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Help me choose my birthday dinner: Chez Panisse or Commis?

So a little over a year after moving to the Bay Area, I still haven't eaten at Chez Panisse--and not because I've ever questioned that it would be great. Yes, I've read the half a dozen threads that have popped up debating its merits, but for me, the restaurant has remained in my mind a sort of Mecca of all that is good and pure in the Bay Area culinary scene--the best local ingredients made to shine through simple, honest preparations. Besides, I've eaten at, and enjoyed, the restaurants of various Chez Panisse alum: Oliveto, Zuni, etc. And my wife and I celebrated our most recent anniversary at Stone Barn at Blue Hill (in NY). So Chez Panisse is right up my alley, and more than that, since it's arguably the place that started this all.

With a birthday coming up and my budget increasingly tight, I thought doing one of the Monday night downstairs dinners would be the perfect way to celebrate. And I still kind of do.

But recently I've been following that monster thread on Commis and read a few other glowing reviews. And while I may have a slight preference for simple, rustic food, I enjoy being wowed by creative preparations and artful presentations as much as the next foodie.

So now I'm a bit enamored with the idea of having my birthday dinner at Commis--especially if I can sit at the kitchen counter and watch the chef at work.

Price point is more or less a wash, since the Monday dinner at Chez Panisse and the standard prix-fixe at Commis essentially cost the same. But it is worth noting, I think, that my wife and I have really been tightening the purse strings lately, cutting back from eating out five or six meals a week to just one or two. It's safe to say that this will be our biggest splurge for the next several months.

We'd probably be having the meal in mid to late November, so once CP posts its Monday dinners for next month, that might sway things in one direction or the other too.

In any case, I figured that since I've never actually eaten at either of these restaurants, where else would I turn for advice but to this board? Where do you think I'd have the more stellar meal? The more special and memorable one, as befitting the occasion?

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Chez Panisse
1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

Commis
3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

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  1. A year or two from now, Chez Panisse will almost certainly be just the same, while Commis may be twice the price and ten times as hard to get into.

    8 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      Have you eaten at Commis, Robert? I haven't seen if you've weighed in on it.

      1. re: abstractpoet

        Not yet, it's at the top of my list of new expensive places to try.

      2. re: Robert Lauriston

        For once Robert and I are in complete agreement.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          I'm not so sure about that Robert. The prices are currently toward the top of the scale and having been there three times I can't say that folks are waiting in line ot get in (though I think they turn people away without reservations). The Bauer review didn't help but the Michelin star definitely will. Commis may be a test of who wields more power with the public, Bauer or Michelin.

          1. re: skwid

            I think it's just a factor of it being fairly new and being in Oakland. The "buzz" hasn't made it across the Bay yet. Considering the number of West-bayers who wouldn't set foot in Oakland for love or money, maybe it never will, but I wouldn't bank on Commis being an easy reservation for long, especially if the economy picks up. If the economy doesn't pick up, it may not make it and/or the chef might get wooed away. Besides, I think the "I ate there when..." factor has some value.

            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              Agreed - another vote for Commis, chef's counter. For the food, and the atmosphere (...it feels "comfortable". i.e., we'd feel equally appropriate going casual for a weekday meal or dressy for a special occasion - not sure I'd say the same about CP downstairs), I would definitely give it a try.

              Have a wonderful birthday - no matter where you end up, you really can't go wrong deciding between two great restaurants in the E. Bay.

              1. re: e_tsai

                You should know that Chez Panisse is in my top five. I would mud wrestle anyone putting that restaurant down. I really love it. Given that, I ate at Commis tonight. Go to Commis

                If your plans had been for a bigger blow out night at Chez Panisse like a Saturday, I might have to rethink it. However with the almost identical price for three courses ... Commis.

                I say this because this is something rare and beautiful that will probably change with time and popularity.

                Seriously, why are people bitching about spending $59 for three courses at Commis when CP charges $60. I don't see anyone breaking that down course by course.

                On a Wednesday night when I passed by empty restaurant after empty restaurant on the way home, every seat at Commis was filled.

                Was the food WAAAY above other top places, probably not. I need to digest tonight a bit more and think about it.

                But it wasn't as precious or odd as I was prepared for. I had planned to stop by Lush Gelato on the way home after all that talk of small portions and maybe do some bar hopping of places I'm been meaning to check out. I was too full and just went home.

                IMO, anyone who likes California Cuisine will like Commis. That is just what it is, well done. It is not as on the edge as Ubuntu.

                But that chance to sit two feet from the Chef and watch these dishes being assembled was great. I like Chez Panisse, but the staff at Commis is so much better. I haven't liked any staff that much since the old Bizou which was my favorite restuarant ... ever.

                BTW, if you want to watch the action, the two seats at the counter the farthest from the door are the best bet. That is the area that is the last stop before being served and the finishing touches are put on.

                It gets more and more difficult to find the latest celeb chef in the kitchen and focusing on the restaurant, let alone cook.

                Instead we have the the celeb chains ... Thomas Keller with all his restaurants scattered around, Hubert Keller with his burger bars and other stuff,, Bradley Ogden, Wolfgang Puck, etc. etc. etc.

                Chez Panisse of course only has Cafe Fanny, but it would be really unlikely that Alice Waters is putting your plate together or you can directly watch the action.

                Also, get a small Chez Panisse fix by dropping by the cafe upstairs. You see the dining room on the way upstairs and get a feel for the place. You say you eat out once or twice a week. I don't know if that means pizza and a beer or a nicer restaurant. If it's a pizza, skip a few outings. The cafe has a 3 course prix-fix for little over $20. When you go downstairs go on Saturday.

                For this dinner ... go to Commis. Maybe the Oakland location will keep it from getting ruined by its own popularity. However, I have to guess it will get more and more difficult to get in over time and maybel less personal.

                -----
                Chez Panisse
                1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

                Commis
                3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

                1. re: rworange

                  Chez Panisse (Pagnol et Cie, Inc.) has only the upstairs and downstairs restaurants.

                  Cafe Fanny is owned by Alice Waters's sister and brother-in-law, who also own Picante.

                  -----
                  Chez Panisse
                  1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

                  Cafe Fanny
                  1603 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley, CA 94702

                  Picante
                  1328 6th St, Berkeley, CA 94710

        2. Are you going with just your wife?

          A lot would seem to depend on the crowd. Commis seems like a place you'd only go with other hardcore foodies.

          9 Replies
          1. re: vulber

            It will most likely just be me and my wife. She is not a hardcore foodie, per se, and based on what I know of her tastes, would probably like Chez Panisse more.

            But it's my birthday. =)

            1. re: abstractpoet

              In that case go to Commis and sit at a table.

              1. re: skwid

                But sitting at a table would eliminate one of the main advantages of the place compared with Chez Panisse.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  But if his wife isn't a foodie do you want the conversation directed at the chefs?

                  1. re: skwid

                    If that were a concern, I imagine abstractpoet wouldn't have suggested that sitting at the counter would be a plus.

                    And it's not her birthday.

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      It would be wise to take into consideration the other person you are bringing along. It is his wife after all and if she doesn't enjoy herself the evening is not likely to be a success. I would suggest goign to Commis but sitting at one of the tables.being too much of a food geek at a meal can really turn people off if they are not into that sort of thing.

                      1. re: skwid

                        Thanks for the concern, skwid--my wife would appreciate you speaking up on her behalf, I'm sure. =)

                        Actually, I think that, foodie or not, all things being equal she would actually enjoy watching the chefs put the dishes together, especially if the whole process is as Zen-like and impressive as everyone says. She likes it, for example, when chefs on TV can chop vegetables really fast.

                        What bothers her more is when I spend the entire meal analyzing the food, which I've been trying to be better about (though, it being my birthday, perhaps she'll give me some leeway there as well!).

                        The only thing about the chef's counter that would be a drawback is if you felt like you couldn't really talk there at all--either because you'd be too self-conscious or for fear of bothering the people who are cooking. But it doesn't sound like that would be the case.

                        Wow, it's looking like a clean sweep for Commis so far. Not entirely surprising, I guess, but I wasn't expecting unanimity.

                    2. re: skwid

                      I sit at the counter with other people all the time. We still manage to have conversations with one another. And at Commis, while the chefs are cooking right in front of you, you're not really having a conversation with them -- I certainly didn't want to interrupt them. I asked a few questions towards the end of the meal when we were some of the last diners in the restaurant, but I don't think it disturbs your dining at all.

                      Plus, it's his birthday, and he'll love it. I wouldn't suggest forcing your vegetarian wife to go with you to a steakhouse on your birthday, but sitting at a counter is a fine sacrifice.

                2. re: abstractpoet

                  Should you choose Chez Panisse, customers are welcome in the kitchen area. It's not like sitting at a chef's table for your full meal, but maybe that will fulfill some cooking voyeurism.

                  -----
                  Chez Panisse
                  1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

              2. I love Chez Panisse. Go to Commis, sit at the chef's counter, no question about it.

                1 Reply
                1. re: JasmineG

                  Both places are great but I would have to give the nod to Commis. If there is one day you are entitled to doing what YOU want, it is your birthday. Sit at the counter and enjoy the show!

                2. Thanks for all the responses, everyone! I've been convinced, and have since nabbed an 8:30 reservation at Commis for the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend (yes, it'll be a decadent weekend indeed--I'm going to have to start working out NOW to prepare).

                  Here's a twist, though--now, it looks like there will be four of us dining, as a foodie friend (and former Bay Area hound) and her husband will be joining us. Do you all still think sitting at the chef's counter would be the best option?

                  I've tentatively requested the four seats at the far end of the counter. I think our friends would really enjoy the whole open kitchen aspect as well. But I can see from the pictures that we'd all basically be sitting in a row--do you think it's still possible to have a conversation if there are four of us at the counter?

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: abstractpoet

                    With 4 in a row the placement of your wife will be crucial to the success of your birthday and perhaps for some time after. Get a table.

                    1. re: wolfe

                      Yes. Get a table. You can always go back as a twosome in the future. Watching the kitchen is fun but it's not that far off from sitting at the counter at a diner ... just with better ingredients and talent.

                    2. re: abstractpoet

                      I’m writing to present a case for “Not So Fast,” to the proponents of “Table not Counter.” I ate at the counter, half of a party of 2, with a group of 4 next to us in the remaining seats. They talked & seemed to be having a wonderful time. I think whether the counter is an option, or the best option, depends on the 4 diners. If you’re looking for “My Dinner with Andre” (rent it), by all means sit at a table. But I thought the counter seating was so integral to my enjoyment of Commis (& different from other counters) that I would make an effort to sit there. The quiet scene might promote contemplation over conversation, but that could be fine. I’d probably sit the OP & the foodie-half of the other couple on the outsides, as they could observe & be less likely to mind if not included in conversation. But words are sometimes superfluous - at Blue Bottle I recently recommended a Gibralter (short latte, not on the menu), & I was going to ask the fellow how he liked it until I saw him standing there with his eyes rolling back, in some kind of quiet ecstatic state. I’ve noticed the OP shares my taste in food (Commis now, not CP, yes!) but I don’t know how that translates to seating arrangements – or anything else. But in this particular instance I’d consult with the dining companions & Commis staff, then decide.

                      1. re: abstractpoet

                        Abstractpoet, I'm weighing in a bit late, but my only caution for you in your celebratory dinner is be aware that the portion sizes at Commis may seem small. I've been to Commis twice and loved both times for the flavors and creativity and complexity of the dishes. Both times I didn't leave feeling hungry. However, the menu changes often, and I do know one friend who went for her anniversary and that night the dishes were smallish and she felt a bit cheated.

                        I don't know if Chez Panisse is any bigger since I've never dined downstairs, but I think going into Commis knowing it's more like a tasting menu than a three-course dinner might help lower expectations. Also, when perusing that night's menu, if you feel the options look smallish, you can actually skip dessert and make your dinner with two starters and then an entree. (Or another trick might be to go do Adesso for some pre-dinner drinks and snacks before going to Commis.)

                        Having sat at the counter, I have to say the staff is extremely focused on their work. So they're not chatty. It's not like a sushi bar. They might be cordial and chat in between dishes, but when the restaurant is full, you'll feel guilty like you're bothering them. Still, overall the service people are amazing and friendly and often make any celebration dinner feel special.

                        -----
                        Chez Panisse
                        1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

                        Adesso
                        4395 Piedmont Ave, Oakland, CA

                        Commis
                        3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

                        1. re: singleguychef

                          Given that we'll be going the day after Thanksgiving, the somewhat smaller portion sizes may actually be a relief--though recent reports seem to indicate that maybe the portions have gotten a bit larger anyway. And there's always Lush Gelato down the street if we still have room afterward!

                          Still debating about the counter vs. table. I'll probably just call the restaurant up and ask what they think would be best.

                      2. Well, looks like it's a moot point, since it turns out the entire counter is booked that night already anyway, for both seatings (!). The word is getting out, people!

                        Maybe it's just as well, since four of us sitting in a row probably wouldn't have been ideal. The woman I talked to suggested trying to put us at one table where two people have a view of the kitchen, and the other two have a view outside. I guess that'd be the table at the very front of the restaurant, by the window?

                        My wife and I will just have to save up our pennies so just the two of us can go again and sit at the counter!

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: abstractpoet

                          I think you'll like that table for four at the front, if that's the one she's planning for you. It's the only table on that side of the restaurant adjacent to the open kitchen/work station so you'll feel like you're having a party. The only downside, of course, is the constant foot traffic of people coming in and out asking if there's a seating or inquiring about the menu. It's still considered new, so people are still discovering it and walking in since there's nothing posted outside.

                        2. Thanks again for your advice and suggestions, everyone! The four of us loved our meal. I posted my (rather long) report in a separate thread:

                          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/670594