A severe fire broke out at Alice Waters' famed Berkeley icon Chez Panisse at around 3 a.m. this morning, the second major blaze in its 40 year history. According to firefighters on the scene, little fires were set around the building, damaging the facade before working their way inside. It is being treated as suspicious in nature, but investigators haven't ruled out other possibilities (like an electrical fire or an errant cigarette).
By the looks of photos of the exterior of the restaurant, the damage was severe, but a sprinkler inside the building did help to stave off the flames. Berkeley Fire Department Battalion Chief Avery Webb told reporters that "damage didn't look too bad, there's not even that much smoke damage."
An emotional Waters has been on the scene since 6 a.m., when she toured the space, and has been talking to media. She says that she could see reopening the upstairs of the restaurant "very soon" and "it's just a matter of us rebuilding the hallway to the upstairs." The reopening could come as soon as next week. She says that maybe with renovations, she'll be able to expand the dining room.
Update, 8:26 am: The New York Times got in touch with Waters, who discussed the damage more extensively. "The very beautiful facade of the restaurant is gone," she said. "The fire started under the front porch and it just burned the whole front porch off. We were very lucky that it happened in the middle of the night and that no one was there. But it's gone. The beautiful woodwork is gone." The restaurant has no structural damage, and there was no damage to the first floor, kitchen, or upstairs cafe.
Waters cites two things that saved the day: the fire sprinklers on the first floor that she almost didn't install, and the business interruption insurance her father insisted on buying for her back in 1981, which she had thought too expensive. "He saved the restaurant," she said.
This also isn't Chez Panisse's first fire: the wall between the kitchen and dining room was destroyed in 1982. Waters never rebuilt it, calling it "a silver lining." Hopefully that will apply again in this case.
Update, 10:12 am: Waters sent a thank-you tweet to all concerned:
Luckily no one hurt and the main structure of Chez Panisse in tact.Hope to reopen the Cafe next weekend. Thank you for the love + support— Alice Waters (@AliceWaters) March 8, 2013
Update, 2:40 pm: Chez Panisse will be closed through at least the weekend, and has cancelled all reservations through March 23, according to ABC7. Waters' priority is on opening the upstairs cafe first, but she still needs to figure out how to reconstruct the downstairs hallway so folks can get upstairs without walking through the damaged porch.
Meanwhile, longtime Chez Panisse chef David Tanis reflects on what the porch meant to the restaurant in The New York Times: "It was the last vestige of the original Chez Panisse...the porch had the best seats in the house, most requested by customers and usually reserved for regulars and V.I.P.'s."
And some conspiracy fodder from the Chron's Henry Lee: the 1982 fire that destroyed Chez Panisse's dining room occurred on the exact same day of the year as this one, March 7.
Update, 2:55 pm: Waters has released a statement to Inside Scoop. She attributes the blaze to "an electrical fire [that] broke out under the front porch of the downstairs dining room," though the Fire Department has yet to confirm that the electrical wiring was the cause.
· Fire at Chez Panisse: The Restaurant 'Will Likely Be Closed For Some Time' [Eater National]
· Fire Rips Through Berkeley Icon - Chez Panisse [NBC Bay Area]
· Chef Alice Waters Says Chez Panisse Will Reopen Following Fire [Kron4TV]
· Fire Damages Chez Panisse [The New York Times]