Alice Waters needs no introduction – an innovator, a pioneer, a champion of the locally-grown/sustainable/organic movement, possibly a genius and certainly one of the most important names in American (and especially Californian) Cuisine. I’ve read Chef Waters books and have the utmost respect for her work from the kitchen to the Edible school yard. With that said, I was thrilled when I managed to secure lunch reservations at Chez Panisse Café for 3 people at 1:30pm on 02/18/09. I was thrilled when I saw the building, I was thrilled when I saw the menu, I was thrilled when I climbed the stairs, saw the kitchen, and sat down at our table. Perhaps my expectations were too high because I’m sure my thoughts will meet much dissention here, but honestly I don’t care – Chez Panisse Café is terribly overrated, overpriced, and vastly oversold on itself based on the hype generated by the restaurant downstairs.
While attractive, the main dining area of Chez Panisse Café was not only incredibly loud, but also incredibly crowded with booths along one wall and tables filling most of the interior space. Sitting with my mother and aunt at the table near the kitchen I will admit the view was great, but we could distinctly hear the conversations of three other tables – none of whom were related, but seemed to be increasing their volume in order to be heard over the hum of the rest of the patrons. Handed our menus by Karen on the way in we’d made up our mind after about 5 minutes but had not yet seen a server. Another 5 minutes passed before our server finally appeared – an aloof and unhelpful man named Cale – to take drink orders. Wine was offered (declined) and two iced teas and a water were orders – two iced teas that didn’t taste much better than Lipton and cost $5 each.
Cale disappeared and another waiter brought our drinks and some house bread – a decent (albeit cold with colder butter) whole wheat sourdough. The bread was eaten and then the plate was removed – no refill offered, though given the quality I’d have not eaten more anyhow. Cale finally returned around 1:55 to take our orders, myself selecting two appetizers (one as a main,) my aunt selecting the pizza, and my mom selecting the chicken breast. Cale stopped my mother mid-sentence to say “we’re out of the breast, but we’re preparing the same dish with a leg cooked the same way so it is just as good.” My mother declined and instead selected the pizza as she doesn’t like dark meat and as Cale left we sat there trying to figure out what kind of magical chicken Chez Panisse serves that tastes has leg that tastes like breast.
After about 15 minutes my first dish arrived – along with my main and my mother and aunt’s pizza. As my salad was served cold I opted to start with the warm pizzetta served with Tomato sauce, spicy Monterey Bay Squid, and Marjoram. While the crust was relatively crispy and the squid clearly very fresh, the sauce was actually quite bland and I detected no spice aside from the overly pungent oregano/pine taste of the Marjoram. A decent stab at “California Pizza” with wonderfully fresh ingredients, it simply wasn’t that good and quite small for the $14.00 price tag.
My second dish, Bob's Cardoons and Potatoes with Black Truffles and Egg fared slightly better than the pizzetta and the cardoons were excellent in flavor, texture, and preparation. Unfortunately, aside from the Cardoons, the rest of the dish was highly mediocre with cold/mushy potatoes, an overly cooked egg, and…I guess the black dots were truffles, though they certainly weren’t flavorful or aromatic. At $11 this dish felt like a rip off, especially compared to the stellar truffle/egg preparation for $14 at Boulevard.
As mediocre and overpriced as my dishes were, the Pizza ordered by my mother and aunt lowered the bar further. At $18:50, the Pizza with Rocket Salad and Parmesan, was essentially a round of crispy cheese bread that did not taste much better than Little Caesars Crazy Bread with a giant salad of Arugula tossed on top. Again, very fresh ingredients aside, the dish was pretty sparse and ridiculously priced with its only saving grace the high quality Parmesan cheese on top.
At some point during the meal Karen (who seated us) blatantly grabbed another server to refill the water jug since Cale was nowhere to be found – a server who managed to knock my empty glass over and hit me with the jug in the shoulder in one classic maneuver – but my mother’s iced tea sat empty for a good 10 minutes before it was recharged. Meals finished we sat and waited for a some time while watching the kitchen operate with flawless precision (chopping, plating, mixing, etc) before Cale finally reappeared and handed us dessert menus. Already quite discontented with the experience we’d had dessert was declined and the bill was delivered – with the added 17% gratuity mentioned on the menu. While I am not a fan of automatic gratuity in general since the concept of a tip is that better service gets a better tips and automatic inclusion provides no incentive to perform better than average, I was particularly insulted by this addition and the line that allowed for “added gratuity” considering just how bad the service really was.
All told, this was the worst meal I’ve had anywhere in a long time and by FAR the worst meal I had on my trip to California. Poor service, average food, high prices, automatic gratuity, and a whole lot of pretense. While I still respect Chef Waters and her concepts, I think perhaps she should spend a bit of time at the café to see how things are going. At some point I’ll be back in San Francisco and perhaps I’ll check out the Mothership – but given my memories of the café, perhaps not.