Chez Panisse, the legendary Shattuck Avenue restaurant that helped found California’s culinary movement, hopes to open a new restaurant in the East Bay in the coming months.
It’s news that should fill the hearts of the restaurant’s many fans with joy, the idea that Alice Waters’ 50-year-old iconic business isn’t just surviving, it’s expansion during one of the toughest times American restaurants have ever seen.
But it is not that simple. To open this spot, you must first expel Caesar, a 24-year-old tapas bar from Berkeley. The plan has upset some prominent members of the community, many of whom hope Chez Panisse will decide not to expand and keep César where it is.
Like Chez Panisse, César has long been considered a pioneer. When it opened in 1998, the full-service bar served tapas and Spanish fare long before cuisine came into vogue, and it became known as a place where its cocktails and food were both carefully prepared. and high quality – a rarity back then, when bar food in Berkeley was more likely to be an afterthought of wings or fries.
César’s close ties with Chez Panisse went beyond mere neighborhood. Richard Mazzera (Veteran of Chez Panisse for 12 years), Dennis Lapuyade (eight years at Chez Panisse) and Stephen Singer (ex-husband of Alice Waters and father of Fanny Singer, the couple’s 38-year-old daughter) were the founders of the spot, giving it a name in the cinematic universe that also occupies Chez Panisse. You will find these two names, as well as that of Fanny, in that of Marcel Pagnol Marseille trilogya series of French films from the 1930s.
Pagnol’s characters, “Panisse and César, were best friends. They fought hard at times, but they were tough as thieves,” Jim Mellgren told Nosh.. He is a longtime bartender at the César and co-author of the restaurant’s cookbook in 2003, Caesar: Recipes from a tapas bar. He also acts as the restaurant’s spokesperson and leads the charge against Cesar’s closure.
When Chez Panisse opened in 1971, in the converted house at 1517 Shattuck Ave., the building next door at 1515 Shattuck wasn’t even a restaurant, according to Mellgren. Eventually the business closed down and Chez Panisse (or Waters, depending on who you ask – a lot of people talk about the two interchangeably, even though Chez Panisse is a board-run business) signed a lease for the structure with owner Pui Wong. Chez Panisse then sublet the space to Caesar, and has continued this arrangement for the past 24 years.
Current owner Hosanna Wong told Nosh that Chez Panisse originally signed the lease with his father, Pui, and when his father passed the family business on to him, it was Chez Panisse that he always dealt with. regarding space. “They’re the ones who send us the rent checks,” Wong said. “And about a year ago they let us know that they would take over the space.”
Mellgren said that was when Caesar first learned that his days were numbered. His agreement with Chez Panisse is a renewable five-year lease, and the next five-year term was due to begin in July 2021. Instead, he said, Chez Panisse told them they would not renew, but after some feedback. Caesar got a one-year extension.
According to Mellgren, “we explored our legal options”, but there was not much to do, and by the end of the year they had started telling customers that in July 2022 they would have to close. .
Mary D. Broderick has lived in the neighborhood near the two restaurants since the 1980s. She is one of many residents who says she wrote letters to Chez Panisse, asking them to reconsider the proposed expansion. “You have always been a person who spoke publicly about community ties and I’m sure you know that’s what Caesar has been for many of us for many years,” she wrote. “I hope you keep your commitment to our community in your actions.”
Mellgren remains hopeful that the public outcry will prompt Chez Panisse to back down. He told Nosh he spoke to Waters over the weekend about his plans for the new restaurant, and said he left the conversation feeling frustrated and like “she doesn’t understand what makes this special place. … She could decide today not to do this and he a hero.
It’s unlikely to be that easy, though. As mentioned earlier, Chez Panisse has a board of directors, a board that presumably voted to end its deal with Cesar and open a new business. Sure, Waters holds an undeniable influence on the board, but few big moves Chez Panisse makes are his alone these days.
The waters told Mellgren that she wanted to “elevate everything there,” he said, including bringing extremely high standards of organic and sustainable food sourcing to the new venture. “She wants it to be French and to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he said.
Varun Mehra, general manager of Chez Panisse, could not confirm details of Chez Panisse’s new restaurant in Nosh in the filing. In a written statement, he told Nosh that “it’s too early to share a detailed concept or a new name,” but said “we know the space will continue to be a welcoming bar with delicious food. “.
According to Mellgren, Waters also told him that she wanted to retain all of Caesar’s current staff at the new restaurant, but that he didn’t know how soon Chez Panisse would open after they took over the property “and we can’t expect everyone to expect.” In response, Mehta wrote that “since the announcement of [César’s] closure, we reiterated our commitment to César staff who wish to continue in this new chapter. We look forward to soon having the opportunity to present a more specific proposal for the people who work there. »
It is a difficult situation to understand. Typically, news that Chez Panisse, arguably one of Northern California’s most beloved restaurants — a spot that has remained dark for much of the pandemic, prompting some to speculate it may never reopen – opening a new restaurant would be huge news, a breathless headline in every food publication that matters.
But, instead, there is this cloud on it. For this new restaurant to live, another must die. “We are a successful and viable business loved by the community,” Mellgren said, puzzlement clear in his voice. “We just want to keep doing what we’re doing.”