Unbeknownst to most people (except the locals!), Chez Panisse actually has two parts to it. There's the famed Michelin starred (one star in both 2006 and 2007) restaurant downstairs, ya know, the one that always makes it into Restaurant magazine's list of top 50 restaurants in the world, and where Bill Clinton and even the Dalai Lama famously dined at. And then there's the cozy, low-key upstairs portion, simply called The Café, but most people around here refer to it as "the café at Chez Panisse", "the Chez Panisse café", or "upstairs at Chez Panisse".
Menu The café has a very similar menu to the restaurant downstairs, except instead of a three to four course prix-fixed menu, the café gives the luxury of ordering a la carte to my heart's content. Not to say that I'll never try the restaurant downstairs, but one of the main reason why I've always chosen to eat at the café over it is because of the a la carte menu. My friends and I are pretty adventurous eaters, so we like trying different things and don't just want to be confined to a menu with three or four items on it. This is also great for people with dietary restrictions because it gives them more choices. Did I mention that the café serves lunch, too, while the restaurant doesn't? Their menu changes on a daily basis and can be viewed here.
Pricing Appetizers are $8-$15, entrees are $20-$30, desserts are around $10 and the cheese sampler is $16. The last time I was looking at their wine list, there were bottles of wine up to $800.
Reservations Another reason why I like the café is because it's much easier to make reservations. Actually, you don't even need them at all if you just want to drop by on a whim, but I suggest you make reservations if you plan on going and don't want to wait. I've dropped by several times, though, and only had to wait once. All other times, my party was seated right away. The trick is to show up right at opening, 11:30 AM for lunch, and 5 PM for dinner, or show up later in the evening, like 10'ish, then you're pretty much guaranteed a table!
Food Now onto the food! As with all foods and restaurants Alice Waters-related, all ingredients are extremely fresh, local, organic and sustainable. The food at the café is really simple and unpretentious, nothing too fancy, but obviously made with very high quality ingredients. I'm always amazed at how many people they have in the kitchen. I wouldn't be surprised if each person specialized in just one or two of their dishes on each day's menu.
The only thing on their menu that I absolutely LOVE, though, and order every time (I should add that this is one of few items on the menu that is consistently on their ever-changing menu) is their baked goat cheese salad. It's a lettuce salad lightly coated in vinaigrette and comes with two medallions of goat cheese that have been breaded and baked. Just imagine that gooey baked cheese oozing out of the breaded crust as you dig into it with your fork -- it's amazing! The first time I had ever had a baked goat cheese salad was in Paris years ago, and I was absolutely over the moon when I found out that the café had it.
Their pizettas are wood oven fired and they're alright. The crust is a bit chewy for my taste though. The desserts are really good! I love everything that they make with rhubarb in it. And my drink of choice here would be their pear cider. @latoya pretty much never drinks alcoholic beverages, but even she wanted to take a bottle home after taking a sip of my glass!
Service Meh... I only wish that their service was as unpretentious as their food. It's not like they were outwardly rude, but they definitely weren't nice either. An air of snobbiness and condescension was definitely felt. Service is mediocre if you stop in for a full out meal with a bottle of wine and all, but if you stop in for a snack of appetizers and desserts with no entrees, even if it's a $100+ snack for two, they're not going to be so happy.
The last couple of times that I've been to the café, I had stopped in on a whim after 10'ish for late night snacks and was seated pretty quickly in a half-filled restaurant. Since it was so late, we only wanted to do appetizers, desserts and maybe a couple glasses of wine, not an entire meal. Both times, both hosts kept asking, "Will that be all? Are you sure? The appetizers are pretty small". Having been there before several times, we already knew that the appetizers and desserts were plenty filling enough. The last time I was there, the host just wouldn't quit with the upselling of the entrees. Not only did he ask us if we wanted entrees when we ordered the appetizers, he also asked after the appetizers arrived, and again after we finished the appetizers. Same goes with the wine. What the heck??? That's so not classy. The bussers are really attentive though.
Parting Words I hate to say this, because I've got mad respect for Alice Waters and her culinary philosophy, BUT, I can't help but think that the Chez Panisse Café is overrated. I don't mind that the food is simple, that's actually refreshing, but my mediocre rating of the café really lies in the poor, snobby service. Plus, I think it'd be hard for to rate any French-American restaurant highly after experiencing French Laundry.
Furthermore, there are plenty of places in the area where I can experience food that's just as yummy, if not yummier, and with much better service. If I want tastey desserts, I'd rather go to Ici on College Ave in Berkeley. If I want really amazing pizza baked in a wood fired oven, there's Pizzaiolo on Telegraph Ave in Oakland. They've got amazing rhubarb desserts, as well, plus delicious polenta. Both of those restaurants are actually opened by former Chez Panisse chefs. And I'm sure I can find some yummy pear cider at BevMo or something. Oh, and that baked goat cheese salad? It's available at Alice Water's other way more low key (I must warn you, though, still pretentious and snobby) cafe, Cafe Fanny on San Pablo in Berkeley.
After my last experience at The Café, I think that I'm better off going on a snacking spree at all those other places. I'll take out-of-town guests here, just to let them say that they've been to one of Alice Waters' restaurants, but I'm definitely not coming back on my own. Especially for a snack.
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When I'm not Lunching, I'm a jeweler, and an all around, self-proclaimed web geek. My passions include social media, the interweb, technology, writing, yoga, fitness, photography, jewelry, fashion, … more
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The Café at Chez Panisse is located upstairs of the world reknowned Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California opened by Alice Waters. The Café opened in 1980 to offer an alternative to the set menu served in the Restaurant downstairs. The Café offers a moderately priced à la carte menu for both lunch and dinner. The Café lunch hours are Monday through Saturday 11:30am -3:00pm. Dinner hours are Monday through Thursday at 5pm - 10:30pm, and Friday through Saturday at 5pm -11:30pm. It has an open kitchen along one side of the room with a charcoal grill and a wood burning oven. The style of the menu is inspired by the market; consequently, the menus change every day. Reservations are recommended. With the restaurant's fame, the cafe has come to embody Waters' original idea for Chez Panisse as a place to hang out with friends.