Despite both DPaul and I having lived in the Bay Area more or less 20 years apiece, and despite being avid diners, neither of us had ever eaten at the world-famous Chez Panisse. This is something we have long wanted to remedy, and have discussed doing so with various folks. At long last, our dear friends Nick and Russ made it happen, and better yet as a very thoughtful wedding gift. After one abortive attempt where we languished on the waitlist, they were finally able to land us a reservation last week, at 6 pm on Friday, February 13. Our excitement mounted as the date drew nearer.
On the big day, I planned to leave my Redwood City office sometime shortly after four, a time that normally allows for easy commuting all around the area. But the best laid plans of mice and men, and all that. I ended up having to give a presentation, which delayed my departure to slightly after 4:30. I had to drop my colleague off back in the city. It was raining and the Friday before a holiday weekend, and traffic was unusually bad for that time of day.
Crawling up the 101, my blood pressure rose as the time slipped inexorably by. By the time of our 6 pm dinner reservation, I was still in downtown San Francisco, stuck in dead-stop traffic waiting to get on the bridge. Veins throbbed in my temples as I screamed expletives at the top of my lungs. I sent DPaul a one-word text message: "Hopeless." I was on the verge of tears. The evening was ruined, and I would not be dining at Chez Panisse that night. The disappointment was crushing.
Finally, after ten solid minutes in the same place still blocks from the on-ramp for the bridge, I pulled into a parking spot to my right and left the car behind, power-walking to BART. In five minutes, I was on a train headed to Berkeley. Twenty minutes later, I emerged from the station in pouring rain and hopped in a cab. Ultimately, I arrived at the restaurant about 6:45.
Meanwhile, the rest of my party was stalling our seating with assurances that I was "on the way," which the staff took very graciously. DPaul, Nick and Russ were instructed to wait upstairs and enjoy some cava. Finally, once they knew I was within striking range of the restaurant, they were seated.
From the moment I entered the restaurant, the stress of the frenetic events began to melt away. Chez Panisse's Arts and Crafts-inspired interior is at once formal and warm, like attending a dinner party at the home of well-heeled friends. I took my seat at the table, enjoyed the remaining bite of a tasty cheese-puff pastry amuse bouche, and was promptly poured an aperitif of, I think, cava and Lillet Blanc.
As the evening unfolded, my mood lifted. The first course of quail confit with baby greens and a toast with chicken liver spread was as soothing and comforting as a mother's hug. A dish of crab-scallop-lobster ravioli with fresh peas and basil was filled with the promise of spring. The main course, a grilled steak of yellowfin tuna with winter vegetable ragout, was utterly satisfying. Dessert was uncomplicated, two scoops of ice cream (coffee and chocolate) in a nest of meringue; perhaps not ambitious, but ice cream is my ultimate comfort food. Our server was attentive, without ever being stuffy or overbearing. By the end of the meal, I was walking on clouds. I had been given a total mood transplant.
Restaurants are ultimately in the business of selling happiness. Food plays a major part in that, for if the customer is served bad food, then happiness cannot ensue. But it is the holistic experience that makes a good restaurant great. Chez Panisse's food was excellent, deftly cooked and seasoned, but it is the way they handled us that made the evening stellar. Despite my showing up 45 minutes late for our seating, the party was never rushed, and we were cheerfully served our meal as if that was the plan all along. It is this attention to customer service that has allowed them to remain one of the most esteemed and beloved restaurants in the country for nearly 40 years. I can hardly wait for a return visit.
1517 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley
Chef David Lebovitz is a Chez Panisse alum and offers up many recipes.
How about some of the always delightful Chez Panisse cookbooks?