The revered locavore restaurant loosens up with late-night steak frites.
One of the more tantalizing anecdotes about Chez Panisse in the mid-1970s (alongside all the sex and drugs and wine-soaked feasting with everybody from James Beard to Jean-Luc Godard) has always been the late-night steak menu that lasted for a few months in 1974. "There was no place to eat late in Berkeley, and it drove me crazy," says owner Alice Waters, who remembers driving all the way to San Francisco's old Vanessi's after work for steak frites. Her solution, bringing in a cook to grill New York strips after the regular staff went home, lost so much money that she banished it to the realm of nostalgia—until last winter. A few months later, when a fire gutted the front of the restaurant, repairs prompted a complete menu redesign, focusing even more attention on the revived late-night steak option.
If a recent Tuesday evening is any indication, bringing back this tradition was a savvy decision. Offered Monday through Thursday, from 9:30 to 10:30 p.m. or so (which passes for late-night in Berkeley), this dinner in the upstairs café is an incredible deal. For $25, diners get a glass of house Zinfandel produced by Napa's Green & Red Vineyard and a 100-percent grass-fed steak from rancher Bill Niman, skillet-roasted in the classic French manner, with marrow butter melting on top and red-wine jus pooling all around. On the side are lacy-thin fried potatoes (more shoelace than shoestring) or onion rings, next to extremely tender and tiny watercress or arugula.
At one time, the notion of late-night steak in sleepy, vegetarian-dense Berkeley would have been unthinkable. But now, when you leave Chez Panisse, the streets are filled with post-theater crowds, and the bar next door is roaring, and everything feels just right.