This upstairs café (though more of a Western restaurant) resides in the rather infamous birthplace of California Cuisine. At least when Alice Waters decided to take her local, farm-fresh cooking operation out of a house and into this formal spot decades ago.
Yes, dear Alice may be the mother of most of what’s good about restaurants in the Bay Area today. Many restaurateurs here have profited from her coattails while often she’s barely broke even. But she also has her detractors. TV food snarkmaster Anthony Bourdain, for example, places her in his Pantheon of Contempt alongside Rachael Ray (of all people).
It’s then that you realize opinions about chefs can sometimes have little to do with their food. And what is there not to like about the food here? The espresso here, however, leaves room for improvement.
The more formal restaurant is downstairs, and the café is a (slightly) more casual affair. There are rich wood floors and paneling, reflective panels of zinc on the walls, and lots of Art Deco designs to the space — which is also decorated with old 1930s movie posters from the French screenplay scribe, Marcel Pagnol.
Of course, any homage to the French is usually a bad sign for their coffee quality. They ease some of those fears by adopting a coffee service from Blue Bottle Coffee. (Whom Alice gives enough of a ringing endorsement to erect a public sculpture.)
They use a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the top of the stairs to enter the café; it’s in a dedicated spot for their wine storage and book sales. Using the Chez Panisse House Blend, they produce espresso shots with a weak, bare layer of medium brown crema.
The shot size is right (which is better than we can say for some of the doubles we saw passed around) — so it’s not surprising that the cup has a decent heft to its body. There’s some potency in the flavor, which runs more into pepper and spices. But by any measure, this is weak for Blue Bottle standards; it scores among the lowest-ranked cafés using Blue Bottle beans in the Bay Area. Perhaps a little of an authentic French influence unfortunately comes out in the quality of the cup here.
Read the review of Chez Panisse Café in Berkeley, CA.
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