Home Iconic bar As diners returned to Berkeley icon Chez Panisse, protesters fighting the closure of Caesar next door did the same

As diners returned to Berkeley icon Chez Panisse, protesters fighting the closure of Caesar next door did the same

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On Tuesday, a memorable night for Chez Panisse and owner Alice Waters – the first time in two years that the Berkeley dining institution welcomed diners indoors – ran into an emotional conflict with the restaurant next door.

When patrons entered the Shattuck Avenue fixture, they must have passed a group of passionate but peaceful protesters fighting against Caesar’s closure. The longtime tapas restaurant will close in July unless its owner, Chez Panisse, decides to renew the lease. About 35 supporters held signs that read “shame on Chez”, “community over profit” and “don’t destroy local businesses!” A man pinned a message for Waters to his button-down shirt: “And you, Alice? They broke into cheers as passing cars on Shattuck honked their horns in support.

As a pair of diners walked in for a reservation, a protester said: ‘Tell them not to close Caesar, please!’

Owners and employees of the tapas restaurant hoped the protest would put pressure on Waters and the Chez Panisse board to reconsider. Chez Panisse gave César a one-year lease extension last year, but plans to open a new restaurant and bar in the space at 1515 Shattuck Ave. Since Caesar’s impending closure became public knowledge in January, there has been no further communication or indication that Waters has changed his mind, said bartender and Caesar spokesman Jim Mellgren.

Chez Panisse did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Diners enter Chez Panisse for its first night of indoor dining since the pandemic hit two years ago as protesters rally against the closure of nearby restaurant Cesar.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

Many of the protesters have been loyal customers of Caesar since it opened in 1998. They want to save a beloved neighborhood gathering spot, even though it’s likely Caesar’s owners will look for another space if they have to close. (There is also a second Caesar outpost in Oakland.)

Mike Farrell, who wore a large Spanish flag as a tribute to the restaurant’s cuisine, said it looked like “Spanish Cheers”, a place to meet friends and feel welcome no matter what. day of the week. Michael Lewis, the author of “Moneyball” and “The Big Short,” has offered ideas for seven books sitting inside Caesar. He said it was like a “second home”.

Many have also dined at Chez Panisse, Berkeley’s most famous restaurant, over the years. While they may not have jumped in to secure a reservation for the highly anticipated reopening this week, several said they have no plans to boycott the iconic restaurant for good.

“I don’t hate Alice Waters. I just think she’s making a huge mistake,” Lewis said. “It looks like unnecessary destruction.”

Prior to the protest, Lewis said he met famed author and UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan in the neighborhood. He told Pollan where he was heading, and Pollan said he was having dinner at Chez Panisse that night.

“He laughed at me and said, ‘I’m going to cross your picket line,'” Lewis said. “He doesn’t have to be bitter and vicious. We just want to show these people and her that it’s important.

Several people arriving for dinner at Chez Panisse declined interviews.

Bartender and Caesar spokesman Jim Mellgren, center, stands with protesters outside Chez Panisse on Tuesday, March 8 in Berkeley.

Bartender and Caesar spokesman Jim Mellgren, center, stands with protesters outside Chez Panisse on Tuesday, March 8 in Berkeley.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

Protesters have lamented what feels like a disconnect between Waters’ overblown reputation as a community-minded restaurateur and the loss of the Caesar community in its current location. L. John Harris, a Berkeley cookbook author who worked as a waiter at Chez Panisse the first week it opened in 1971, suggested the two restaurants team up to open a collaborative cafe. It could serve both French cassoulet and Spanish paella, he joked.

“Both parties could have compromised … to create a new cafe that satisfies both agendas,” Harris said.

Chez Panisse said it hoped to hire Cesar employees and held two meetings to discuss their future directly with them. Caesar’s chief executive, Cameron McVeigh, attended the first meeting but said no one showed up for the second.

“It’s good that they’re doing that, honestly. At the same time, they’re essentially shutting down our business,” McVeigh said.

Until now, Chez Panisse and César had a friendly and symbiotic relationship. Mellgren said they “wanted to be a friendly neighbor again.”

“We don’t want to be hostile towards them,” he said. “We would like to be good neighbours, not enemies.”

It was not immediately clear if the rally had the desired impact. No one from Chez Panisse came to speak to the crowd, which began to thin out after about an hour and a half. Some protesters spoke enthusiastically about showing up every night with signs. A Change.org petition in favor of the tapas bar collected more than 3,000 signatures. Inside Cesar on Tuesday night, almost all tables and bar seats were occupied.

Meanwhile, reservations at Chez Panisse are nearly full for next month.

Elena Kadvany is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @ekadvany