Tuesday night marked the first night of service in almost exactly two years for Chez Panisse and Chez Panisse Cafe, but the occasion was slightly marred by a demonstration next door from staff and customers of tapas bar César, which is being forced out of its lease by Chez Panisse.
After some false starts last year, Chez Panisse finally reopened Tuesday night, much to the delight of loyal customers and Alice Waters stans alike. It hasn't been entirely quiet over at the legendary Berkeley restaurant throughout the pandemic, as they were doing takeout, meal kits, CSA boxes, and hosting a Sunday market in their parking lot in part to give their farm partners more business. But this week the restaurant swings back open for real, in time for the masks to come off and things to feel much like they were in early March 2020.
The featured entree in the downstairs restaurant last night? Duck breast a l’orange, with "Liberty Ducks" from Sonoma County Poultry.
"It’s very emotional," said owner Alice Waters, speaking to KTVU last night. "Everybody is excited to get back to work, because you know, working with a group of people, and creating something that is greater than the sum of the parts, every night, is very exciting."
94-year-old Esther Alder, a former regular, was flown in by her family from New Jersey to enjoy the occasion. As she told KTVU, the restaurant for her "means good food, good atmosphere, and friendship."
Chez Panisse is now doing a set $175-per-person menu each night in the downstairs restaurants, and they're excepting reservations only one month out, with everything currently booked through April 9. Tomorrow at 9 a.m., the books open for tables on April 10th, etc. In the upstairs Cafe, there appear to be a few tables for four available at 9:30 p.m. in the coming weeks, but that's all.
While the celebration of the reopening was happening inside Chez Panisse at 1517 Shattuck Avenue, over at 1515 Shattuck, the home of César since 1998, things weren't so happy.
A small protest greeted those arriving for dinner at Chez Panisse on Tuesday, with staff and longtime customers of César angry that Waters and her board have decided to end their sublease agreement with César, something that was decided a year ago and that the public just learned about in January. There's clearly some background drama going on here that we're not privy to — Waters' ex-husband Stephen Singer is one of the three co-owners of César. And with its loyal clientele and a spinoff location, Bar César, on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, there's nothing stopping César from relocating in Berkeley. But some in the community and César's loyal regulars say this move is off-brand for Waters, and these two complementary restaurants should be able to continue to coexist.
About 35 protesters were on hand Tuesday evening, per the Chronicle, with some holding signs saying things like “Shame on Chez,” and “Community over Profit."
Chez Panisse, however, wants to expand, and having held the lease on 1515 Shattuck for some 25 years or more, they now plan to use the space as a "welcoming bar" — something the restaurant doesn't currently have — where cocktails can be served to Chez Panisse diners before or after their meals, and where they can also expand into breakfast and lunch service.
"I don’t hate Alice Waters. I just think she’s making a huge mistake," says author Michael Lewis, the author of The Big Short and Moneyball who's been a longtime César regular, speaking to the Chronicle. "It feels like pointless destruction."
James Mellgren, a bartender at César, tells KTVU of the protest, "All of this here is just a response from our customers who are really, really upset that someone is going to force us out. César is a beloved part of this community."