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How do we assess the legacy of legendary restaurant Chez Panisse?

The exterior of Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, a wooden building behind a decorative metal fence.
Chez Panisse turns 50 this month; the restaurant, its owner and the many people who worked there “molded our nation’s modern culinary sense of self,” restaurant critic Bill Addison writes.
(San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images)

Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ legendary Berkeley restaurant, is celebrating a big birthday this month. It opened on Aug. 28, 1971, and, as restaurant critic Bill Addison writes, it “molded our nation’s modern culinary sense of self,” helping to rescue the “American palate from midcentury industrial blandness.”

Consider: “Farmers markets flourished … due to its influence,” Bill writes. It “helped codify the ‘California cuisine’ of the ’80s and ’90s.” (What’s more, as Stephanie Breijo explains, Chez Panisse alumni are among some of the country’s most accomplished chef-restaurateurs, bakers and cookbook authors.)

I’m Alice Short, acting food editor of The Times, and if you care about California cuisine and the culture of food and dining, Bill’s and Stephanie’s stories are must-reads.

Waters’ accomplishments are many: She mothered the farm-to-table movement. She founded the Edible Schoolyard Project in 1995. But, as Bill reminds us, “With longevity and importance come clichés and rebuke.”

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It’s indisputable that Chez Panisse changed the way we eat — after 50 years, is that enough?

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— In Portland, Ore., just as in many cities, the last 18 months have played out in a series of trials and tribulations: a pandemic, wildfires and unbreathable air, civil unrest and a day in June where the temperature hit 116 degrees. The mask mandate is back in Oregon, and many restaurants now require proof of vaccination for indoor dining.

So how should we think about a city that had a reputation in the wider world as a hotbed for craft beer, casual modern cuisine and detached ironic whimsy? The good news, as Jordan Michelman explains, is: “Many chefs and restaurateurs have found the wherewithal to look forward, drawing from deep wells of creativity and personal expression to build something that feels challenging, compelling and, against all odds, fun.”

A sandwich sits on a black plate held aloft by a woman's hand.
Mama Đút in Portland was founded by Thuy Pham after the pandemic disrupted her career as a hairdresser.
(Christine Dong / For The Times)

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— Closer to home, Jenn Harris and Lucas Kwan Peterson have a lot to say about, well, chicken nuggets. Inspired by the release of Popeyes’ take on one of America’s favorite snack foods, they sampled several different offerings in what we like to call a “chicken nugget challenge.” If you want to know the winner, you’ll have to check out the video.

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— Does it seem as if every A-list celebrity — from Arnold Schwarzenegger to LeBron James, Nick Jonas and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — has debuted a tequila label? There’s a flood of celebrity brands, Kate Linthicum reports, which has “helped fuel record growth in the industry. Mexico, the source of all tequila, last year produced 60 million gallons — 800% more than two decades ago.”

Kate adds: “But not everybody is happy with the industry’s rapid growth, which carries both an environmental price — as farmers bulldoze forests to plant more agave — and a cultural one — with foreigners playing an ever-growing role in one of Mexico’s proudest cultural traditions.”

— If you’re looking for a hot-weather dessert or appetizer and you’re a melon fan, Ben Mims recommends a sprinkle of spice. “ I veer toward Middle Eastern flavors — floral, tart and nutty, similar to dukkah, za’atar and other herb-and-spice mixes — that go best with the cantaloupes, honeydews and the various other muskmelons I prefer,” Ben writes. Just “open a ripe specimen and shake on one of these spice-laden mixes to relive the best part of those oppressively hot summers.”

Mario Villanueva displays a glass bottle at Casa Maestri tequila distillery.
Mario Villanueva shows different bottles customers can choose for their tequila brand at Casa Maestri tequila distillery.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
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