Throughout the year, Restaurant Editor Bill Addison will travel the country to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Among people who care about food, no independent restaurant in America needs less of an introduction than Berkeley's Chez Panisse. Co-founder Alice Waters has done more to implant the words "local," "seasonal," and "sustainable" in our brains than any other living soul. She began the restaurant modestly in 1971, serving French food inspired by cookbook authors like Richard Olney and Elizabeth David. Her search for quality ingredients from nearby farmers eventually propelled the California cuisine movement—as did the skills of other freethinking cooks who joined her in the kitchen through the years. In turn they helped foster pride in homegrown foods and traditions among chefs in the country's other regions. The Chez Panisse philosophy rerouted America's culinary trajectory. Its continuing insistence on simplicity also generates its share of backlash.
This has all been written about and discussed ad nauseum. How satisfying is Chez Panisse for diners circa right now? That varies between the downstairs restaurant and the upstairs cafe. I definitely prefer one experience to the other.