tried to pick up my date. they are very popular. but i've had a number of memorable dishes there -- the puffy calzone that used to come oozing from the woodburning oven, an amazing transcendent simple tomato soup.

            1. re: rworange

              Thanks - I write these things as much for myself (to look back on the experience) as the people here - it is nice to contribute back to the community who helps people out.

              My reviews are just my opinion and I actually kind of like it when people disagree as it may make me think I missed something (IE Boulangerie's Quiche.....though as I noted in my Bouchon review I don't really like quiche to begin with.)

              I wanted to check out Chocoletier Blue, but we ended up getting dessert going back to the car - Love at First Bite and Ciao Bella, so we skipped.

              1. re: rworange

                I agree with rworange -- if you disliked the cafe as much as you did, downstairs won't do a whole lot to change your mind.

                Also, Chocolatier Blue is truly wonderful.

                1. re: rworange

                  It did not seem to me that the simple presentations were his issue with CP - more the quality of the dishes, preparation and shoddy service.

                  Is service unimportant? LOL

                2. What didn't you like about the egg? It looked fine in the photo.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: Sharuf

                    That egg is overcooked, in my opinion.

                    1. re: uhockey

                      How long eggs should be cooked is a personal preference thing. My preference is medium.

                      1. re: Sharuf

                        That is fair - I prefer the poached variety of egg to have a runny center, which this did not - it might as well have been hard boiled. A "medium" egg in my opinion is represented by this one from Trotter's.

                        1. re: uhockey

                          Oh that Charlie Trotter egg DOES look perfect. I agree that the egg on his app looked suspiciously overdone with the yolk's edge hard - ick.

                  2. Just as there are Chez Panisse fans and Non fans ...... there are folks who like/prefer chicken breasts and those who like dark meat. Judging by the comment you made about the magical chicken that has a leg/dark meat that tastes like breast - I would guess that you are in the breast meat camp. When the waiter said that the same preparation would taste as good I don't think he meant to imply that it would taste the same. Granted that they are very different tastes ( breast vs. leg) - I would find the leg better. it sounds like you had a number of things not go your way. I agree with RW - you should probably not go back for the downstairs experience.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: gordon wing

                      That isn't the point - don't try to sell me leg as the same as breast. He should have just said "we're out of the breast, but could prepare a leg instead."

                      They do not taste the same, you are right.

                      1. re: gordon wing

                        Like Gordon, I'm an emphatic leg fan. However, it was at Chez Panisse Cafe that I ordered a chicken breast that redefined chicken breast. (It was one of those nights when the few other main course choices were even less appealing, and I would have jumped at the choice of a chicken leg.) The perfectly crisped skin hid a very finely minced, and beautifully balanced, gremolata. The flesh was moist, succulent--the quintessence of chicken--and made me think I would eat chicken breast every chance I got if it always tasted like that. But it almost never does, as we leg people know only too well.

                        I can understand both the fans and detractors of Chez Panisse. There have been many times when the service was execrable and the food was disappointing (never bad, just not up to high expectations and equally high prices), but there are those rare occasions that seem to happen at Chez Panisse more often than elsewhere when you pop a morsel of simply cooked chicken or asparagus in your mouth, and your eyelids fly open in surprise because here it is--perfection.

                        1. re: pilinut

                          I felt that way about the chicken at Boulevard, oddly.

                          1. re: pilinut

                            Yes ... about the chicken. The first meal I had at Chez Panisse decades ago involved a chicken breast prep ... I still remember that taste to this day. It remains in one of the top ten things I ever ate in my life.

                        2. My last meal at the Cafe was a few years ago, but I remember being pretty underwhelmed. That said, I don't think the waiter was at all out of line promising that a chicken dish would taste "just as good" with a leg instead of a breast.

                          1. I didn't read your whole review since, in short, I had an abomination of a meal there, myself a few years back.
                            I cannot understand how this place gets the kudos it does.
                            20 yrs ago, sure, I don't know how it was back then.
                            You cannot be a top place and put out disgusting food.
                            4 people, I tried everything, that is 8 dishes, I had the best one of the 8.
                            Y, great she invented localism, right, nobody did that before.
                            I know all the locals will defend her but don't be a homer.
                            Oh, and a couple with me was local and was just as disgusted as myself.

                            There is much better to be had in town, zero reason.

                            I know some say well the main dining room is far superior, well, honestly, I see no reason for that. You put out what you put out, even two kitchens. This was so bad there is no way a rational person would think that the main dining would be 20 levels better which would be the bare minimum necessary.

                            As you can see the wound caused by this spot is deep as I am still quite prickly about the whole thing.

                            8 Replies
                            1. re: dietndesire


                              FWIW, I didn't find anything disgusting - just overpriced and overrated

                              1. re: dietndesire

                                And you are a person who also shouldn't dine downstairs. It just isn't your thing. There are more than a few locals who it is just not their thing for various reasons. For me, my recent meals have been as good as that first meal. Not everything is greatness, but when there is magic ... well. But again, I like that style a lot. I can appreciate a place like French Laundry, but it left me cold with no desire to go back as does everything I've tried by Keller. Ad Hoc will be my final try. If I don't like that ... just not my style.

                                1. re: rworange

                                  Well, I will say that you are surely incorrect about the style issue.
                                  It is very simple prep. Which makes it even more inexcusable. And these days and I am sure for quite some time, the ingredients at Panisse are not superior than at many other restaurants. There are only so many elements to the food. Ingredient quality, flavor combos/dish composition and finally execution of the idea.
                                  I thought it was not my thing because it was poor. Am I positive it would be better if I went again, actually, yes, because it has to be by default.
                                  I don't forgive meals that bad.
                                  Maybe will go downstairs on someone else's tab which is possible since an acquaintance loves the place and he is treated to free meals at a high rate.

                                  Never said the food was boring, I dig boring food, I prepare quite a bit of it.
                                  I find mol gastro idiotic in its extreme, actually, though some places with a touch of it are quite good.

                                  I think saying I dislike the style is a cop out, especially since I know the style is not a problem. The style can be seen on the menu, had no problem with the sound of the dishes. Did not think it was a great menu, I admit, but certainly fine and if done right, all good in the wood.

                                  BBulkow, it was a couple of years ago and I would not have posted this myself, just seeing the title sparked it.

                                  Disgusting for anywhere that wants to be considered world class, how about that.
                                  Disgusting compared to the average slop put out at restaurants in this country, no.
                                  I should have qualified that statement I guess.

                                  World-changing? They need to get out more. Nothing earth moving going on there. Again, maybe decades ago, I can't say though I am sure there was plenty of fine food somewhere on the planet.

                                  Hey, you want to go, go, go 50x, fine with me.

                                  The best dish was duck cassoulet, mine, which is not even my favorite dish(yes, mains were not overly intriguing to me)but it was alright.

                                  RW, which Keller places have you been to? Not as if he has that many.
                                  Not that it matters, just wondering.
                                  Any place that uses top shelf ingredients and simple prep without blatant mistakes(overcooking, etc.) puts itself among rare air for me. It is relatively rare and I expected this from Panisse.
                                  I mean, killer roast chicken, nothing but salt and the bird, I can dig it, doesn't get much simpler than that.

                                  1. re: dietndesire

                                    I've been to French Laundry, Bouchon in Yountville and Bouchon Bakery also Yountville.

                                    I appreciated the techinical perfection at French Laundry but I find it cold, souless and without passion. I had lunch at FL and found it necessary to go to another restaurant I liked more that night just to get a real meal. Everyone else at that lunch loved it and I loved reading their descriptions of what they got out of it but I just didn't.

                                    I find the Bouchon's both Disney-esqe and tourist-oriented. When a chef focuses on technique it makes it possible to successfully chain-ize fine dining. I'm sorry, but those frites at Bouchon are frozen and I don't care what the fancy explanation is, they taste it. There is little difference from McDonald's original fries.

                                    You wrote about Chez Panisse ...

                                    World-changing? They need to get out more. Nothing earth moving going on there. Again, maybe decades ago

                                    But that is just the point about people who don't like Chez Panisse. It is like saying the same of classic French cooking.

                                    The statement "And these days and I am sure for quite some time, the ingredients at Panisse are not superior than at many other restaurants." shows a real lack of understanding and familiarity with Chez Panisse.

                                    You went once. You didn't like it for whatever reason. I've been dining there for years a few times a year. I'm very familiar with the Bay Area food scene and the better vendors and farmers markets. Chez Panisse gets the cream of the crop and if there is someone doing something extrodinary they are usually still the first to feature that vendor.

                                    Go again if you like. However nothing in what you have said would make me suspect you would like it any better even if the meal was free.

                                    I can appreciate why people like the French Laundry. It is just not for me ... just as Chez Panisse is just not for others. It doesn't make the food bad at either place or either less than a world-class restaurant. It is just a matter of individual taste.

                                    1. re: rworange

                                      "And these days and I am sure for quite some time, the ingredients at Panisse are not superior than at many other restaurants." shows a real lack of understanding and familiarity with Chez Panisse.

                                      On the contrary, your statement could just as well be showing a lack of familiarity with other top notch spots. This myth that CP has the best ingredients in the world and no one else can get such things just is not true.

                                      1. re: Paul H

                                        I'm familiar with other top notch places. I just prefer Chez Panisse more. I have a lot of trouble not yawning at what else is out there. I'm even a little put off by COI these days since Patterson's focus is elsewhere. It is no longer a top priority.

                                        I can only stand so much of the sameness of all the supposedly high level restaurants. Doesn't matter what cuisine they are emulating, it is the same old stuff with some little twist.

                                        Though it has been a few months since I was interested. Is it still Crudo that is hot? Or the sad excuse of house-made salumi? Now we must all have our own personal gardens it seems. Doesn't make most of them exceptional.

                                        At least Chez Panisse focuses on what is best, not how they can jump on the latest trend no matter how unsuccessfully. I'm tried of paying big bucks for haute cuisine in training of restaurant owners. Practice elsewhere and don't make your customers pay for it. . Ticks me off.

                                        Then again I'm a shopper and not a cook. I can pull off some fabulous meals by finding the best in the Bay Area. May explain my devotion to CP.

                                2. re: dietndesire

                                  Disgusting? I don't buy it. Some folks just don't enjoy the food at CP. Not a big deal. I love the place, but that's just a matter of personal preference.

                                  You find the food boring? Sure, I can see that. Uninspired? Maybe. Overpriced? It certainly ain't cheap. But disgusting - that's just not plausible.

                                  I've had many, many meals at CP, and every one of them was well-prepared using high-quality ingredients. Whether a diner enjoys the style is entirely subjective. But to characterize something as "disgusting" seems to me to go beyond subjective dislike; there's got to be something objectively wrong with the dish or its preparation. And I have a hard time believing that 8 different dishes were all fundamentally flawed.

                                  1. re: dietndesire


                                    You say you don't know how CP gets the kudos it does. If you're interested in learning, instead of venting, I'd suggest reading the other posts to this thread. The fact that several people have had worldview-changing dishes at this restaurant may account for some measure of kudo, yes?

                                    I'm interested in learning from your experience. What were the dishes you ate, and how were they disgusting?

                                    Vigorous assertion of emotion, without details, is frankly a bit dull. Unlike the OP's post, which is full of rich detail, context, thought, and highly believable.

                                  2. Chez Panisse has been getting angry pans since I started going there 30+ years ago, as has the cafe since it opened, though I've had nothing but great meals.

                                    Exact same story with other places that come out of the Chez Panisse school, such as Oliveto, Zuni Cafe, and most recently Camino. I think there's something fundamentally divisive about the style.

                                    Case in point, my wife and I once went to Zuni with another couple. Same table, same waiter, most of the same food. On the drive home, it was like we'd been in two different restaurants--our friends complained about the service, the food, everything. We had our usual great time.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      That is so funny, Robert. Was this couple from out of town or local?

                                      1. re: nosh

                                        They'd been living in SF for over 20 years.

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          I guess one couple shouldn't have done the orange acid if the other was going to be doing 'shrooms! ;-)

                                    2. We had dinner at CP Cafe last year. We were overjoyed at the location, the service, the food, the entire experience. We had a wonderful server named Hanrow. We found out the he grew up near my husband and that he and I had worked for the same resort group. We also found out he was a big baseball fan, as is my husband. Maybe those connections made us all connect, but he was wonderful, helpful, informative and went so far as to offer us a "mistake" pizza gratis. Dining at CP was the highlight of our dining experience in SF that trip; it was our first night in town, so it really set the bar high.

                                      We had reservations for lunch 2 weeks ago [actually also 2/18 but at noon] and sadly, we had a medical emergency at home which caused us to leave SF early and also cancel our reservations. We were most disappointed to miss our return to the cafe.

                                      Yes, the tables are close and the room is loud. I found that to be the case at most of the restaurants we ate in in SF, last trip and this one as well. I have just come to expect that noise factor is part of the SF dining experience. I guess that is why the SF Chronicle always includes a "bell" rating on their restaurant reviews.

                                      I love what Alice Waters did in the 70 and had always wanted to eat at CP. I was thrilled to have had the chance last year and hope to repeat it next trip to SF.


                                      1. RWO and RL both gave helpful context. I hope that gastronomes trying these places for the first time know that the Cafe started as a casual spin-off, or overflow facility, from the restaurant but more importantly, reputations of "Chez Panisse" and "Alice Waters" happened before there was a Cafe. (I remember experiencing the evolution from just coffee upstairs, before the bedrooms were remodeled, to a full restaurant there.)

                                        Not sure I correctly caught how many visits led to the conclusion "Chez Panisse Café is terribly overrated, overpriced, and vastly oversold on itself..." After a lot of experience I haven't found it possible to take the measure of restaurants based on less than a few visits (some well-known professional critics use 3 to 5). It doesn't mean I visit every restaurant repeatedly, and I wrote off one place after just two bad goofs by its kitchen, but I keep in mind that this very limited sampling may have been atypical, and probably misleading if I characterized the whole restaurant from it. (Cited a related case in recent "2/18" French Laundry thread.)

                                        15 Replies
                                        1. re: eatzalot

                                          The Cafe didn't originally feel so much like a spinoff of the restaurant. It was a very different concept inspired by a pizzeria Alice Waters visited in Turin--something like Dopo before they expanded. Over the years the upstairs menu became less pizza-centric and evolved into something approaching an a la carte version of the food downstairs.

                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                            "evolved into something approaching an a la carte version of the food downstairs." I understand that this is your opinion Robert (here presented as fact). With some experience myself of both establishments, I disagree, and so did the restaurant when I inquired specifically about this -- reported earlier (link below) including "No, there hasn't been any deliberate change of philosophy or relationship of the two menus in recent years," meaning recent years as compared to early years of the Cafe. I didn't ask permission at that time to name the authoritative source but I feel that if I had done so, it would have settled this point permanently.


                                            1. re: eatzalot

                                              The salads used to come in big bowls that easily served two or three. The pizzas used to be a big main course for one, and the calzone was huge, plenty for three or four. They had fewer main courses and did not have the three-course prix-fixe they do today. They took no reservations, so we typically had to wait two hours (until we learned to bribe the host)..

                                              In recent years, I've ordered leisurely four-course birthday and anniversary meals off the a la carte upstairs that's were similar to prix-fixe meals I've had downstairs. In the early 80s, that would have been impossible.

                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                I still remember the first time I ate at the upstairs Cafe at Chez Panisse. The highlight of the meal was the calzone you mention -- huge (the two tips overreaching the edge of the large plate), golden brown, puffed three or four inches high, oozing with rich cheese within -- crisp and hot and rich enough to be a hearty course shared among three or four of us. Started with a soup, just bursting with flavor. Great experience.

                                                1. re: nosh

                                                  The first and only time I ate at Chez Panisse Cafe, I had the calzone. It was magnificent. It matched your description of it.
                                                  The thing that really hit me though, was dessert. It was an almond cake, with a fruit compote, with whipped cream served along side of it. I was just blown away, not by the dessert, but by the whipped cream. It was the best I had ever had, and have had since. I think it was Straus Family, but oh my. It was whipped to the perfect consistency and just made everything fall into place. Such a simple thing, but it was a crowning touch.
                                                  To me, that is what makes Chez Panisse special: that emphasis on the simple things.

                                                  1. re: artisan02

                                                    Clearly not simple things like service, being courteous, or the difference between light and dark meat.

                                                    1. re: uhockey

                                                      "Clearly not simple things like service, being courteous, or the difference between light and dark meat." That's much less clear to me, after what appears to be more experience with the place. I'm gathering there was only one behind this report, please correct me if I'm wrong:


                                                      1. re: eatzalot

                                                        It was one visit, but as they say "you never get a second chance to make a first impression." A great restaurant should, IMO, be great every time. If my first trip to a local eatery was bad, I'd not go back there either.

                                                        1. re: uhockey

                                                          You weren't served any bad food, were you? The two salads and two pizzas the three of you got just didn't meet your expectations.

                                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                            Bad as in rotten, no. Bad as in cocky service with mediocre food, yes.

                                                            I love that I write glowing reviews of multiple places, yet the one that gets the attention is all the defenders of a place that simply didn't live up to the hype.

                                                            I have had better salads at local pubs and had better pizza in at least 4 states.

                                                            Fresh, yes. Good, not so much. Worth the price, not even close.

                                                            1. re: uhockey

                                                              "I love that I write glowing reviews of multiple places ..." Are they also based on a single visit?

                                                              There are different views about drawing conclusions. I've rarely posted even tentative impressions from one visit (in more than 20 years of doing so on the Internet). I notice that if people pan a place, they often perceive differing comments as "defense" of it, even though there are many other reasons. Just suppose, to verify your first impression, you returned a few more times and got a very different impression. (I've done that sometimes.) Then your revised impression wouldn't be a "defense," would it?

                                                2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                  Wow, bribe the host ... we just went at uncrowded times (which I still find a good approach, anywhere -- as Jim Quinn wrote in the 1980s, Never Eat Out on a Saturday Night). But both the differences and overlaps of the two establishments were explained by the restaurant in the linked posting, so if you want to argue with their explanation, I would take it up with them.

                                                  1. re: eatzalot

                                                    That post is talking about recent years. I'm comparing the cafe's first five years (1980-84), when its menu was more like Pizzaiolo's today, with the past 5-10 years. I think the shift to smaller portions sizes and away from pizza had happened by the early 90s.

                                                    In the five or so years since the cafe started taking dinner reservations, I've found the four-course meals I've had there fairly similar to the prix-fixe meals I've had downstairs, and not so similar to meals at other places with a seasonal focus owned by former Chez Panisse chefs, such as Camino, Oliveto, and Pizzaiolo.

                                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                      I'm sorry that I must keep responding, but it is to clarify mis-readings or anyway mis-characterizations of my own posts.

                                                      The linked post about Panisse contained current, very authoritative comments on exactly the point here: How the relationship of restaurant to Café has, and hasn't, changed from origins to present. That is what I asked the restaurant about. I've tried to make this clear a few times now, I apologize if I failed.

                                                      1. re: eatzalot

                                                        Employees are entitled to their opinions, but they may not be aware of how much reducing the portion sizes, expanding the number of main courses, and taking reservations has affected the experience. They aren't likely to be all that familiar with the competition, either, which may lead them to exaggerate the differences between the two restaurants, which share sourcing and an executive chef.

                                          2. While I would not call It the worst place ever, the reputation it has begs for disappointment. Fresh local ingredients lovingly prepared is a mantra that has gotten old and the approach of Ms Waters has not moved on in 20 years. She is overseeing a newer version of the Taditch, frozen in amber.

                                            6 Replies
                                            1. re: budnball

                                              You can like it or not like it, but why should she "move on"? What should she "move on" to? Change for change sake is worthless. Saying Alice Waters should move on is sort of like saying that YoYo Ma should move on from the cello.

                                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                or move on from 276 year-old Petunia to a 2009 model.

                                              2. re: budnball

                                                If you want stale, out-of-area ingredients prepared without without enthusiasm, Tadich is reliable. I recommend the previously frozen shrimp.

                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                  Hey, what did Tadich do to get bitch-slapped as an innocent bystander here?

                                                  1. re: nosh

                                                    You and Robert probably have much more experience than I do, but I've only been to Tadich once, and to be honest, I thought it sucked.

                                                    1. re: tupac17616

                                                      I had dinner at Tadich twice in the past three months after a long period of not going there. The first meal was perfect, the best fish (Chilean sea bass) I may have ever had and the other items on the plate very good, everything still hot from the stove. The second dinner (can't remember what it was) had been sitting long enough to be barely warm plus other poor-served-quality characteristics. I would have sent it back except I was with people having a good time and also with a time constraint. But the quality of the two meals couldn't have been more different.

                                                      The first (excellent) meal described above was at the bar/counter in the mid-afternoon. The second was at a table at a normal dinner hour. Does anyone have experience with different quality at different times there?

                                              3. I'm going to sidestep the standard Chez Panisse discussions, their fans/detractors, and the service, and ask about the iced tea. Having spent several months working in South Carolina, I know the people there love their iced tea. Iced tea lovers usually are used to their plain Snapple/Nestle/Lipton tea, with varying amounts of sugar (which obliterates whatever subtle tea tastes existed). Even using a "fancy" tea bag like Twinings or whatever wouldn't change the tastes too much, especially with sugar.

                                                When your mother and aunt ordered it, what were they expecting?

                                                17 Replies
                                                1. re: Cary

                                                  You've got to be kidding me, right? While I don't live in SC, I am quite the drinker of quality hot teas and the differences are myriad from good to bad - and the difference between Lipton and quality black tea is tremendous.

                                                  The south and their "sweet tea" is not at all what we wanted or expected and they dress theirs the same way every time, with a single splenda.

                                                  At $5, lipton flavor is unacceptable - and yes, I can tell the difference between Lipton and "good" tea. The tea at Boulevard was good, Koi in LA was excellent. I think at $5 a glass they simply expected something better than Lipton-esque.

                                                  1. re: uhockey

                                                    Wow, are you getting hammered for this mediocre review, not your words, the experience. Sorry for this grief, thought your review was spot on to my experiences, 3 at CP, 2 cafe, one fancy room. No further comments as l do not want to be taken to task as well.

                                                    1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                      I'm over it - I write these for my benefit and the benefit of others. I went to Aqua despite others disliking it - I liked it. I hated Lola in Cleveland and get ripped on the Midwest Board for it all the time.

                                                      Different strokes, different folks - mine is but a single review and people can take it for what it is worth.

                                                      1. re: uhockey

                                                        I read your review of Lola -- you didn't hate it, just didn't meet high expectations.

                                                        1. re: uhockey

                                                          Don't feel bad, uhockey - many of us have been slammed for not liking CP and FL. I feel that if I spend $200 - $400 per person for a meal, even if it's just once at a place, that I have the right to criticize it for cold, mediocre service and unremarkable food. Love your reviews - keep up the good work!

                                                          1. re: Claudette

                                                            just to be clear and fair, you won't spend anywhere near $200 pp at CP Cafe, which is what OP reported on, unless you are ordering from the very top of the wine list. (and spending more on wine than on food). I typically spend around $150 per couple, or $75 per person there with a bottle of wine, less if we order the pre fixe. Even downstairs on the weekends it is $95 p/p for the set menu, so again, very possible and easy to dine for less than $200 per person. CP and the French Laundry don't belong in the same sentance or even the same paragraph when it comes to price and to imply otherwise is either misleading or misinformed.

                                                            1. re: susancinsf

                                                              No, they don't need to be menitoned in the same paragraph with regard to price, quality, friendliness........or pretty much anything.

                                                              One was worth the $400 pricetag for one, the other wasn't worth the $100 for three.

                                                              1. re: uhockey

                                                                I had lunch there today. It was a fantastic lunch. The place, however, was a sauna, which made us enjoy the two bottles of cold wine even more.

                                                                We shared a pizzetta, then I had a grapefruit (and fennel?) salad with a sardine toast. It was probably the best grapefruit I have ever had.

                                                                My main was thinly sliced pork with various vegetables, the type I usually don't eat, and they were sweet and delicious.

                                                                The apple tart was excellent.

                                                                The wines were very good, and at under $40 each, quite reasonable, especially when considering selections (and I had just been at a Capital Grille on a business trip and handed the wine list to pick something for the table and thought it was high given the selections and markups).

                                                                Service was good. I wouldn't give it a "best ever" rating, but it was perfect for today.

                                                                I don't know if it can be said enough times, but lunch was an excellent presentation of fresh food cooked properly. Nothing was memorable in the sense of preparation, but everything was excellent and made for a nice well rounded meal. (All that said, I enjoyed this lunch better than my previous visit (which was very good) some time ago.)

                                                              2. re: susancinsf

                                                                I should have been more clear: I've never eaten upstairs, just downstairs, and I still wasn't impressed.

                                                              3. re: Claudette

                                                                uhockey's party of three spent around $28 a person including service charge and tax. That's kind of a lot for two salads, a pizza, a salad pizza, and two glasses of iced tea, but it's nothing like a $200-per-person dinner downstairs.

                                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                  I don't consider that a lot at all, in modern times. I spent $25 for a single small pizza and a beer at Little Star last night (togo, the beer the bar while I was waiting). No salads. As it was to go, I was light on the tip (tipped the bartender and kitchen staff).

                                                                  1. re: bbulkow

                                                                    Yeah, but a Little Star pizza is two or three times as much food as the kind they make at Chez Panisse.

                                                              4. re: uhockey

                                                                uhockey, like Delucacheesemonger, you have my sympathies as well. Besides, you are only stating your honest opinion. Like you, my one visit to CP didn't turn out to be that "worldview-changing" experience I thought I'd find. And like Delucacheesemonger, I am NOT saying any more!!

                                                              5. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                                I wouldn't call OP spot on in his representation of what the server said about the chicken. OP can't get over the idea that server said breast and leg were the same and would taste the same (and in a post above he lists it as one of his three major compaints about the restaurant not executing on the 'simple' things) , when in fact by OPs own report of server's words server said no such thing. Server's statement that leg would be 'as good' was an opinion, no more, no less.

                                                                Sometimes when there is a lot of editorializing it is difficult to get past that to appreciate the factual experience.

                                                              6. re: uhockey

                                                                While that particular tea might not have been something that was liked, Chez Panisse is known for quality tea, giving a platform and audiance for better tea and having a number of their tea buyers launch their own businesses such as Modern Tea who still may supply CP, though I'm thinking not. Can't remember who the current supplier is

                                                                Teance is another tea shop where the owner once worked at CP to procure better teas.

                                                                This started with Helen Gustafson at Chez Panisse

                                                                I'm not saying you have to like it. Only that CP takes the tea seriously.

                                                                1. re: uhockey

                                                                  *shrug* Alright, it was a valid question looking for your opinion.

                                                                  As a drinker of high quality hot teas as well (I avoid teabags like the plague), I find the quality difference between Lipton and "quality" teabags when used for ICED TEA to be small.

                                                                  Perhaps the other restaurants you enjoyed actually use tea leaves or do cold water extractions for their iced teas?

                                                              7. I'm with you. I have had very ordinary meals and lame service gaffes more than once at CP Cafe as well. I only go there when out-of-town relatives insist. But I don't take my friends there.

                                                                1. We had a radically-different and memorable lunch there this past Thursday - we walked in without reservations to a full room and extremely underdressed - we were graciously seated and served in the bright and clean Cafe room at the front by Daniel and the other servers working with him. There was no rushing, no delays, and no glitches (aside from the overchilled and therefore pretty flavorless butter with fresh bread - such a minor annoyance - but why does this happen anywhere?) - so glad we happened in on such a perfect afternoon after reading about the disappointments here.

                                                                  The glasses of Bandol and Gruner Veltliner were just right. The field green salad was simple perfection. The halibut tartare was pristine and sitting atop the finest zucchini and cucumbers I can recall ever eating. The roasted squid main was amazing with perfect asparagus and the pan-fried halibut with the best roasted potatoes was a dish I'll remember for a long time. Desserts were equally impressive - a slightly sour, rich but not too crusty rhubarb tart balanced by rich vanilla ice cream and a buttermilk panna cotta declared "best ever" with its roasted cherries. Finally, their very freshly-brewed house blend Blue Bottle coffee maintained the high level of the rest of the meal.

                                                                  Our high expectations for this experience were exceeded and we understand first hand why this is the institution that it is!

                                                                  7 Replies
                                                                  1. re: rlh

                                                                    I am wondering if the butter thing is a health inspector issue. While butter can sit out a long time without going bad, I'd bet that if it is sitting out anywhere, unrefrigerated, it is going to cause an "improper holding temperature" (or similar) violation. "Minor" improper holding temp. violations are quite common with City of Berkeley inspectors.

                                                                    Glad you enjoyed your lunch. It sounds similar in service and quality to my recent lunch there, including (likely the same) Gruner Veltliner.

                                                                    1. re: lmnopm

                                                                      Good point. If they have a small microwave in the service area they can give it a short zap right before serving, but I bet there isn't a microwave anywhere on the premises at CP.

                                                                    2. re: rlh

                                                                      Perhaps service correlates with alcohol purchase.

                                                                      1. re: uhockey

                                                                        Nope. Though I love to have a glass or three of wine at CP Cafe, there are times when we're headed back home, DW doesn't want to drive, and abstinence is therefore required.

                                                                        Over the course of many visits, we've had service that ranges from slightly better than adequate to absolutely stellar. And some of the best service we've had has come while sipping from a carafe of their complimentary house-carbonated sparkling water.

                                                                        It's too bad you got inferior service. That shouldn't happen, but it does. And it does affect your perception of the food. But you didn't seem to be much into the food, either.

                                                                        If you want to be really fair, give the place another shake. But limit your expectations - if the food isn't something you're excited about eating, even the best service won't change that.

                                                                        For me, a prix fixe lunch at CP Cafe consists primarily of exquisite ingredients. Simple preparation highlights them. And the price, while not cheap, is reasonable. Your mileage may (and apparently does) vary.

                                                                        1. re: uhockey

                                                                          actually, my major service complaint on my last visit to the Cafe was that I had to ask for a wine list (the regular list, they list a few btg and such on the food menu itself) and that it took a long time to get it and to get the wine. They were hardly pushing the alchohol; quite the opposite in fact. I noticed that no one else around me got the list when they were seated and given menus either (and thus I think a some folks assumed the choices on the food menu were all that was available). A relatively minor annoyance, but it did annoy me.

                                                                          1. re: susancinsf

                                                                            I think the downstairs wine list has always been available upstairs only by request.

                                                                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                              hmmm. I don't recall a wine list seperate from the menu not being presented automatically when I've dined upstairs, which I have done fairly often. I never thought of it as the 'downstairs' list because I've looked at it numerous times, and I don't eat downstairs very often)

                                                                              of course, even so, it wouldn't have been much of an annoyance if they had brought it right away when I did ask for it. This last visit, the host seated us, ran off before I could get the words out of my mouth that I wanted the list, and then it took our server quite some time to get to us, quite some time after that to bring me the list when the first words out of my mouth were, 'could we please have some water and see the wine list before we order' (or words to that effect) and quite some time after that (and after our first course was served) before our choice, ordered when we ordered our dinner, was brought and opened.

                                                                              Don't get me wrong, I am squarely in the pro-CP camp. Indeed, I think the Cafe is a relatively good value given its quality. But my last visit was indeed mared by service issues, (and just a touch of attitude from the host), which is something CP doesn't normally have, at least IMO.

                                                                      2. Alice Water's is not a brilliant chef, she is a thought leader. Through her writing and her restaurant, she has helped Americans broadly connect with simple local food based upon traditional Mediterranean cooking principles. Like any business, her product is only as good as the people delivering it. A great server can work with a variety of customers and satisfy many. Cale might be a great server (I doubt it), but clearly rubbed you the wrong way in addition to the fundamental gaffs. Nit picking advice: If you want your bread heated, ask for it. The wood oven has several corners. That would make the hard butter less important, no? If you're egg was overcooked, you might ask them if this is the intention, and for a new attempt. I know, Cale was AWOL.

                                                                        Broadly, on all the comments about how easy it is to equal CP's ingredients stream, baloney. It has become easier, but the focus at CP and its proximity to suppliers who can deliver the chi makes them uniquely advantaged. Are other people doing it? Yes, but they are particularly practiced at it.

                                                                        The best part of the chicken is the oyster. Particularly if the bird has been carefully spit roasted. No one serves just oysters, but if you can sit at a rotisserie and sweet talk the cook. I used to serve pigeon backs to a couple of loyal customers. The skin, the wood flavor....

                                                                        1. Loved, loved, LOVED this post! I have so many bones to pick with this place a rant listing them here would be nonproductive. But do let me chime in and agree that this is a preposterously pretentious place with a staff that should be neutered (or spayed).

                                                                          1. My only meal at Chez Panisse was so bad I am still mad about it ten years later. I assume they are resting on their laurels, and will always have customers because they are famous. They don't need to be good any more.

                                                                            1 Reply
                                                                            1. re: LisaRiggens

                                                                              I've had excellent meals there this year, as I have almost every year for the past 40.


                                                                              I don't think they're coasting on their reputation, but I'm sure their reputation often leads people who don't like it to go overboard in their criticism.

                                                                            2. If you have access to stellar local food products (which I do), and are a competent cook (which I am), you can easily turn out a meal that equals or surpasses anything I've had at CP. (Granted, I've only been 3 times, and that many years ago.) The DH and I were truly baffled by all the hype.

                                                                              7 Replies
                                                                              1. re: pikawicca

                                                                                I've had some dishes at Chez Panisse that I could make at home (in fact I've made some), but many that I couldn't. They get ingredients that I can't find (such as the grass shrimp I had last year), or that are better than I can find (such as their lamb, cardoons, and hazlenuts). They have all that wood-burning hardware I don't have, and their cooks are much better than I am at grilling. I've made pollo al mattone and the one I had there last year was way better.

                                                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                                  Lamb was one of the dishes that disappointed. There's a local farmer who raises Horned Dorsets -- best lamb I've ever eaten. There were no "exotic" items on the menu any time we visited, i.e., no cardoons or grass shrimp.

                                                                                2. re: pikawicca

                                                                                  That's similar to the argument Daniel Patterson made in his NY Times op-ed a few years ago. He wasn't arguing against Chez Panisse per se, but against "the dogma of using [organic and sustainably raised] ingredients to create only comfortable home cooking with no particular point of view."


                                                                                  However, I think fundamentally he was ranting against the taste of local diners, who are not the world's biggest fans of innovative food.

                                                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                                    Thanks for the interesting link. I think it's true that CP influence has led many Bay Area chefs to seek out high-quality, seasonal, local ingredients, which is an extremely good thing. However, I also think that one of SF's best restaurants (Atelier Crenn) is as far from CP's style of cooking as it it possible to get. Aziza and Kokkari are also boldly going where Waters would never tread. The younger chefs seem to be shaking up the food scene. None of these place lack customers, so I don't think you can fault local diners.

                                                                                    1. re: pikawicca

                                                                                      There's more innovation around than there was in 2005, when Patterson wrote that. Earlier that year he left Frisson and the other modernist place, Antidote, also closed.

                                                                                      Atelier Crenn still lacks customers in the sense that it isn't booked solid weeks in advance the way many of the less innovative places are.

                                                                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                                        And, his Plum concept has been toned down considerably. When I suggested it would be good to have one "challenging" and casual restaurant in the entire bay area, I was called "elitist".

                                                                                        The artist's dilemma.

                                                                                        1. re: bbulkow

                                                                                          I don't think that's necessarily elitist, it's just out of step with local taste. Call it prejudice or preference, but many of us prefer that our food not be manipulated too much, and if the "artist" doesn't like that, tough.

                                                                                          "If I could get perfect vegetables I wouldn't need to do all this."—Heston Blumenthal


                                                                                3. No dissent from me - we went to Chez Panisse years ago and got poor service and an unmemorable meal. Our conclusion was "never again".

                                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                                  1. re: zabriskiepoint

                                                                                    I've only been to the Cafe upstairs once a couple of years ago for a late lunch with four others and it was delightful in every way. The room was warm, Alice Waters was in the house, the staff were on point and the food was delicious. I still dream about the nettle pizza in particular. I suppose you could argue that nothing was particularly cutting edge or modern but who cares when it all tastes that good?

                                                                                  2. I don't usually put a lot of faith in the Michelin guide when it comes to 'absolutely reliable recommendations'. However, I do take notice when they 'remove' star (s) from establishments. This action of their's are usually spot on in reflecting the 'going down hill' of certain restaurants. When they remove the star from Chez Panisse, I concurred with their decision absolutely!!

                                                                                    CP used to be really great! I had my best 'Pre-French Laundry' California meal there, years ago. So interesting and innovative! For my prix-fix, they took one whole organic free-range duck and work a 'duck only tasting menu' around the fowl. Seared liver, innards & neck meat..etc for a terrine, Confit Leg, Magret de canard medium rare just like the French do, the bones used with wild mushrooms for soup. At that time, absolutely stunning!

                                                                                    Pity, the 'fire and drive' has now subsided and meal has become mediocre and boring. Though the ingredients used are still top notch fresh and organic!