Chez Panisse reopens legendary dining room in Berkeley for first time in two years

The world-famous Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, welcomed guests back into its dining room Tuesday for the first time in two years. With Covid-19 numbers continuing to decline across the Bay Area, the restaurant decided now was the right time to reopen for in-house dining.

"It’s very emotional, said owner Alice Waters, known worldwide as a pioneer in California Cuisine and the Farm to Table Movement. "Everybody is excited to get back to work, because you know, working with a group of people, and creating something that is greater than the sum of the parts, every night, is very exciting."

At 5:30 p.m. on the dot, lifelong customer David Shanks was the first customer to be seated.

"I happened to see the mention that the reservation system was opening up a certain time, on a certain day, so yeah, just furiously clicking away," said Shanks.

Almost every aspect of the evening was very much a return to normalcy for Chez Panisse faithful, with the exception of a demonstration outside the restaurant’s front door by staff and customers from nextdoor restaurant Cesar.

"All of this here is just a response from our customers who are really, really upset that someone is going to force us out. Cesar is a beloved part of this community," said
James Mellgren, bartender at restaurant Cesar.

One year ago, Chez Panisse made the decision not to renew the Cesar's lease. Waters noted Tuesday that the space had been leased to multiple businesses over the years and that the owners were given one year’s notice. Chez Panisse also offered to hire all staff impacted. The restaurant plans to use the space to create a bar which aligns with its mission of offering farm to table cuisine. Everything on Chez Panisse’s menu is locally sourced and organic.

"We’re doing duck breast a l’orange and the ducks are coming from Sonoma County poultry," said Chez Panisse chef Amy Dencler on Tuesday evening.

That food eventually made its way to the table of 94-year-old Esther Alder, a former regular, whose family flew her in from New Jersey for the special night.

"It means good food, good atmosphere, and friendship," said Alder.

Alice Waters says it's the people like Esther, nights like this, and the food of course which keeps her going.