Chef Alice Waters’ legendary Berkeley, Calif. restaurant, Chez Panisse, will finally reopen on June 24 after suffering damages from a fire on March 8. The restaurant’s annual Summer Solstice dinner, which is usually held in April, will be on June 21 and will celebrate the re-opening of the restaurant and raise funds to support The Edible Schoolyard Project, whose mission is to transform the health of American children by incorporating food-based learning and environmental stewardship into the core curriculum of every school in the country.
It’s been a long road since the March 8 fire at the Berkeley Craftsman-style home where Chez Panisse has been located since 1971. Initially, structural damage was thought to be minor and centralized to the front porch area, but as officials began their investigation, it was determined repairs would be much more extensive. “The fire was caused by an electrical short under the front porch, so there was significant damage to the porch and some of downstairs,” says David Prior, a spokesperson for the restaurant. “But there was also smoke damage throughout the entire restaurant.”
During the renovations, the front porch was completely reconstructed using salvaged California redwood, the bar was replaced and the downstairs configuration now is slightly larger — the kitchen and dining room have been changed, but Prior says diners will notice only subtle differences. A new elevator also was installed, and many other engineering and structural issues were addressed to bring the building up to code.
Perhaps the most devastating thing for Waters was the thought of losing the iconic wisteria that she planted in front of the restaurant in memory of her longtime friend, Tom Guernsey, who died in 1990. “We were able to save the wisteria — we transplanted it the restaurant’s farm and revived it,” Prior says. “It’s a huge relief for Alice because Tom was her best friend.”
Throughout the ordeal, Waters and her staff have looked at the fire as a positive for the restaurant. “Alice had business operating insurance, so the entire staff has been paid during this time,” Prior says. “Everyone has been excited and invigorated about the changes. Not three hours after the fire was put out, Alice was drawing up new plans.”
Tickets for the June 21 Summer Solstice dinner range between $1,000 and $2,500 and can be purchased at 510-843-3811. The menu will be created the day of the event based on what fresh ingredients are available from local farmers, foragers, fishermen and ranchers. As for restaurant reservations, the line for Chez Panisse is back up and taking calls at 510-548-5525.
Photo Courtesy of David Liittschwager