Chez Panisse: creating a warm mood

The front entrance of Chez Panisse. Photo by Yael Heiblum

BERKELEY, Calif. — Since 1971, Chez Panisse has been at the forefront of a movement that has promoted eating local, seasonal and organic foods.  Known as the slow-food movement, this philosophy has made Chez Panisse one of the most recognizable restaurants in the San Francisco area.  Not only does this movement affect the way in which the food is made, but also influences the décor and overall atmosphere of the restaurant.

Established in an old home on Shattuck Ave in this college town, Chez Panisse radiates a sense of hominess.  The waiting area of the restaurant is small, consisting of worn wooden benches, enclosed by a decorative fence overflowing with a multitude of vines and trees.  The weather-beaten wooden exterior of the restaurant itself also enhances the inviting feel of the place.  The soft lighting from the overhead lamps gives Chez Panisse an earthy ambiance.  With such an unassuming outside appearance, it is hard to believe the quality and sophistication of the restaurant inside.

Upon entering Chez Panisse, it is not hard to notice its unique juxtapositions.  Contrasting with the ornate and handmade copper work around the main dining room, the walls are plastered with colorful and elaborate menus from its years of events and special occasions.  This unique decoration commemorates the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse, which it will celebrate in August. Overall, the downstairs dining room is dimly lit, with light coming from both windows and Art-Deco styled lamps.  These lamps use special bulbs coated with a rose-colored gel, which makes the room feel extremely welcoming.  An open kitchen is directly adjacent to the main dining room and provides a unique experience while amplifying this welcoming vibe. The kitchen stays true to the philosophy of Alice Waters, the restaurant’s founder, by using local foods from 85 nearby farms, preparing the meals on countertops made of reclaimed wood, and then serving the dishes on local pottery plates.

Chez Panisse staff busily prepares the downstairs dining room prior to the restaurant's opening. Photo by Max Chantha

Upstairs, the Café seeks to provide a more casual experience.  Significantly brighter than its downstairs counterpart, the Café gets most of its lighting from a combination of its own kitchen and a stained glass section of roof.  Since the fare of the Café is generally less formal, such as pizza and salad, it makes greater use of its wood-fired ovens.  The fire from these ovens gives off a homey glow. Light enters the room through a large stained glass section of roof, which is complete with purple inserts.  The atmosphere here is relaxed and fun because of the inclusion of movie posters from the French director Marcel Pagnol’s films from which the restaurant draws the Panisse portion of its name.  The continuation of the menu wallpaper upstairs adds cohesion between the two parts of Chez-Panisse.

Overall, Chez-Panisse is no ordinary restaurant.  Its dedication to slow food is evident in everything it does. “[Chez-Panisse] is trying to be as sustainable as possible,”said Varun Mehra, Waters’ personal assistant, while also providing a friendly and romantic atmosphere.