When I booked my flight to San Francisco for the annual Foodbuzz Blogger Festival, I decided to treat myself before the official festival began. I expected a hectic work week followed by an early morning flight and a jam-packed weekend of what can only be described as food blogger bliss. I wanted some quiet time and I deserved to have it at Alice Waters’ iconic Berkeley, CA restaurant, Chez Panisse. So I made a lunch reservation for one at the Chez Panisse Cafe.
When Chez Panisse opened its doors forty years ago, Alice Waters, the executive chef and owner, started a movement to build a food economy that is “good, clean, and fair.” She is a pioneer of the American cooking philosophy that promotes fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. She is an advocate for sustainable farming practices and food production. Alice Waters testified to the power of local sustainable food long before it became the fast-growing trend that it is today. Because this is a philosophy that guides my food choices, I was thrilled to go to the place where it all began and enjoy a delicious meal upon my arrival in San Francisco.
Some of my friends thought I was crazy for making the trek out to Berkeley to dine solo. When I told people about my plans, I received a few looks of pity, that I would have to endure the lonely experience of sitting at a table for one for an hour that would inevitably be a string of uncomfortable experiences: where to look? what to do? can these people tell I’m eavesdropping on their conversation just to satisfy my desperate yearning for human interaction?
I experienced none of these things. Instead I nestled into my corner table, read every word of a beautiful menu, and took in every decorative element of the simply elegant cafe. I was not distracted by gossip from my tablemate. I was not rushed into a menu selection based on someone else’s readiness to order. Surrounded by people enjoying simple, fresh, seasonal food, I did not feel alone.
The meal began with bread and water, served in a beaker-like carafe, delicately engraved with the restaurant logo.
I selected the rigatoni alla Norma. I almost went for a salad because I felt that the pasta would be better for dinner. However as I watched other people’s plates come out, I noticed that several people had ordered full entrees and they all looked amazing. Besides, when will I ever be back at Chez Panisse for dinner? So as not to miss my opportunity, I just went for it. While I waited, I read Holly Hughes’ Best Food Writing 2011 and took in the decor.
Located directly above the main dining room (dinner only, prix fixe), the Chez Panisse Cafe offers a more casual environment with an a la carte menu. Mirrors around the room reflected the warm sunlight and the walls are papered with a collection of past daily menus. A few caught my eye, like Lunch for the First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton. I mused on what I would serve for lunch of Hillary Clinton was coming over, or Michelle Obama. I suppose you would serve what you do best and hope that she liked the selection.
The housemade rigatoni was incredible. I learned earlier this year what a difference fresh ricotta salata makes on a dish and experienced it again here. I was also struck by the uniformity of the vegetables in size and shape and made a mental note to work on my knife skills. I ate every bite on the whole plate and didn’t apologize for it. The servers were very attentive and offered coffee and dessert. I was really impressed with how friendly they were; sometimes when you visit an iconic restaurant such as this one, there is a hint (or a deluge) of snobbery from the waitstaff. Not the case at Chez Panisse. They were delightful.
Yes, I was stuffed but of course I didn’t pass up dessert. I ordered the Frog Hollow Farm pear crisp with toasted almond ice cream. The pears were so fresh and the crisp was exactly what it should be: light and crispy. The ice cream was to die for – how did they achieve the perfect toasted almond flavor? It was warm and smoky and nutty and everything I had hoped it would be. I couldn’t finish the whole thing because I was so full, but I had several perfect bites before I pushed the plate away.
After lunch I strolled through Berkeley and reflected on the meal. Dining alone is not all that bad. I felt way more present in the moment. I saw, smelled, tasted, and heard so much more than I would have if I had dined with a companion. I enjoyed every fresh, local, seasonal bite and was inspired by the dishes I tried. I love sharing food experiences with friends and family, but I will definitely do this again sometime. When I returned to my hotel forty minutes later, refreshed and inspired, I noticed the one downfall of dining alone. There is no one there to tell you when you have fresh, local, seasonal basil in your teeth. Oh well.