Discover more from Greil Marcus / Letter in the Ether
Chez Panisse: Seventies
A Brief History of Chez Panisse in Four Parts
In 2010 Alice Waters asked me to write the text for a book celebrating the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse, which came out the next year as 40 Years of Chez Panisse: The Power of Gathering / Alice Waters and Friends. I wasn’t an innocent bystander; I’d been a member of the board of the directors that managed the restaurant since it was established in 1975, and still am. I wrote one chapter each for the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, and 2000s, centering each on a single incident—the opening in 1971, a table full of coke dealers in the 1980s, Bill Clinton showing up one night in the 1990s, a dinner to mark a friend’s death in the 2000s. The publisher said the book had to be in Alice’s voice, so what I wrote, aside from a few snippets scattered around with the memories and comments of dozens of others, was never published. I’ll be running the chapters weekly, adding dates for those who have died since I wrote, over the next month. I still recognize the place as it was in these pages; I hope others do too.
Part One: The Seventies
In many ways the story of Chez Panisse begins at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964, not long after Alice Waters, late of New Jersey, transferred there from Santa Cruz as a twenty-year-old sophomore. Throughout the spring, students organized demonstrations—picket marches and sit-ins—against racial discrimination in hiring practices at businesses in San Francisco and the East Bay: in 1964, if you walked into a branch of the Bank of America, the bank that dominated the Bay Area, you would never see a single teller, let alone a loan agent, let alone a manager, who was not white.
Letter in the Ether is a reader-supported guide to everyday culture and found objects. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
Businesses complained to the university. When the fall semester began, the university announced a campus ban on political organizing: on speech, spoken or written, meant to encourage others to take certain actions, or refrain from others. Students deliberately violated the order; the university had them arrested. Within days, the Free Speech Movement took shape—and the result was weeks, then months, of speeches, rallies, discussions, marches, sit-ins, meetings, more rallies, more speeches, more sit-ins, and in one way or another, everyone took part. “I came here to go to business school,” one friend said—he couldn’t have been less interested in politics, in questions of how and why people make judgments about the ordering of their shared shape and time, on what counts and what doesn’t according to those judgments—“and all we ever do is talk about this goddamned FSM!”
It was three months of unfettered doubt, chaos, anger, hesitation, confusion, and joy: a sense of freedom. Your own history—such once abstract or distant things as the First Amendment, maybe a line from the Gettysburg Address—was lying in pieces on the ground, and you had the choice of picking up the pieces or passing them by. In this atmosphere, where a school became a terrain on which all emotions, all ideas and theories, were tested and fought over, nothing was trivial, nothing was incidental. Everything was part of a totality, and that totality was, finally, how you wanted to live.
On December 2, 1964, during the final sit-in on the Berkeley campus—an event that led to the arrest of nearly eight hundred demonstrators, a student strike that shut down the university, and finally the restoration of free speech on the campus—Mario Savio, the most visible speaker of the Free Speech Movement, gave a talk he called “An End to History.” “The university,” he said, “is the place where people begin seriously to question the conditions of their existence and raise the issue of whether they can be committed to the society they have been born into. After a long period of apathy during the fifties, students have begun not only to question but, having arrived at answers, to act on those answers. This is part of a growing understanding among many people in America that history has not ended, that a better society is possible, and that it is worth dying for.”
More than anything else, Mario Savio’s words convinced Alice that she, in her own way, had to change the world. Like thousands of other students, she absorbed both Savio’s words and the events they described—demonstrations one watched, demonstrations in which one took part, speeches one listened to, speeches one made, to crowds of hundreds or an audience of one, two, or the mirror. The notion that one could make one’s own history—over the next six years, the nation itself would be convulsed by it. It might take the shape of huge demonstrations against racial injustice, against the Vietnam war—but in a way it was nothing more, and nothing less, than people refusing to accept that history was over, and insisting that the story they would leave left behind would be one they told themselves. “If you don’t like the news,” Scoop Nisker of KSAN-FM in San Francisco liked to say in the years after the Free Speech Movement, “go out and make some of your own,” and people took him at his word. “This little place,” Mario Savio had said in wonderment, “had become one of the central places on the planet.”
Seven long years later, that sense of place felt to many as if it had somehow slipped into the past. The idea of Chez Panisse was to create a center in a town that no longer seemed to have any such thing. It would be a gathering place where, within the small, self-created milieu of a kitchen and tables in a restaurant, a joyous, engaged, proudly romantic or even utopian sense of possibility—a sense of a good life, and how to make it—would rise from food on a plate.
It would be a little French restaurant where people would meet, find inspiration, renew old friendships, establish new ones, talk, and discover. There would be work for people to do, and while it might barely pay the rent, it would be more fulfilling than any work they had done before. People would leave their tables with a feeling of surprise at how good something could taste. The way a peach or even a green salad could taste so fully of itself, as if it were both a thing and the idea of it, would suggest that other parts of life, outside the restaurant, could achieve the same rightness. So people would come back, maybe the next night, the next week, the next month—even the next year, if luck held and the place was still there, as if to a well.
It might have been hard to glimpse all of that when Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse on August 28, 1971, but that and much more was hovering over the simple plates that held simple food: pork paté with a pastry crust; duck with olives; a plum tart. If you were lucky. My wife and I had booked for the second seating, arrived about nine, and sat down at a big table already occupied by a host of friends. Out of the swinging kitchen doors came two patés, and then, with perfect timing, the duck. “This is something!” we said. “To have it down like clockwork, and on the first night!” Then we noticed that no one else at the table looked as pleased as we did. “You just got here,” one person said, almost accusingly. “We’ve been waiting here since six. This,” she said, pointing at the duck before her, as if it were as cold as her appetite, “is the first we’ve seen of this.”
Within the time it took to take a bite and then realize one had to have another, the mood changed, and the ambiance of the room—the first-floor front room of an old, two-story, semi-Victorian house on Shattuck Avenue, the main business street in Berkeley, on a block holding a Co-op supermarket, a hardware store, a collective called the Cheese Board, an electronics store, and sundry other unremarkable businesses, with, around the corner, the original Peet’s Coffee, where Mr. Peet held court—began to make itself felt. Alice, says Sharon Jones, “seemed to be everywhere at once.” Jones herself was a waitress with such a lightness about her that her feet barely seemed to touch the floor as she went from table to table, for so long with little to bring them but a smile that people would learn to read as a promise of a good night. The waiter Jerry Budrick offered a different sort of reassurance, with the calm, somewhat stolid, somewhat amused face of someone who’d seen worse before and knew he’d see worse in the future. Impatience gave way to anticipation. Satisfaction ran up against the fact that the night would have to end.
Over the next weeks and months, the gathering place Alice had imagined Chez Panisse might become began to emerge. It happened in fits and starts. “It wasn’t until the next week that the food really took hold,” says a woman who had shopped with Alice for dishware the week before the restaurant opened. At the very start, cooks and partners—Leslie Lande, Paul Aratow—came and went quickly, but the chefs, Victoria Kroyer and Barbara Rosenblum, and Lindsey Shere, the pastry chef, were finding their footing, and also finding their way into the restaurant as Alice imagined it: that every dish was to be made to bring out the essence of what it was, that each serving of fish, or chicken, or asparagus, or nectarines be a thing in itself, made to orchestrate, to dramatize, what it was—made to give up its secret, that secret flavor, smell, texture, and even aura that, while hiding in plain sight, might in the eating lives of the people sitting down at Chez Panisse’s tables have been buried in the ground.
That is what people meant when they told their friends, There’s this place on Shattuck between Cedar and Vine—or, as the word spread, in Berkeley—or, as it spread farther, near San Francisco, across the Bay—and whatever they put on the plate, it’s like you never tasted it before. Starting with what appeared on a plate—a stew of wild mushrooms, few lettuces with yellow and orange flowers, a baked garlic, an almond tart—the idea that things could be better than one had expected—that your life, your town, your state, or your country could be better than you had believed it could be—began to seem not merely obvious, but necessary.
It may have been necessary—it was why Alice had, after years of hearing friends say, Oh, you’re such a wonderful cook, why don’t you open a restaurant? as if all that meant was putting a sign on your front door, done just that. But it was not obvious.
By 1971, the events at the University that had sparked Chez Panisse seemed to many people a dream that was hard to credit or even recall. The election of Richard Nixon as president in 1968, the shootings of student demonstrators at Kent State University and Jackson State College in Mississippi in 1970, had finally cast a cloud of silence. I was teaching at Berkeley in 1971; students had come there because that, they thought, was where was history was being made. I remember them looking around the dulled campus, and I almost wish I didn’t remember the looks on their faces when they asked me why it was that they had arrived too late—or, worse, if they had somehow been born too late.
This is part of the unlikelihood out of which Alice created her restaurant—but it was the same unlikelihood out of which others, too, were staking out their own ground, under the radar of the official new of the world. In San Francisco, as the only publicly gay politician in the country, Harvey Milk was pioneering a new, neighborhood-based politics, and changing the face the city showed to the world. Rolling Stone, founded by in San Francisco in 1967 by Jann Wenner, himself part of the crowd that had made up the Free Speech Movement, was coming into its own as the most dynamic journal of art and politics in the nation. The Bay Area was filled with the shows Bill Graham put on—the Rolling Stones at Winterland, the Who at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, the Band at the Berkeley Community Theatre—with the likes of Randy Newman sneaking in and out of concerts at converted Chinese movie theaters. And more than anything else, there was the movies.
Chez Panisse was named for one Honoré Panisse, one of the riot of characters in and about the Marseilles waterfront in Marcel Pagnol’s 1930s Fanny trilogy—and it was no accident that from its first year cinema streamed through Chez Panisse like a parade. At the urging of George Lucas, Francis Coppola had moved his experimental company American Zoetrope to San Francisco; in a Falstaffian mode, he presided over celebratory dinners at Chez Panisse regardless of the occasion, or lack of one. In the aftermath of the May 1968 upheaval in France—culturally, not merely an upheaval, but an overturning—Jean-Luc Godard and J.-P. Gorin formed the Dziga Vertov Group, a political combine (“Sometimes he’s the left wing,” Godard said, “sometimes I am”) meant to bring down the dictatorship of the director. Their films polarized Berkeley audiences—“Unwatchable!” “Open your eyes!”—and when the screenings were over Godard and Gorin moved on to Chez Panisse and the arguments continued.
The movie-man Tom Luddy (1943-2023) was at Chez Panisse on its first night and, it could seem, every night after; from 1972, under his leadership, the University’s Pacific Film Archive became a locus point for world cinema. The filmmakers he brought to town—Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray, Akira Kurosowa, Kenneth Anger, Howard Hawks, Wim Wenders, Robert Rosellini, Satayajit Ray, Wanda Jakubowska, Werner Herzog, Delphine Seyrig, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Eugene Ionesco, Martin Scorsese, and countless other directors, actors, writers—had as much to do with the charged and expectant atmosphere at Chez Panisse, its growing affirmation of its own realized mission, as anything else.
Sharon Jones had come to Berkeley from Chicago, after two years of trekking from Boston to Katmandu; she was working as a speech therapist, living in a commune on Colby Street at the far south end of Berkeley, when a housemate told her a woman who lived across the street was opening a restaurant: “They’ve hired 52 people but they need someone to wait on tables.”
“I fell in love the moment I walked in,” Jones says now, nearly forty years later; today she is a member of the board of directors that manages Chez Panisse. “I fell in love at every level. On the big level—of what they were trying to do—integrating food into the political life, the social life. On the basic level. What attracted me most was the food—to be that close to it. The smells—to be able to walk in and smell all the ingredients. In those days, we, the waiters, made the salads, made the salad dressing—there was a sense of the whole. The noise of the floor that first night—I loved the click click click of heels on the wood, and the sound of the doors to the kitchen swinging—I’d worked in lots of restaurants, swinging doors to the kitchen were nothing new, but these were like a merry-go-round.”
The vanished tumult of the previous years—people acting without a script, with a faith in novelty—was recreated. “The level of uncertainty and chaos Alice was able to work in was shocking to me,” Jones says. “To make last-minute decisions, take chances, take risks. Like Victoria cooking food she’d never cooked, no one made me feel as if I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing.”
And it was an idea, a notion of how to live, an emphasis on certain values—a sense of where, finally, ideas about anything came from. “Out of all of Alice’s excess,” Jones says, “I learned to demand the pleasure principle my mother had done her best to smoosh out of me. The extravagant part of Alice—the sense of display, the beauty—she had a sense of wanting people to have more than enough.”
That was how Chez Panisse started, in what to so many others was the dead-end year of 1971, and that was the moment—a certain vision of rightness—that it would need to live up to, a standard the place, in only months, generated out of itself.