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Happy Birthday, Dear Restaurant


Twenty-five years ago, a Berkeley Montessori teacher who loved to cook decided it might be fun to open a restaurant with a few of her friends. That modest little neighborhood restaurant, Chez Panisse, named for a warmhearted character in Marcel Pagnol's trilogy of 1930s French films, spearheaded a culinary revolution in California. And Alice Waters ended up teaching America how to eat. The restaurant started out innocently enough, offering a different handwritten prix-fixe menu each night at $3.95. In my student days at Berkeley, dinner at Chez Panisse was a splurge, and I didn't indulge often. When I did, I was entranced with the cooking and with the magical sense of occasion Waters and her staff created.

From the beginning, it was a collaborative effort, and Waters drew more and more artists-cooks-dreamers into her enchanted circle.

At one point the restaurant, which was never very big, had more than a hundred people working part time, most of them extravagantly overqualified for their positions. But working at a restaurant--specifically at Chez Panisse--came to have considerable cachet and glamour in this university town. And everybody wanted to be a part of it.

Chez Panisse was an adventure, a restaurant that grew into itself over the years. The first menus read like pages-come-to-life from Elizabeth David's cookbooks or Waverly Root's recounting of the food of France.

In 1981, finding ingredients to make all this then-exotic food wasn't easy. Mesclun, for example, was still something seen only in markets in the south of France. But somebody brought back seeds. Someone else had donated a piece of their yard to grow lettuces. And voila: mesclun.

Laura Chenel showed up with some of her first goat cheeses. Amateur mushroom hunters would come to the backdoor and trade freshly gathered morels or chanterelles for dinners. Hunters would offer their wild ducks. Whatever Waters wanted somehow appeared. Free-range chickens. Blue-green araucana eggs. Baby Sonoma lamb. Charentais melons or rosy French radishes. One guy, a retired doctor, would drive up and down the coast collecting oysters and seafood.

Gradually the menus came to reflect and celebrate the provenance of all these new and local ingredients. And California cuisine was born.

The restaurant is the most celebrated in America, yet through the years it has remained remarkably true to the original vision. Chez Panisse downstairs adheres to the format of a single prix-fixe menu each night. Its price, however, has risen steeply over the years. (The more casual and inexpensive upstairs cafe is the real neighborhood hangout.)

For me, eating downstairs offers the ineffable luxury of sitting down and enjoying a meal with friends without having to decide what to eat. Whatever downstairs chef Jean-Pierre Moulle, who has cooked at Chez Panisse off and on for years, sends out will be extraordinary, deceptive in its simplicity.

Whenever I go back to Chez Panisse, I'm struck by the restaurant's attention to the smallest details: the charming brick courtyard out front twined with trumpet vines. The rustic handcrafted breads piled in a basket at the entrance to the downstairs dining room. The exquisitely designed menu that is printed each day. The whimsical vintage posters touting Pagnol's romantic old films. The stunning arts and crafts-inspired copper lamps. The heartbreakingly beautiful flowers.

One night as I waited for a table, I happened to look at a chair and realized that each had a trompe l'oeil seat cushion carved into the redwood that I'd never noticed before. It is playful touches like this that illustrate Chez Panisse's subtle aesthetic.

I'm reminded, too, of so many glorious feasts Waters has hosted at Chez Panisse over the years for the likes of David, James Beard, Julia Child, Richard Olney and M.F.K. Fisher. Or for Lulu Peyraud and the wines of Domaine Tempier and a host of other winemakers. And each year the annual Bastille Day garlic festival has been a wildly riotous event not to be missed.

Chez Panisse has been an education in taste, not only for me but for an entire generation of chefs, including Jeremiah Tower (Stars), Judy Rodgers (Zuni Cafe), Paul Bertolli (Oliveto), Jonathan Waxman (ARC Restaurant Group), Deborah Madison (Greens and cookbook writer), Steve Sullivan (Acme Bread Co.), Michel Troisgros (Restaurant Troisgros), Mark Miller (Red Sage), Joyce Goldstein (Square One), Mark Peel (Campanile) and Catherine Brandel (C.I.A. at Greystone).

Happy birthday, Chez Panisse. May you have many more.

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