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to chez panisse or to not chez panisse, that is the question

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coming to SF from NY for a week, have never been to SF. Love farm to table, have wanted to go but am reading some not great reviews. Know there is a difference of opinion, was wondering what the general consensus is. no other restaurants planned as of yet.

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  1. I've been eating there a few times a year since the 70s and find it reliably good. Anybody who claims it has gone downhill has no credibility with me.

    The downstairs prix-fixe is one of the best values among more expensive restaurants in the area, and its prices are at the low end of the high end.

    The upstairs is relatively expensive compared with places with similar menus and top-quality ingredients, but it's also open later, which is often how I end up there.

    A couple of typical experiences for me, one up and one down:


    7 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      have you been there recently? I have been reading other posters itineraries and boy am I confused. We are focusing on California cuisine, seafood, maybe a visit to Chinatown for a meal. Any other rec's would be most appreciated.

      1. re: daisylover

        I was there in March and had a very nice meal.

        Any way, Chez Panisse is the mothership for all California cuisine and farm to table sorta stuff.

        A lot of the negative comments are stuff like, "I could cook that at home." And indeed you could if; a) you have a wood oven, b) had the training and c) had the same vendors to source from

        Some people do have wood ovens but I don't think anyone has the same vendors. They get stuff no else gets and with the farm to table stuff, that makes a difference.

        What CP excels at is handling stuff with a deft hand, especially delicate stuff like seafood/fish and produce. I'd go but don't over think it or believe any over-hype. Also it's not the kind of meal that will blow you away, however if you like fresh stuff and can notice subtly, might be worth it.

        1. re: ML8000

          Even when I buy at the farmers market from the same vendors CP uses, sometimes they've skimmed the cream of the crop. And they have some sources I don't, for example, I've never found hazelnuts to equal theirs.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            In March they served tangerines as one of the dessert options which were only available to CP. I didn't bother remembering the name because...well I can't get them. They were tasty and heirloom.

            1. re: ML8000

              Heirloom tangerines? Wow!

          2. re: ML8000

            I agree with your deft hand comment. For some of these items, if you can cook them at home, you must be a damn fine cook. Timing is impeccable, pastry is tender. They don't abuse fat and salt.

            I am probably biased, because I had some really formative experiences at CP. I will never forget their:

            1) goat cheese crostata
            2) chicken under a brick -- everything that a chicken should be -- bursting with flavor and a perfect crisp skin
            3) almond cake with fall fruit compote

            1. re: ML8000

              I read that sometimes too and think that people default to the 'I could cook that at home' criticism when they find dishes to be simple. I've never found the food at CP to be overly-complicated which I find refreshing and ironically, exciting! It's a showcase for some of the best ingredients in the US and the chefs seem to know when to stop manipulating them. Have fun!

        2. Why would you not go?

          Robert is correct.

          "best values among more expensive restaurants in the area, and its prices are at the low end of the high end."

          Plus I would go to Commis in Oakland for the same reasons.

          Good bang for your buck on high end dining.

          And the odds are you will have a truly fantastic meal.

          1. I had dinner in the downstairs dining room last month and it was very good. I think it depends on your expectations. There are nicer more refined and more expensive restaurants in the Bay Area. There are also many chefs who have gone on from CP to open their own restaurants and so CP is no longer as unique as it was at the beginning of the farm to table movement. Still, I enjoyed my meal and even though it would not be my #1 pick at that price, it would still be in my top 5 or so.

            1. Go to Chez Panisse. Avoid SF Chinatown.

              1. The restaurant is very special. I can't understand how someone who appreciates good food would not like it. It's simple, down to earth, farm to table, well sourced and well prepared food. We go about once or twice a year and it's allways a memorable experience. I went a couple of months ago and was going to post a review but never got around to it. We had an excellent meal. A link that has my reviews of last years meals:


                1. If you want to get a feeling of where farm to table all came from go here. It's simple food but it's always been excellent when I've been there. I wouldn't hesitant to suggest it to someone. I think the prices may be higher than other farm to table but the prices are online I believe and you can judge that for yourself.

                  1. here's a minority report, and be free to disregard it and go along with consensus. what is your general response to understatement and minimalism ? if you feel they allow ingredients to speak for themselves, you are likely to enjoy c.panisse. if you prefer some original flourishes (yes of course they were original-ish thirty years ago), bolder, creative touches when you go to higher end establishments, you'll still enjoy the food but might want more. they're reliable. you won't get an ill conceived or poorly composed dish there, part of the virtue of understatement.

                    there's another element that might be in play for visitors -- it's a famous institution and deserves a pilgrimage. if that is the only way to satisfy one's curiosity or yearning to pay homage to the institution, one does what one must.

                    1. I prefer the cafe to downstairs, but its just my opinion. Both upstairs and downstairs are lovely spaces to enjoy a meal.

                      1. I am one of those who find the place boring. Not bad, just dull. Just because they have ther freshest and best quality ingredients, does not mean the food is tasty. To me, it is elevated home cooking and I can do that myself. Give it a try tho, you may, like most, find it charming. Service and atmosphere are wonderful.

                        12 Replies
                        1. re: budnball

                          That's pretty much the argument Daniel Patterson made ten years ago:


                          Cooking like that at home, well, the meal I linked to included local Delta grass shrimp, baby turnips, Georgia shrimp, fresh porcini, leeks, peas, cardoons, and rhubarb, all of top quality. I know exactly how hard it is to get any one of those ingredients. Getting them all together for one meal, oy.

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            Yes they get good stuff but I want flavour and that is what I miss at CP. Plus except for the seafood, we all can get fresh turnips, porcini, leeks and peas.

                            1. re: budnball

                              If you're not picky about produce, sure. I buy from many of the same sources Chez Panisse does and can get the quality I want only on certain days at certain markets, some of them pretty inconvenient. If I just buy what they have at Berkeley Bowl, the difference is quite noticeable.

                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                Of course CP has a relationship with suppliers to get the best. I just feel after 4 meals over the years that fresh does not equal tasty, and for me, I want more from a restaurant than a list of ingredients that have been respected. I want real cooking and and I cannot emphasize enough, flavour. More than anything CP just does interest my palate. Maybe it is too subtle for me.

                                1. re: budnball

                                  Flavor starts at the farm. It's not just about freshness but making the plants thrive and and not harvesting until they're at their peak. For example, the difference between Knoll Farms cardoons and what you can (maybe, sometimes) get at Monterey Market is pretty dramatic. Chez Panisse can have them delivered. The only way I can get them is to schlep to Ferry Plaza on Saturday, and if I don't get there early they might sell out.

                              2. re: budnball

                                Taco Bell has flavour...with extra British grammar!

                                1. re: budnball

                                  just out of curiosity where would you send out of towners?

                                  1. re: daisylover

                                    Gather, Nopa, Spruce of the top of my head. It really depends on what kind of food experience you want. I have never had anything but raves when I take someone from out of town to the Slanted Door and that will start another thread rant.

                                    1. re: budnball

                                      yes, looks like I started a tirade - best seafood places in your opinion?

                                      1. re: daisylover

                                        Recent long discussion of seafood places:


                                        1. re: daisylover

                                          Yes, a different topic like seafood calls for a separate discussion thread. And there are many past ones on that subject available to search, as a starting point.

                                          (I would say not so much a tirade, as a crystallization or "nucleation" process. Like dropping a sugar crystal into a highly saturated sugar syrup, or making a loud noise in a room full of eager parrots -- to name two examples I've experienced.)

                                2. re: budnball

                                  I think that this is about expectations. If you are looking for a cutting edge experience, CP is not a good choice. If you are looking for some of the best local ingredients, simply but expertly prepared in a pretty yet cozy setting, you will love CP.

                                3. I would like to speak up on behalf of Cez Panisse on many levels. I've been to the cafe twice over the last 18 months and the food, service and ambience have all been memorable. While not the cheapest meal in town I felt it was good value for the quality. On another level though the place has good karma and I support it for that reason too. Several years ago my mother, who was disabled, decided to go the the cafe for lunch with a friend to celebrate my mother's birthday. When they got there and realized the cafe was up a steep flight of stairs, which my mother could not navigate, they apologized and said they would need to go elsewhere. The folks at Chez Panisse told them they would be honored to serve them lunch downstairs even though downstairs was not open for lunch. They were gracious and welcoming and my mother and her friend had a most memorable lunch being the only ones seated downstairs. A place with that much heart deserves support.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: buckygirl

                                    That's what happened with my frail mom three and a half years ago!

                                    I'm in LA, where the handicapped rules are different than SF and after all our planning it was heartbreaking that, clearly, she could not eat there. She'd managed the stairs to the first level but could not do the second. They came down, looked at my mom, chatted and - opened up that first floor for us at lunch. Just us.

                                    My mom was in heaven. She tried so hard to do it on her own, couldn't and the fact that they'd cared enough to help her? Huge. Add in the fact that the food was lovely and the oven roasted crab was so good that, even with her arthritis, my mom managed to get out and eat every morsel. It was that good.

                                    This spring I went back there with my cousins at lunch, ate at the cafe upstairs - and they were wowed as well. Perhaps simpler meals than the dinner menu but no less thoughtful or tasty.

                                  2. We went to the Cafe upstairs. Cheaper, easier to get in, and REALLY good!

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: zeldaz51

                                      What she said! The simple greens salads at Chez Panisse Café are some of the best I've ever had in my life.

                                    2. I am biased towards CP due to many, many fine meals there in the past. I haven't been in awhile but it still sticks out as the only fine restaurant where I've been offered and given seconds on the entre.

                                      1. It's like I describe Paris's Tour d'Argent. If you are looking just at the meal experience, like most restaurant customers, you can surely do better in many more comporary, or edgily high-end, Paris restaurants. On the other hand, you can still eat very well at the Tour; moreover none of those others has been around for 432 years (already ancient before the general promulgation of the "restaurant" concept in the early 1800s); none of the others can claim to've helped introduce and popularize the fork.

                                        Panisse's history and contributions are much more modest, but likewise, some people who look at it just for the restaurant experience (with blinders on, as it were), find it pleasant but not so very unique. They ignore or forget its influence -- that many other restaurants reflect broadly comparable style _because_ of Panisse; that it popularized terms like "California Cuisine" and "Farm-to-Table" (a specific Alice Waters print essay). Moreover there's a history, dating to the late 1970s, of experienced New Yorkers coming to town and being surprised how low-key the experience was (there was even a national magazine article on the NYers-at-Panisse Syndrome). But like Robert, albeit less frequently, I've dined there peridically (since the middle 70s, when almost no one outside its neighborhood knew about the place), through the opening of the upstairs cafe for overflow and walk-in business (the orignal restaurant, downstairs, is the "real" Chez Panisse to many locals, and it's what established the name) and always been satisfied with food, service, and value, irrespective of sporadic negative single-visit "reviews" and "reports" and nit-pickings.

                                        And, there's the history, and the many spin-offs either jointly owned (like César down the street) or by its many alumni.

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: eatzalot

                                          Chez Panisse doesn't need history to hold its own with the competition.

                                          The downstairs is still among the top places for the style of food it pioneered. When you factor in everything including service, atmosphere, wine list, and tea service, for me it's in a class by itself.

                                          Pizzaiolo and a maybe few other places can match the upstairs on food at a lower price, but the service is a step down and they can be really loud.

                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                            "Chez Panisse doesn't need history to hold its own with the competition."

                                            First, I think that's also true as well of the Tour d'Argent. (Which among many other things, has a house specialty that everyone remembers because it comes with a serial number; one or two floors devoted to one of the largest and oldest wine inventories in history, and a dedicated waiter just to serve French fries to everyone -- fried potatoes being something of a secular religion in France, of course). But in both cases the history and influence are part of the context, the "package," certainly worth appreciating.

                                            However, I was addressing the situation of the OP and others who come from afar to try the "Panisse experience," and who sometimes (frequently enough from NYC to warrant specific journalism) express surprise or disappointment, that it was less unique than they'd imagined -- and why this comes about.

                                            1. re: eatzalot

                                              You adroitly identify the vast difference between dining as entertainment and as some foodie thing. You astutely observe the surprise that Panisse is more about shopping than cooking.

                                        2. it's really great, go.

                                          preferably downstairs, preferably on a friday or saturday when the menu is a bit more elaborate.


                                          is my favorite blog post re: chez panisse.

                                          and if you go to chinatown, ideally eat at jai yun.

                                          12 Replies
                                          1. re: Dustin_E

                                            That essay really captures what's great about the place and what's weak about the usual criticisms.

                                            1. re: Dustin_E

                                              A remarkable restaurant blog in general, Dustin -- thanks for posting. 200 meals at CP downstairs alone!

                                              My take on the phenomena here (a take apparently shared by others -- it's almost a cliché observation) is that certain unusual restaurants* demonstrate a vision that connects with some customers (who become regulars or fans, or write passionate blogs). Other customers don't resonate with the vision, but usually still find a decent meal for their money, so the restaurant succeeds. I've separately observed over the [more than 30] years -- a bit of human nature -- that some of those who don't connect with the vision form their own working explanations, or rationalizations, to reconcile the conflict between others' accolades and their own more prosaic impression.

                                              That was less common in Panisse's early days, when its name was not widely known. Then, the surprised reactions were likely to be positive, as some people discovered that this wasn't just another Bay Area Europeanoid restaurant in an old house. That was when the customers were mostly locals, plus the occasional traveling gastronome like Donald Sutherland or Francis Ford Coppola (who, in the Hollywood prima-donna tradition, stormed into the kitchen and demanded to hire away the cook). Those people helped get the name out.

                                              * Not including Tour d'Argent. Known less for any contemporary vision than for having pleased people from Henri III, Richelieu, and Madame de Pompadour to George Sand and Jean Cocteau.

                                              1. re: eatzalot

                                                to expand a bit on your characterization of those who do or do not 'connect with the vision' -- regular customers of revered institutions either in berserkly or Paris (Tour d'Argent enjoys a spectacular setting among other attributes) usually omit a significant, personal aspect of their attachment. those restaurants reinforce their personal identity and self worth, a sense of well being beyond whether the meal was satisfying or delicious.

                                                a regular at Tour d'Argent might admit they love being reminded they're well off and pampered and can pay for the beautiful view -- might be more difficult to get a c.panisse regular to confess, 'love having my status as a food cognoscenti confirmed and rewarded'.

                                                1. re: moto

                                                  Every meal I've had at Chez Panisse succeeded on its own terms. I'm not loyal to old favorites if they go downhill.

                                                  1. re: moto

                                                    For the record, I think "regular customers of revered institutions" per-se describes a larger group than those particular customers I mentioned who connect with a restaurant of unusual vision, even though the latter be part of the former class.

                                                    I know people who frequent Panisse, or other restaurants, who'd hardly characterize themselves as cognescenti, or talk about philosophies of restaurants, yet who enjoy the meal experience, or its value, and for such reasons become loyal patrons. One of my Berkeley professors (around the time the linked blogger's experiences of Panisse began) had been a regular for years, and told me he and his wife were even approached about potentially joining the partnership. Essentially because they'd been seen so often there (downstairs). Clearly there was a proven affinity, irrespective of any cognoscence also occurring.

                                                    1. re: moto

                                                      I don't think CP, as an institution, reinforces my personal identity. I like the place, it's comfortable in a low key way and the food is very good. And the staff is generally pleasant. If the food didn't stand up over time, it would fail like any other place.

                                                      If I were to buy into any of the hype it would be the California aspect, i.e., things grow very well in CA so why not take advantage of that...and do what most of the world has done forever; eat local and fresh, aka subsistence living but in a restaurant at a high level.

                                                      1. re: ML8000

                                                        didn't intend to imply that every regular customer of revered institutions keep going to have their self worth burnished, should have made that clear. but of those who do, some aren't self aware sufficiently to see it, or be able to admit it. if person x is proud to consider itself a food cognoscenti, it is probably also convinced of its objectivity -- most of us don't see all of our own biases.

                                                        some folks go drink at regular watering holes though they know another spot has a better mixologist, or serve the same booze at better prices, but their regular provides reassurance and psychological benefits.

                                                        1. re: moto

                                                          That argument seems to me completely irrelevant to Chez Panisse.

                                                          I don't believe many of Chez Panisse's regulars would cut them any slack, not that they need to. It remains popular among those who are the pickiest about quality and sourcing because Alice Waters keeps raising the bar.

                                                      2. re: moto

                                                        "those restaurants reinforce their personal identity and self worth, a sense of well being beyond whether the meal was satisfying or delicious... -- might be more difficult to get a c.panisse regular to confess, 'love having my status as a food cognoscenti confirmed and rewarded'. "

                                                        Mr. Moto, if I follow your points correctly, then I believe you addressed a different dimension of customer motives than I did -- not that they can't coincide in some people.

                                                        Many I know personally as food obsessives though -- who DO resonate with inspired chef visions, in my earlier phrasing -- truly don't frequent such restaurants to be flattered or recognized, indeed many of them don't give a f*ck about those aspects. They gravitate because the food sends them! And many of them showed signs of this even when young and hard-up, when they had "just enough money" (A.J. Liebling's phrase from his memoir) to experience transcendant food occasionally, which led them to be very careful how they spent it, and to learn.

                                                        1. re: eatzalot

                                                          again, tried to keep things succinct and didn't clarify that the reinforcement of one's identity or 'hipness' doesn't have to come from recognition from the staff or others -- the sanctuary, whether c.panisse or the favoured watering hole, becomes a reflection or projection of how one feels about oneself.

                                                          you have clearly observed and understood the diversity of food obsessives. the mind is quite powerful, and there really is no objective,standard criteria that fits all, in terms of 'the food sends them.' if .88 of respondents say c.panisse's experience is not to be missed, we have no standard to distinguish how many were influenced by their dining companions or waters' reputation. there's also a sampling bias at work -- someone who goes there once or twice, enjoyed it in moderate proportion but wasn't sufficiently moved to comment one way or the other, or was left indifferent, simply doesn't register.

                                                          1. re: moto

                                                            Someone who goes to Chez Panisse and finds the food boring does not share my taste. Maybe they have a physiologically different palate. Maybe they prefer creativity and technical bravura over simplicity and minimalism, fancy French over rustic Italian. Maybe they smoke too much. Who knows? Who cares?

                                                            Positing psychological or sociological explanations for why other people like restaurants, well, who can cast the first stone? Why cast that stone at all?

                                                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                              ...And I think I'm failing to convey to moto that no sort of "sanctuary as reflection or projection of how one feels about oneself" model, at all, matches the core reality of many people I know who are simply exuberant over good food, whether from a restaurant they know, one wholly new to them, their own or friends' kitchens, or a push-cart vendor in a street. The exuberance of humans who enjoy a stunning view, or a haunting piece of music, has more in common with that reality. The sensual experience of taste itself is what I meant by the food "sends them" (if that still isn't clear).

                                                              More generally, a subtext in perennial thread topics like this one is that one person's personal universe of explanations of what other people seek in restaurants need not embrace everyone else's universes, or even overlap them much.

                                                  2. The most over-rated restaurant of all time.

                                                    20 Replies
                                                    1. re: pikawicca

                                                      How many times have you eaten there?

                                                      1. re: wally

                                                        You have one chance to make a good first impression.

                                                        1. re: BoneAppetite

                                                          What?? i am always pleasantly surprised by the quality and taste of my meals at Chez Panisse, either upstairs or down. I have been treated very well when calling to reserve or cancel. It seems to me that to be the most over-rated restaurant of all time, one would have had to have been there at least a couple of times (being generous here).and been disappointed at best.

                                                        2. re: wally

                                                          Twice, and I had to be dragged the second time.

                                                        3. re: pikawicca

                                                          -- And _why_ do you express such a conclusion? What is behind it? Who is doing the "overrating" that you see? etc.

                                                          1. re: eatzalot

                                                            Boring food. I'm lucky to live where I can buy great produce, poultry, meat, eggs, dairy, etc., and I'm a decent home cook. I was totally underwhelmed by the food at CP, as was my husband.

                                                            1. re: pikawicca

                                                              You did a good job outing the 1%-ers and the Too Much Money crowd.

                                                              1. re: BoneAppetite

                                                                That was not my intention. I've eaten twice at Atelier Crenn, and that's not chump change. However, there are so many restaurants in the Bay Area these days sourcing great local ingredients that diners can find one to fit their budget and taste. CP does not have a corner on this market.

                                                              2. re: pikawicca

                                                                so what would you recommend to people from out of town?

                                                            2. re: pikawicca

                                                              Years ago on the dining room wall they had a framed letter of complaint from some out-of-town visitors, who had dined there on a night that cassoulet was on the menu, complaining about being charged $15 (~$50 adjusted for inflation) for "pork and beans."

                                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                A great anecdote, and representative of a class of periodic complaint that has dogged Panisse ever since it went "famous."

                                                                I've mentioned in past Panisse threads hearing in person (c. 1981) a dismissive assessment by a visiting well-off middle-aged New Yorker who "saw through it all." He evidently expected opulence, yet "I couldn't even order a cocktail!"

                                                                Thus do dif'rent folks express their different strokes. Sometimes as a purely personal reaction but often, I notice, as a universal projection ("pretentious" or "overrated").

                                                                1. re: eatzalot

                                                                  I think that letter was written in the mid-70s. Chez Panisse became internationally known among foodies long before the surge of national press in 1979. James Beard first wrote about it in 1974, after Marion Cunningham took him there. In 1975, Waters went to visit Richard Olney, and À la Vôtre called it the "ne plus ultra of French country restaurants in the Bay Area."

                                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                    Yes, no time conflict there. As I mentioned, it is representative (also!) of a later common class of complaint, which also surfaces on Chowhound and other public fora. By people disappointed by the reality -- in its contrast not to anything Panisse did or claimed, but to their own assumptions, expectations, or acquired misconceptions about the place.

                                                                    And as you point out here and elsewere (but some people don't realize, even in this thread), Panisse's great "fame" starting in the 1970s came not from within Berkeley, but from visiting writers and diners making a fuss. In fact, I recall some locals in the late 1970s being slow to realize that their local neighborhood "French" restaurant (one of several around the town in that era) was getting such attention.

                                                              2. re: pikawicca

                                                                In the minority, but I have to say that as much as i love their ethic and want to love their restaurant, it just didn't do it for me. Yes, they source locally and from the best, absolutely. After five visits upstairs and two down, I am totally ok with not being head over heals. Mr. Moto brings up valid points when he tries to point out the various reasons we like restaurants. I think that Chez is a Berkeley thing. It offers the intangibles that resonate with its clientele, which is also the job of a restaurant, so that isn't meant as a derogation. Alice Waters is a chef like guy fiery is a chef. They aren't. they own restaurants that have their own chefs. Her 'mystical faux french hippy doyenne persona' actually kind of turns me off. their zealous declaration of local only is awesome, but oddly incomplete (wine? cheese?). they talk about product as tho they have some connection we don't/can't which is also a turn off. how about using your bully pulpit to promote the availability of these products, not the exclusivity of them. in the end, it should be about the food. (sometimes, like in every magazine article, good morning america appearance or countless books, it seems to be about alice) once, downstairs, i had clam chowder (thin, and wrongly prepared with quite firm potatoes-an ode or variation of clam chowder, not a real.good.version.) as part of my 'four star' coursed meal. followed by turkey paillard. hmmm. calling chez a four star restaurant is like saying roger clemens is the best pitcher in base ball. that may have been true once upon a time, but it seems like they are being judged on their body of work. there are many places i have gone to so often i find it hard to really distance myself and judge it apart from my overly biased opinion. pointing out also, that i do not think food has to be molecular or architectural to be good, or four stars. there are more than a few restaurants who buy amazing product and do more thoughtful things with them. please, enjoy chez, but i feel like you'd be missing out one of the so many other meals you can enjoy instead (i would go to ippuku ten times out of ten over chez.)

                                                                1. re: frontzNskrontz

                                                                  The last time we went to the downstairs, we got the most tasteless trout (stuffed with fresh Bay shrimp) I've ever encountered. Being from the Midwest I couldn't believe how insipid they were: super fresh, but no flavor at all.

                                                                  A few years ago three of us went to the Cafe upstairs. The food was good, but nothing really remarkable. The vegetable soup did have an amazing broth, much better than anything Cyrus had given us just a month previous. But the few beans/kale just floated around, not very interesting (and I love kale!).

                                                                  The duck confit and vegetarian polenta were good, super quality ingredients handled with skill; yet boring. Salt and pepper seemed like the only seasoning used. We had just come off some stupendous dinners at La Folie and (under Ravi Kapur) Prospect, and the dishes seemed uninspired, even dull.

                                                                  Spouse had the only winner: rigatoni in a tomato ragu with beef meatballs. Simple and homey, and certainly satisfying. He enjoyed the pasta – he loves any kind of pasta – but dining at Chez Panisse for ordinary meatballs wasn't what I expected from the restaurant that almost single-handedly changed the way Americans eat. This was not much better than any three-star Cal-Italian joynt can do. In fact, I'd say De La Torres/Pleasanton makes a far more enjoyable chicken liver Bolognese.

                                                                  I ended with a cheese course, which would have been more educational if the otherwise efficient waiter had been able to tell me more than “that's a cow's milk cheese, and that's a sheep's milk cheese, and the last is a goat cheese.”

                                                                  Spouse ordered the Meyer lemon cream puffs, listed as accompanied by a kirsch cream. What came instead was an oversweetened quince sauce blobbed around three small cream puffs filled with lemon curd, which surrounded a heap of crème fraiche. If there was kirsch in the cream, it escaped both our palates.

                                                                  It wasn't a bad meal. But it wasn't anything interesting, remarkable, or even that satisfying, especially for the price which was easily 30% over our average bill (we dine out a lot, on average 2 new restaurants every week for the last five years).

                                                                  1. re: frontzNskrontz

                                                                    The restaurant does not have a "local only" policy.

                                                                    Alice Waters, the owner and proprietor, never ran the kitchen and only worked the line in emergencies. The restaurant was in large measure shaped by the chefs she hired, including Jeremiah Tower, Lindsey Shere, Paul Bertolli, David Tanis, Chris Lee, Jean-Pierre Moullé, and Russell Moore.

                                                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                      i know it doesn't have a policy serving locals only. restaurants are reflections of the place they reside. berkeley people love it. not by decree, or restaurant policy. because it is a restaurant in berkeley, an institution, it tends to be dear to their hearts. maybe more dear than it is empirically. thats my take, but I'm in the minority. yes, the chefs you mentioned were the chefs over time, but you'd never know it (unless you care to explore) because alice loves the credit of 'changing the way americans eat' (in quotes, because i cannot agree with this hyperbole as absolute truth, because rarely, if ever does one person have that much influence)

                                                                      1. re: frontzNskrontz

                                                                        Alice Waters doesn't claim to have changed the way Americans eat. I don't think she believes she's accomplished all that much. She's more likely to talk about how much more work needs to be done to improve school lunches.

                                                                        An interviewer asked her to comment on a NY Times piece that said she "single-handedly changed the American palate" and her reply was that she was just trying to do things just like the French.


                                                                        You said, "their zealous declaration of local only is awesome, but oddly incomplete (wine? cheese?)." There's no such policy. They favor local produce because it's usually fresher and tastes better than stuff trucked in but they serve things from far away as well.

                                                                        1. re: frontzNskrontz

                                                                          You might give old Alice her due. She did change the way American restaurants prepare food, and for the better. (different from changing how people eat)

                                                                          Look I'm annoyed by her hippie communication skills but the fact remains - Alice Waters had a vision of how things should be done, executed on it and it's been a HUGE influence on modern American restaurants.

                                                                          I get that some people don't like CP's food. No biggie, personal preference. However to deny AW changed things, well she did. Look up the history.

                                                                      2. re: frontzNskrontz

                                                                        This stuff about Alice Waters as "chef" is an ancient straw-man point, a product of clueless media and public who assume it about her, then quote each other. (Like Julia Child's near-obsession with disclaiming she was ever a professional "chef" -- a clarification that missed the editors of her Wikipedia bio, though they even cited the sources where JC stressed the point.)

                                                                        People arguing that Waters is no chef (which most folks knew already if familiar with the restaurant) rightly rebuke pop misinformation -- not from Alice Waters.

                                                                        Waters has also said for decades that Panisse was modeled on inns of Provence with "simple wholesome good food" [1992]; I recall no claims from the restaurant to send people "head over heels" (another type of pop-culture presumption from afar).

                                                                        Waters's 1992 essay that I cited earlier specifically promoted "the availability of these [ingredients], not the exclusivity of them."

                                                                        It's natural (I guess) that people compare the 2014 Panisse experience with 2014 alternatives, overlooking that such comparisons didn't exist for Panisse's first couple of decades when it stood out so clearly from the US norm even at the high end. Or that so many of those alternatives today owe much, directly or indirectly, to Panisse (irrespective of anything Waters might say).

                                                                        And no, frontzNskrontz, "people in Berkeley" don't generally all love it. (I'm from Berkeley, and I know.)

                                                                        If people START with misconceptions unattributable to the restaurant, it's natural that those misconceptions will be disabused, but unreasonable to see this as the restaurant's fault. Much recent Panisse "criticism" fits that model.

                                                                        On the other hand, I think moto's first comment here was the most enlightened and balanced _critical_ summary in a long while: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/9800...

                                                                    2. So as you see, Chez Panisse is still well regarded. I would advise that you go early in your visit. Please report on your experience.

                                                                      1. There's a different prix fixe menu every night, published once a week, so if you make a reservation way in advance, you have to be open to whatever the chef fancies without choice. They offer a vegetarian alternative menu.

                                                                        The cafe has a broader, still seasonal, menu from which you can pick and choose items. I like that the menus are straightforward at CP--- the food is simple enough that the menu descriptions match what you're served. They can of course make accommodations, but If there's an ingredient you don't like or are allergic to, you can be selective in your ordering.

                                                                        I agree with a post upthread suggesting you come here on your first night. Other farm to table restaurants may be more playful with the ingredients, so better to get them more simply prepared first.

                                                                        1. hi its me the OP, thank you for this very interesting debate, have never been to Paris..., but not in the cards this summer!
                                                                          So of course I see many posts of this nature, but where would you recommend for fresh seafood ( but not sushi), would like to eat some cioppino ( sp?) also husband likes to eat at rests with water view, even though I say they usually are poor quality. Have car, will travel, drinks/wine not an issue, city or outer area.

                                                                          3 Replies
                                                                          1. re: daisylover

                                                                            cioppino has versions with and without Dungeness crab, probably the most notable native edible arthopod, but those are out of season and you'd be eating stuff from Alaska or frozen. there are probably good non crab versions around, it is such a popular local dish.

                                                                            vibrantly fresh seafood, simply prepared, no table service, right on the water, Fish in Sausalito. about 20 min. north of SF (plus the time you need to get through SF itself to reach the bridge, itself a tourist attraction.) most other seafood places will serve a mix of local and non local stuff.

                                                                            1. re: daisylover

                                                                              If Sausalito is not convenient, Waterbar on the SF Embarcadero may be more convenient, or one block down the way Hog Island or Slanted Door in the Ferry Building, or La Mar - all of which have very nice seafood and views.

                                                                              1. re: foodeye


                                                                            2. I would say that some replies make it seem like the food at CP is all easy simple stuff any good cook can make at home. Not so. I am a very good cook and so is my husband. We can never make food, even things like simple roasted eggplant as good as CP. And they make some very unusual things like apricot pit ice cream (delicious).

                                                                              Forget everything you have read in this thread and remember this: the food is amazing. Forget the hype. Just go. If you appreciate good food you will love it.

                                                                              5 Replies
                                                                              1. re: Ridge

                                                                                You can't roast eggplant?

                                                                                1. re: pikawicca

                                                                                  Chez Panisse roasts in a wood-burning oven.

                                                                                  If the OP winds up at CP, be sure to ask to see the kitchen. Guests are welcome to see the operations.

                                                                                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                                    When I was there with my Mom, as she was disabled, the easiest way for us to exit was through the kitchen. It was after lunch, they were doing the prep for dinner.

                                                                                    Oh my.

                                                                                    The food we'd had at lunch was amazing, but to walk through that kitchen? It was like everything was in technicolor, the ingredients brighter and prettier than I'd seen at my own mere mortal stores.

                                                                                    Plus, the skill that the chefs displayed as they chopped, sliced and deboned - pretty awesome.

                                                                                    We loved our meal, but the quality that we saw at our accidental walk through? As exciting as the food : )

                                                                                    1. re: happybaker

                                                                                      What a lovely description. Thanks.

                                                                                  2. re: pikawicca

                                                                                    Of course I can roast eggplant. And I do an excellent job. But the one I had at CP is a realm of its own. It was delicious perfection. That's the beauty of CP. Some may find that boring. Oh roasted eggplant, big deal. But I appreciate the way some of the food there is perfected. Even if it is simple, it tastes spectacular.

                                                                                2. We went a couple of weeks ago driving from Sonoma to SF. I really wanted to dislike the place after seeing Alice Waters speak a few years ago. She came across poorly (self important-listen to all the great things I do) but obviously knowledgeable. That said, the lunch was fantastic. Simple but perfectly prepared food. The service was also excellent. We're really happy we went.

                                                                                  8 Replies
                                                                                  1. re: HoosierFoodie

                                                                                    It's ironic that Alice Waters has ended up doing so much public speaking, since she's so terrible at getting her message across.

                                                                                    1. re: HoosierFoodie

                                                                                      Alice Waters suffers from the same thing as Oakland Mayor Jean Quan - they both speak a vague, rambling 60's hippie sub-dialect, and it sounds awful. Of course both went to school locally at hippie central - UC Berkeley.

                                                                                      1. re: ML8000

                                                                                        "hippie central - UC Berkeley."

                                                                                        LOL! Yes, all those Berkeley "hippies" who earned 72 Nobel prizes, 45 MacArthur prizes, 15 Turing awards, and found 16 of the elements in the Periodic Table. Hippies rule! :-)

                                                                                        Almost forgot: this website is an example of an internet public food forum and a descendant of the first such, which also started in Berkeley (via one of the original three ARPAnet nodes) in 1982.

                                                                                        1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                          You take the good with the bad. I say that as an alum.

                                                                                        2. re: ML8000

                                                                                          No, that isn't what I meant. I get the hippie thing and that doesn't bother me. I respect what she did for the Bay Area dining scene. But it was more like arrogance and condescending.

                                                                                          1. re: HoosierFoodie

                                                                                            Alice is neither arrogant nor condescending. Her crime is not being slick, hip, eloquent and telegenic enough for people to digest. Leave the woman alone already.

                                                                                            1. re: Ridge

                                                                                              Waters has on occasion been very good on TV, for example, this 1994 appearance on Julia Child:


                                                                                              Things usually go south when she tries to talk about her larger mission.

                                                                                        3. re: HoosierFoodie

                                                                                          Part of this, I think, HoosierFoodie, is that Alice Waters sort of spilled into the mainstream celebrity world relatively recently, with appearances on "60 Minutes" etc., making a missionary or messianic impression on many people who'd otherwise barely heard of her.

                                                                                          Whereas for the previous 40 years (most of her career), she expressed herself mainly through her restaurant work, or print sources related to it (various cookbooks; essays like "The farm-restaurant connection" which appeared in a 1992 food-writing anthology). She was known more favorably by those earlier means, but to a smaller, food-focused public.

                                                                                        4. Between the ages of 17 and 24, a man may go to a woman because she lets him and it is all so new. When he is over 30 and has children, he may go back to that woman because he remembers how special it was to be with her. But as he looks around and sees how desperate she is to be liked and loved, how transactional the experience has become, how old and putrid it now smells, he realizes he can never go back. Jamais plus. Jamais plus. The food is delicious. The service is somewhere between awful and serviceable but all is regrettable. Chez Panisse is a faded memory of what it once was and probably will ever be again.

                                                                                          15 Replies
                                                                                          1. re: SeatteDad

                                                                                            Maybe. But what's really dated is your analogy.

                                                                                            1. re: SeatteDad

                                                                                              If the food is delicious, what's the rest of that sexist nonsense about?

                                                                                              For me it's one of the handful of places in the East Bay with reliably good service.

                                                                                              1. re: SeatteDad

                                                                                                I also have some difficulty with the description of how the food and service "is," a phrasing that implies omniscience.

                                                                                                It is only given to any of us to describe how we perceived these things in our own finite experiences, and through the lens of our perceptions and tastes. We do not actually know how they will be experienced by others, or even ourselves, at other times.

                                                                                                1. re: SeatteDad

                                                                                                  can someone who thinks chez panisse used to be really really good, but now thinks it is not elaborate on the ways it has changed?

                                                                                                  1. re: Dustin_E

                                                                                                    My take is that it's a victim of its own success. Basically, some people find the style of the restaurant passe -- it's not that the restaurant has changed so much as that the food environment around it has changed. It's style of food has been so widely copied that it's no longer unique, and ditto the availability of top-flight ingredients (one can quibble about whether CP has the best of the best ingredients, but most people can't tell the difference between 90th percentile and 99 percentile).

                                                                                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                                      I've had a couple of dozen meals there, often three in a row on annual stays in Oakland, in the last six or eight years. It has always been good and on several occasions, very very good , which last I attribute to the quality of ingredients. Lamb, I remember, was stunning a few times..although other time it was good but not as great as I had encountered before or since. As far as technique as such goes, I am not wowed by that but I grew up in New Orleans' better places and In Manhattan's good places before that city criminally neglected its smaller restaurants n the 1970s before a renaissance twenty years later. La Waters did a service breaking the stranglehold of Mega-Providers but I am not a slavish admirer, possibly because my upbringing was different and I almost always had access to the fresh stuff. I certainly would go in the OPs place. But I don't cotton to Food Fads in any clime and hold that if it was good once it is still good. It is places like Babbo that won't see me ever again.

                                                                                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                                        How is it a "victim" if it is always full, and always charging a price that it can make a good living at, treating its workstaff with decent wages?

                                                                                                        It is a great restaurant if you take it for what it is. I also find the service to be great if the server knows what your occasion is, i.e., we're out here for dinner in the neighborhood. My last dinner there (a couple of weeks ago) was just delicious decent food. Not "meal of a lifetime" taste, nor even my best meal there. But one of the 4 of us thought it was one of the best meals he'd ever eaten. Our server, when she saw we were just out to have a good meal and drink good wine was a lot of fun, and didn't need to play into any expected pretense. I also find the wine markup to be very fair.

                                                                                                        Back to the OP, if you never go, you'll always still want to go. The potential upside is a lot more than the potential downside, because the potential downside is that you'll have still eaten a decent, if not memorable, meal, and your wallet won't be dry. Contrast this with some of the hot tasting menus, where dinner for 2 with some wine can cost you just shy of a grand, and the potential for disappointment is huge.

                                                                                                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                                          Not much victimization going on when the only downstairs reservations available for the coming week are at 8:45 tonight and 5:30 on Tuesday.

                                                                                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                                                            Victim in the sense perceptions about it have changed and many more people now ask questions about whether it's that good or whether it's "worth it."

                                                                                                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                                              There were always people who didn't get it. In 1975 they served cassoulet with goose confit to a critic for the Berkeley Gazette, who complained about paying $10 for "pork and beans."

                                                                                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                                                                That's why I said "MORE people."

                                                                                                                Anyway, I was responding to the query "can someone who thinks chez panisse used to be really really good, but now thinks it is not elaborate on the ways it has changed?"

                                                                                                                Obviously, if people used to think it was good and now they don't, there are more people being critical. I responded with the theory that it's not the restaurant that's changed so much as that people's perceptions have changed because the whole food culture has evolved in the last 40 years. Unless you want to argue that CP has changed for the worse over the years, you need to come up with some other explanation for the fact that its reputation is not as unassailable as it was.

                                                                                                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                                                  I totally agree. In the 70s and early 80s, Chez Panisse went to extraordinary lengths to source better ingredients, hiring people to grow special vegetables, having full-time foragers on staff to get stuff from all over Northern California, and pioneering the market for artisanal products such as Laura Chanel's goat cheese and Acme Bread. To get food like that you could go to Chez Panisse or get on a plane to Europe, which is what made it famous.

                                                                                                                  Now most of the restaurants on Michael Bauer's top 100 list use ingredients of similar quality and there are similar food scenes in many other parts of the country.

                                                                                                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                                                    You also have the "everyone's a critic" component that didn't exist during most of the restaurant's history, and further, everyone's a critic that can publish his/her thoughts on a whim, and more frequently, when bitter than when pleased.

                                                                                                                    Furthermore, after time, a restaurant goes from "I hear there's a great new place" to "I have been wanting to try that place for awhile" to "I've been waiting a decade to go there" to what my dinner there will be tomorrow with a family member that has been wanting to go there for decades, and tomorrow is a special occasion and she's visiting. So, she has probably been wanting to eat there for upwards of 25 to 30 years. She'll likely love it. Her husband will wonder where the food is on his plate, and that it wasn't worth the money, not that either of them have to worry about the check.

                                                                                                                    1. re: lmnopm

                                                                                                                      Institutional or mothership status doesn't help. It creates hight expectations that sometimes can't be met. Along with the shifts mentioned about reviews/interweb and the quality of other restaurants going up, I think that's what meant by "victim" of its own success.

                                                                                                                      1. re: lmnopm

                                                                                                                        Downstairs you can always ask for seconds.