Fire Damage

Chez Panisse Fire Update: Likely Caused by Faulty Electrical Equipment, Café to Reopen April 1

A Berkeley firefighter finishing work on Friday.
A Berkeley firefighter finishing work on Friday. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Last Friday morning’s fire at Chez Panisse made for surprising headlines and moved Alice Waters to tears, but the actual impacts on the restaurant, apart from a temporary closure, look to be not that huge. We contacted Alice Waters’s office today and they told us that April 1, which happens to be the 33rd birthday of Chez Panisse Café, now looks to be the café’s reopening date. They will start taking reservations again this coming Monday, March 18. As for the iconic restaurant downstairs, things remain up in the air, though the reconstruction effort began yesterday. And as for the initial reports of the fire’s cause being “suspicious,” those seem to have been premature.

Former longtime chef David Tanis mused about the loss of the “porch,” a windowed front area of the downstairs dining room that was typically reserved for VIPs and was the primary portion of the building to sustain damage. Berkeley carpenter and artisan Kip Mesirow, who designed most of the original restaurant beginning in 1971 and has worked with Waters ever since, was already back to work on Tuesday, assessing damage and planning for the rebuild of the porch.

Mesirow was responsible for what Tanis described as the “charming architectural mix of Arts and Crafts, Art Deco and Swiss Chalet” in the space, and Mesirow has already assured the Contra Costa Times that the new space will be similar — though Waters has already hinted that it will offer a bit more seating than before, something which she said was a “silver lining” in all this.

Mesirow also says that the restaurant is likely to reopen without the rebuilt front portion, with the porch to be unveiled later.

As for the cause of the fire, it’s still being investigated; Berkeley Fire Department investigators are now pointing to a probable electrical fire, and some faulty equipment underneath the porch that sparked the 3 a.m. blaze. Luckily, there was no structural damage to the beams of the wood-frame building.

Waters told reporters on Friday that the saving grace was a single sprinkler that Mesirow had disguised in a light fixture near the front entrance; also, she’s grateful for a piece of advice that her father gave back her in the early eighties, when he forced her to buy business-interruption insurance, which is allowing her to keep all the staff paid during the closure.

She’s also said that this fire has brought back many emotional memories of the one that broke out downstairs in 1982 when she was still doing some cooking in the open fireplace, an event for which she still occasionally blames herself. But there was a silver lining there, as well: “It took out the wall between the kitchen and the dining room,” she said. “And we never put it back up.”

Berkeley’s Chez Panisse begins rebuilding, pushes back reopening date [CC Times]
Earlier: David Tanis Reminisces About Chez Panisse’s Destroyed Porch
Berkeley’s Famed Chez Panisse Damaged by ‘Suspicious’ Fire [Updated]

Chez Panisse Fire Update: Likely Caused by Faulty Electrical Equipment,