Why Chez Panisse Matters

The groundbreaking Berkeley eatery rewrote the menu for American restaurants

It probably isn't fair to say that without Chez Panisse there would today be no "locavores," no farm-to-table eating, no identification of farms and other sources on menus, no obsession with the local, the seasonal, and the organic in our food. Somebody else surely would have come along eventually and gotten us to more or less the same place.

But Alice Waters, this seminal eatery's founder and guiding light, was the one who actually did it, starting 40 years ago this summer, when — inspired by Marcel Pagnol's evocative Marseilles-based Fanny trilogy of movies, which feature a kindly sailmaker named Honoré Panisse — she and a self-taught cook named Paul Aratow opened Chez Panisse, a casual French bistro in Berkeley with a blackboard menu that read simply: Pâté en croûte/Canard aux olives/Plum tart/Café/$3.95.

In its early days, to be sure, the restaurant wasn't overly concerned with the sources or purity of its raw materials. Inspired by the writings of Elizabeth David and Richard Olney and by a 1927-vintage volume called La bonne cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange — a sort of Gallic Joy of Cooking — Waters sought to recreate a style of casual French eating that was simple and somewhat communal in spirit, more romantic than rigorous.

Within a few years, though, Chez Panisse had begun to evolve into something considerably more. From the start, Waters and her chefs limited what they served to a single fixed-price dinner nightly. Even more unusually, they wrote their menus a week at a time, basing them not on what they thought their customers would expect but on what was truly fresh and in peak season. It's almost impossible to remember this today, when every college-town café and hotel dining room claims to do the same (and sometimes actually does), but this was absolutely revolutionary in American restaurants four decades ago. Before Chez Panisse, almost all restaurant menus were printed up far in advance, and sometimes went unchanged for years. They were typically huge, offering scores of choices, and were frequently so similar, within their genre, as to be interchangeable. They fulfilled their something-for-everybody promise by using canned and frozen ingredients. For many of them, the idea of the food was more important than the food itself.

Chez Panisse challenged that notion, and Waters and company started paying more and more attention to the foodstuffs they employed and — another practice that was all but unheard of — actually formed personal relationships with farmers, foragers, fishermen, and such, and even had ingredients produced to order for them. The restaurant ended up inspiring thousands and thousands of American chefs to follow its lead — back before the chefs at many of today's hottest eateries were even born.    

If you don't believe how influential Chez Panisse was, seek out some pre-1971 French, Italian, or American menus online or in the library and take a look. Or consider some of the game-changing chefs and other food folk who are Chez Panisse alumni: Jeremiah Tower, Mark Miller, Paul Bertolli, Judy Rodgers, Deborah Madison, Jonathan Waxman, Mark Peel, Suzanne Goin, Joyce Goldstein, Dan Barber, April Bloomfield, Michael Tusk, Acme Bread Company founder Steve Sullivan, Cowgirl Creamery's Peggy Smith…The list goes on.

As the restaurant grew into what it is today, its culinary purview expanded, encompassing much of the Mediterranean and also American regional cooking. Items on the menu this week, for instance, include shrimp and grits, Santa Barbara spot prawn risotto, and grilled James Ranch lamb Catalan style. (The tariff, incidentally, is now $80 on week nights, $95 on weekends.) Though it's probably not exclusively responsible, in fact, Chez Panisse fueled our national passion for Mediterranean cooking, and it was undeniably one of the pioneers, along with Wolfgang Puck's Spago and Michael McCarty's original Santa Monica Michael's, of what became known as "California cuisine" — which eventually turned out to be not necessarily Californian at all but really just simple, local, ingredient-driven cooking, an idiom quickly adapted to every climate from Wyoming to Florida, New Mexico to Maine.

Alice Waters and her colleagues in and around the restaurant, of course, have become known in recent years as food activists, through the Chez Panisse Foundation (founded 15 years ago to mark the landmark's 25th anniversary) — which has, this year, morphed into the Edible Schoolyard Project — and other efforts. These endeavors are important and have the potential to dramatically change the way our children and grand-children eat and think about what and how they eat. But meanwhile, on a perhaps more prosaic but no less important level, Chez Panisse and the countless chefs and restaurateurs it has shaped and inspired (whether they realize or admit it or not) have given us a cognizance of and respect for food, and especially for food that grows or is produced here, that almost nobody — trust me on this — could have conceived of 40 years ago.