The fellow sitting at the next table at Chez Panisse scribbled on the butcher paper overlaid on my white tablecloth, then tapped on what he had just written. "Go here for lunch tomorrow," he said. "The chef is doing great things."
I had expected that eating here, a Berkeley, Calif., restaurant that was a temple for foodies before people started calling themselves that, would be different from eating in other restaurants. What I hadn't expected was the sense of community between tables of food adventurers.
On a road trip through Northern California -- San Francisco, Sacramento, Placerville, San Jose -- I made a reservation to eat at Chez Panisse, which Alice Waters had launched in 1971. It quickly became known for its emphasis on fresh, local, organic ingredients and simple preparations that spotlighted the quality of the ingredients. Waters became an early food celeb. Even here in Miami, 3,000 miles away, Waters drew a crowd when she appeared at Books & Books to talk about what eventually became known as the Locavore Movement.
I went for lunch in the cafe upstairs and was seated in a row of small tables crowded together, so close that I could carry on conversations with the people at tables on either side of me without raising my voice. Which was good, because the conversations started right away, questions and comments about what we were eating or ordering.
On that day, the menu, which changes daily according to what ingredients are available, was Egyptian-inspired. I chose a three-course prix fixe lunch consisting of green salad with baked goat cheese, pan-fried rockfish served with sautéed spinach with raisins and pine nuts, and almond cake with honey ice cream and tangerine slices. I started with a glass of champagne to celebrate that, after many years of talking about it, I was finally at Chez Panisse.
I had been torn between the salad and a turnip-cumin soup, which sounded homey yet like nothing I had ever eaten before. The salad won, though, because I'm passionate about goat cheese. But when a bowl of soup arrived on the table to my left, I asked the diner if that was the turnip-cumin soup. "Yes, would you like a taste?" he asked. "Uh, no," I said.
"Sure you would," he said, and waved at a waiter. "Please bring another spoon so this lady can taste my soup."
He was a 40-something man who, like myself, was dining solo. He was from the area but lived in Japan and was here visiting his mother. He said he ate at Chez Panisse at least once each time he was in town, and I told him this was my first time. We chatted about where Chez Panisse bought supplies, the difference between cooking and eating styles in Japan and the U.S., and the turnip soup, which was creamy and fragrant, had a hint of sweetness, and was not overwhelmed by the cumin. Then we turned our attention back to our lunches.
It says something about Chez Panisse and its patrons that my neighbor did not engage me in a round of where-have-you-eaten. We were simply enjoying the food, speaking the common language of foodies.
As we were finishing our meals, he leaned over and wrote down a place he recommended: Boulevard Restaurant, by the Ferry Building in San Francisco, opened just last year. I tore off the corner of the butcher paper and ate there the next day. The food was terrific. But I already knew I could count on that. My neighbor had established his credentials by ordering the turnip-cumin soup.