The Chez Panisse 40th Anniversary Tributes Are Rolling In

Categories: Talking Points
The sign for Chez Panisse should read: All hunger ye who enter here.
​August 28 marks the 40th birthday of Chez Panisse, as you've probably been hearing. Alice Waters has been redecorating her restaurant with old menus and holding commemorative dinners galore, and newspaper stories about this birthday are rolling in.

Last week, the Chronicle's Michael Bauer listed six great restaurants -- many of them SFoodie favorites -- descended from Chez Panisse. Yesterday, East Bay Express critic (and former SFoodie editor) John Birdsall wrote a loving, complicated assessment of the restaurant:
The house on North Shattuck was the first restaurant of its generation to build a rationale for its own existence beyond mere profit, a philosophy that considered the authenticity of its sources -- the intentional nature of its raw materials -- as much (or more than) the nature of its sauces.
It is fascinating that you don't like Chez Panisse, you believe in it, or in Alice Waters' maddening, seductive vision of a "delicious revolution." 

Chez Panisse has been influencing California cuisine since Jeremiah Tower, as chef, ushered in an era of grilled meats with fresh salsas, seasonal pizzas cooked in wood-fired ovens, and mixed-green salads with goat cheese. But it wasn't until the late 1990s that the restaurant's influence peaked, inspiring a thousand Bay Area restaurants to replicate pristine versions of Elizabeth David recipes using farm-branded vegetables. 

That era is ending, and the Alice backlash has hit, as fashion has grown tired of simple, rustic California-Mediterranean food (although diners don't seem to have the same problem). The current generation of cooks is all about daring, maximalist food that's more in tune with what Europe is doing now, not what European grandmothers cooked a century ago. 

But the backlash is really only a measure of the restaurant's success. The 40th anniversary gives us a chance to separate the aesthetics of Chez Panisse, which are no longer so compelling, from the restaurant's legacy, which is. 

I still love Chez Panisse for all the memorable dishes I've eaten there -- a corn pudding that infused a dozen July days into the custard, a motherfucking peach on a plate that left my lips and forearms sticky with juice. Now that I'm no longer forced to eat Chez Panisse dishes at every restaurant in town, I'm glad to live in a city where the restaurant, and its owner, have become grande dames. Happy 40th anniversary to Chez Panisse! She's always welcome to come onstage, speak a few words, and smile her trademark smile. We'll happily give her a standing ovation. 

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Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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