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San Francisco: Dinner at Chez Panisse

August 8, 2013


We really hadn’t set in stone much for the San Francisco leg of our trip, except one thing: dinner at Chez Panisse.

I really wasn’t that familiar with Alice Waters and her influence on the food world until Joel suggested we really try to get a reservation at Chez Panisse. Joel is passionate about food, and I trust his recommendations. I made the reservation and then read up on all things Chez Panisse. My heart really connected with Alice Waters’ philosophy about food. I also realized how broadly my food influences have felt her reach. For example, my favorite caramel recipe is from David Lebovitz, formerly of Chez Panisse. Even my passion for farm-to-table can be traced back to the revolution Alice started more than forty years ago.

Needless to say, I was very excited about our reservation.

Of course, luck would have it that the day of our reservation was quite a hectic travel day, and Chris and I were thoroughly worn out. So much that we got into an intense argument over a very small misunderstanding just before our reservation. Add to that traffic from San Francisco to Berkeley, and you’ll get an idea of where our emotions were at. We were ten minutes late leaving the hotel, so I called to let them know we would be a few minutes late. I fully expected a stiff response and a sharp reminder to be on time (a la the Space Needle), but instead the host responded so kindly, it caught me off guard.

“Oh, okay! Well, thank you for calling! We’ll see you soon!”

Still, I felt rushed and tense on the way there.

When we arrived twenty minutes past our reservation time, I fully expected to be told we missed our reservation and would need to wait for the next available seat. Au contraire.

“Oh, you’re the ones who called! Thank you! Well, you’re here now. Have a seat and relax!”

I felt as if dear friends had welcomed us into their home. We were greeted so warmly, I couldn’t help but relax. At least a little bit.

The meal was simple, beautiful, perfectly proportioned, and soothing to our spirits. Dessert was nothing short of amazing.

We chatted with the server a bit about his background, about the recent fire at Chez Pannisse, whether or not any of Alice Waters’ books happened to be for sale at the restaurant. But what happened next took me so off guard, I was speechless.

After we finished dessert and paid the bill, our server asked casually, “Would you like to see the kitchen?”

After we picked our jaws up off the floor, Chris and I both answered enthusiastically, “Yes!”


We were treated to a tour of the downstairs kitchen, butcher room, pantry, and freezer. Even the prep areas were arranged with such attention to detail. It was so much fun. Our server even snapped a couple of iPhone pictures for us in front of the wood-fired oven.


Afterwards, we saw ourselves upstairs to the cafe, where the host patiently retrieved book after book for me and a local patron advised me that I should buy all of the books.

I nearly did.

In fact, I bought two books that night — The Art of Simple Food and Chez Panisse Desserts. Then, on Friday, we made a special trip back to get a few photos and to buy more books. I couldn’t help myself.

I love all of Alice Waters’ books, but The Art of Simple Food is the most comprehensive and the most helpful to a beginner. In a nod to the Julie/Julia Project, the original blog behind the book and now movie Julie & Julia, I’ve decided to blog through The Art of Simple Food. It reminds me of the cookbook my grandmother cooked with — full of practical advice for shopping and meal planning, but also stocked with fancy dinner party menus. I don’t want to cook every recipe – that would take years! – so I’m setting up a schedule of sorts. The new series will start this weekend. It will follow a bit of recap from the book, followed by a recipe or assignment. I hope you’ll join me!

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