[Berkeley, CA] Chez Panisse Cafe 2017

A meal this weekend at the upstairs cafe at Chez Panisse was somewhere between ok and disappointing (for Chez Panisse). Please understand that this report comes from a fan of Chez Panisse.

Pizzeta. Considering other places that serve full sized pizza with better results at same or lower price, the pizzeta was a huge disappointment. Undercooked and felt more like random ingredients tossed on top of a piece of flatbread versus a small pizza. The egg supplied the richness that was needed to cover the blandness of the broccoli that couldn’t been helped by the olives alone. This dish reminds me of the ‘fig on a plate’ comment.

The rockfish and shellfish stew came with a bunch of clams cooked in a saffron broth and fennel. Came with a toast and rouille. The seafood was adequately prepared. The fennel added a sweet and floral dimension to the dish and was my highlight. I was hoping to sample, dip the toast in or drink the broth but it was extremely salty so its impossible.

Grilled duck breast with rapini and carrots. Medium rare duck breast was tender, juicy and simply prepared. My wife liked the rapini. Adequate.

Warm, personal and efficient service.

I hadn’t been back to Chez Panisse cafe for almost a decade since moving away from Berkeley.
My memory of the cafe was that they had always coaxed maximum flavors from the top notch ingredients supplied to the restaurant (I still remember that wonderful squash soup from many years ago). The dishes from this meal ranged from subpar to adequate, but I had a hard time remember any of the flavor components that stood out. The meal struggled to differentiate itself from Cal-American joints in the suburbs around the Bay Area, let alone SF/ Oakland.


This was basically my experience at the restaurant (not cafe) five years ago when I was still dating my wife. I was never really that interested in CP but she wanted to try it, so I made reservations. We both agreed that the meal was boring and not unlike any other MOR Cal-American restaurant in San Francisco and certainly a notch down from the better Perello, Rich, etc. realizations in the city.

A few years ago, I went to see Alice Waters speak at the Cornell Club.

I went in excited and left depressed. She was unbelievably elitist and arrogant. She was promoting a book and her organic school gardening project. In theory, it is a wonderful idea, but it was if she had never seen a public school budget in her life. Local educators were there hoping for some constructive advice and direction on implementation but ended up with instructions to “figure it out” for themselves.

She also took an opportunity to fat shame her audience, which included a generously-proportioned young woman in a wheelchair. This woman left with tears in her eyes.

Ms. Waters refused to do an advertised meet-and-greet for her apparently cootie-covered audience of mostly middle-aged Cornell alumni, choosing instead to have “bodyguards” escort her to and from the plush chair in which she plunked her surprisingly fat ass.

Prior to this event and since reading Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires (or was it Comfort Me with Apples?), I had expected a warm, charming, petite firebrand. I instead got a shrunken, pear-shaped Gwyneth Paltrow in a peasant skirt. I’m not surprised that her restaurant is now disappointing as many people as her personality does.


Sounds like they are coasting a bit on their reputation. That can happen when you’ve been doing things a certain way for 50 years and you still have a regular clientele. Interestingly enough their prices still seem reasonable, at least compared to NYC.

I remember them in the '80s when they were still something new.

Of course, it may be that lots of other places have caught up.

Going in, I wasn’t expecting cooking that manipulate ingredients in very creative, unexpected ways. But I was looking for the classic Chez Panisse type of good-ingredients-showcased cooking. It was not a bad meal by any means, but it didn’t measure up to how I remember them to be.

My wife and I had a few theories why we both felt that way:

  1. We started paying more attention to eating and tried to source, when budget allows, better quality ingredients for cooking at home, so perhaps we just got used to better ingredients over time.
  2. We didn’t order the ‘right’ stuff.
  3. Chez Panisse cafe is not as good.

But we think

  1. we cook really simple and quickly at home, so we may have tasted better brocollini for example, CP can still squeeze the last ounce of flavor out from the ingredients that we can’t at home.
  2. these are all our server’s recommendations. So perhaps we just have different tastes.

So #1 may play a small role, we don’t think they contribute to the primary reason how we felt about the meal. Perhaps others who has had meals upstairs recently can share their experience about other dishes.

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I haven’t gone recently, but I remember a couple of wonderful dinners at the old CP back when Tower was there. After 4 decades absence we went to the Cafe for dinner back in 2013.

Wow. Boring was putting it nicely. 2 things were good: the vegetable broth in my soup - I have homemade stock in my frig at all times so I can appreciate how difficult it is to make a really first-class veggie broth. This was 5 -star.

2 of 3 entrees were just average/so-so. The one good one was the spaghetti and meatballs. I’m glad my DH had a good meal but seriously, why would I go to CPC for spagh & meatballs? (He ordered it because nothing else sounded good to him, LOL).

Last year we went to a charity dinner at CP. Oh dear; deconstructed cassoulet. I am not a Modernist fan and I love cassoulet. But this was boiled beans and slow-roasted pork with a couple of slices of a nice housemade sausage (also cooked separately from everything).

The beans were Rancho Gordo and marvelous. But there was no flavor of the pork or the sausage, and in fact no juices on the plate at all. Everything was super quality and carefully prepared, but it had NO SYNERGY.

They were all just little piles of food, everything so carefully separated one would think that beans touching meat was a criminal offense. It was all 1+1+1+1 = precisely 4, no more and no less.

There is a reason for braises and sauces. They are, when done properly, a technique for combining flavors in very specific ways. It’s what I love about French cuisine to begin with.

If a chef can’t see that adding the gentlest riff of truffle oil to a lobster and butter lettuce salad creates not a 3, but a 5 - then s/he isn’t a chef, s/he is a hack. I may not be fan of Modernist, for example, but Madrona Manor’s chef did a very fine-textured Parmesan foam atop an heirloom tomato soup that was simply outstanding - all the beautiful sharp flavor of the cheese without any hint of stringiness, or need to add cream which mutes the tomato flavor.

We all owe a tremendous debt to CP for the positive changes they began. But their alumni, both actual and inspired, have far outstripped them. I would rather go to Michael Warring, or Spinster Sisters, or Montrio, than CP or CPC ever again.

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Chuckle . . . like a lot of Berkeley, the place is so 1980s, or stuck in the 60s, or whenever whatever, without caring to acknowledge it.

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I’d argue for that pizzeta I ate, the flatbread + brocollini + olive + egg = less than the sum of its parts.

I am not even arguing that my meal at CPC relative to other places become worse, because that suggests that CPC may have stayed the same while others improve. I am arguing tha CPC has become worse on absolute terms, based on albeit a very limited sample size of my meal.

Yes, it’s hard to say, as most of the responses you are getting are from people who never really appreciated it. I’ll add my name to that list. Though my visits are 4-7 years ago now, I found the food to be quite boring and the inherent quality of the ingredients didn’t impress me much. Which is not to say they were of poor quality, but rather that you can purchase similar quality at farmers’ markets and specialty butchers (or even Berkeley Bowl). I will add that I’ve cooked from several of the Chez Panisse cookbooks, many of which are from 10+ years ago and found the recipes to be the same sort of good, but uninspired. The too-salty broth sounds like an error, however, as the broth is generally the best part of that sort of stew.

“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold

Market stall in Lima
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