When Chez Panisse opened in 1971, the concept of “California cuisine” was, well, not a thing. The two-story Berkeley Craftsman, perched on Shattuck Ave. like an incognito fortress, is where the farm-to-table movement all began. And now every restaurant in the Bay Area—and way beyond—is home to at least one Chez Panisse alum spreading the gospel of the “seasonally changing menu,” something you’ll hear as often in the local lexicon as “hella.” For anyone even remotely curious about slow food, farmers market hauls, or chickens that grew up on non-GMO farms, this place is still a destination worthy of crossing the country to experience.
An evening at Chez Panisse is lovely, if predictable at times. Even a beet that’s been gently caressed by the hands of Alice Waters herself will ultimately taste like a beet. But every ingredient in every hyper-seasonal dish is locally grown, hand-picked, and examined for maximum ripeness. And that probably will never change.
Just sitting in the space feels like a privilege, if only because the dining room is so stunning. The brown-toned space is filled with stained glass windows and rustic flower arrangements. You’ll sip from “Chez Panisse” engraved water glasses in the romantic glow of a copper table lamp, alongside couples who wear crewneck sweatshirts to dinner but likely have a Cal library in their name.
The main attraction is the four-course menu. It’s a nourishing meal you might eat in the home of a friend who greets their neighborhood farmers market purveyors by name. Nothing fancy. Just beautifully roasted vegetables, a hearty entrée, and really good wine. Dishes completely change each day, and not knowing what you’re in for is exhilarating enough to make your heart race. One day, a humble, ultra-creamy sunchoke soup might steal the show. Or maybe it’s a seared albacore paired with cherry tomatoes so ripe and sweet they taste like candy. For dessert, a peach melba might make every peach you eat after taste lifeless.
For food so unfussy, the $175 fixed price per person can sting (the not-so-low cost doesn’t include tax, tip, or wine). Especially considering some dishes occasionally lack pizzazz—a forgettable spit-roasted pork loin here, or a one-note shrimp salad there. But Chez Panisse has never been about foams, caviar, or throwing dry ice onto a piece of steak until it’s unrecognizable. Refreshing simplicity is their lane. And it works, as long as you’re willing to pay the premium.
Today, mentioning that you've eaten at Chez Panisse—downstairs—is still a potent form of social currency. As is a trip upstairs to Chez Panisse Café, where things are more lively and the seasonal bounty is less expensive (the café is a la carte only). But downstairs is the rite of passage, the quintessential Chez Panisse experience to have at least once—and not just to tick it off your bucket list. So pay homage to the godmother of all things farm-to-table, and take pleasure in the deliciousness of a simple beet. This spot is the closest to produce-driven perfection you’ll get.
Four-Course Set Menu
No two Chez Panisse menus are ever the same, and a vegetarian-only menu is always available upon request. Embrace it. And be sure to hang onto your menu, a one-of-a-kind print with a hand-drawn fruit or vegetable on the cover. It’ll look darling pinned to your fridge. Highlights from more recent visits that still flash across our minds months later: a deceptively simple golden beet salad that immediately transformed us into a garden vegetable, and a crispy straw potato cake that melted in our mouth. And every single dessert, from the chocolate fondant to the peach melba, are in a sweet-things league of their own.