East Bay News

Alice Waters vows to reopen Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse soon

Friday, March 08, 2013
Charred Chez Panisse sign after an early morning fire Rebuilding begins at Berkeleys Chez Panisse An emotional Chef Alice Waters talks about an early morning fire at her restaurant Chez Panisse In 1991, Alice Waters talked to ABC7 News about being a woman in the male-domniated restaurant industry. Fire at Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley

At Berkeley's Chez Panisse, a destination restaurant known for world class food and service, clients make reservations months in advance. But no one could plan for the fire that broke out early Friday morning, especially owner Alice Waters.

By the time culinary legend Waters spoke with reporters, the flames had long vanished and fire investigators thought they'd found the cause -- a faulty electrical box beneath the front porch.

"Underneath that area, there was a fire burning," said Berkeley Fire Department Deputy Chief Avery Webb. "It was coming out on the right side of the building, on the south side of the building and up the wall, all the way to the first floor eaves."

It is the second fire in 31 years at this fabled restaurant and it happened just three hours past the anniversary of the first one. If there is a silver lining here, it's that the fire broke out in front of a then empty building.

"I'm pretty shaky right now, but I'm just glad no one was in the building," Waters said. "Could have been, you know, as many as 200 people in the building at any one time; and so, that's a great relief."

The acclaimed chef is finding the good in the fire that torched her award-winning restaurant. The fire only burned the dining area on the front porch.

Waters knows it could have been much worse, but she can't hold back the tears, thinking about this part of the restaurant that had been there since she founded the world-renowned destination more than 40 years ago.

"It's a very historic piece that has disappeared in the flames," Waters said.

The flames sparked beneath the porch in the early morning hours after workers had gone home for the night.

On Friday an emotional Chef Waters expressed hope to get her beloved restaurant back in business sooner rather than later. But it certainly won't happen this weekend, which was a disappointment to the customers who showed up hungry, and left the same way on Friday.

"We came up from San Diego," said one restaurant patron.

Another added, "It's a bummer, is what it is."

Insurance saved the restaurant then, and Waters is sure she will be fine this time. She will rebuild, and perhaps expand. Devoted diners look forward to that day.

"She'll rebuild, and it'll be as beautiful, because she's a woman who believes in excellence, and she believes in quality," Chez Panisse customer Leonard Pitt said. "And that place will come back it'll be as beautiful as it was before, if not even better."

"It's just a matter of us rebuilding the hallway to the upstairs," Waters said. "But I can see that the upstairs could open very soon if we could find some way to, you know, to camouflage the front of the building."

The good news is that Waters had insurance; not only for the repairs, but also to cover the salaries of all her employees.

Chez Panisse will be closed at least through the weekend. They've announced that they are cancelling all reservations through March 23.

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