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Dining with Little Kids at Chez Panisse Café

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Dining with Little Kids at Chez Panisse Café

Melanie Wong | Mar 30, 2003 03:44 AM

What more can one say about Chez Panisse Café that hasn’t been said before? Nathan’s mention below of its kid-friendliness brings up yet another area deserving of accolades.

I was there a couple weeks ago with two lively little boys, ages 3 and 4, and their parents. Not being a parent myself, I saw the dining experience through new eyes and was extraordinarily impressed with all the measures taken to help families have a care-free night out.

Our large party of seven adults and two children were seated promptly. The bench seating along the long side of the table up against the stairwell seemed like it was designed for kids. We put the boys at each end of the bench with their moms in the middle. They were corralled in, yet each still had plenty of room in his corner to jump up and down and move around on the wooden bench and not have to sit still. And, there was enough space for a small child to lie down to nap, which is what Max (who is not visible) on the left in the picture below is doing. Jacob, on the right side, was in fine spirits and didn’t nod off until it was time to go.

Two servers appeared instantly, one with baskets of bread that she put in front of the boys, and the other had mugs of crayons and asked for the children’s drink orders. The café bar menu includes juice and milk with Straus Family organic milk (whole or nonfat), organic Gravenstein apple cider, organic fresh-squeezed orange juice, and more. The paper-topped tables became a canvas for drawing, and when that was covered, extras of the daily menu offered new surface for coloring. When Jacob had finished working over one bread basket, leaving only a pile of crusts, it was replenished without asking.

The boys’ pizzas were the first orders to hit the table and later their ice cream for dessert too, and they seemed happy with them. The adults ooh’d and ah’d over the deliciousness and perfect balance of

Cardoon and faro salad with pan di zucchero
Sand dab baked in the wood oven with sweet onions, pine nuts and raisins
Baked Sonoma goat cheese with garden lettuces
Black trumpet mushroom ravioli with artichokes and chervil
Grilled Sonoma County duck leg with potato and celery root gratin, prunes and watercress
Niman Ranch pork loin with chickpeas, pea greens and wild fennel
Cheese plate: Timson, Tomme de Boudanne and Panache d’Amaritz
Sierra Beauty apple and prune tart with vanilla ice cream
Meyer lemon crème brulee with almond cookies
Rio Star pink grapefruit sherbet with candied citrus peel and gingersnaps

We had brought out own wines (paying $20 corkage each):

2001 Heymann Löwenstein Schieferterrassen Riesling Trocken M-S-R
1983 Chave Hermitage Blanc
1982 Guigal Hermitage
1983 Guigal Hermitage
1990 Domaine Trevallon Les Baux de Provence
1990 Huet “Clos du Bourg” 1er Trie Moelleux Vouvray

Pacing was just right, we never felt rushed and, more importantly on the children’s part, appreciated that there were no delays. A glass of red wine was spilled on me – the server apologized while a busser promptly brought extra napkins and sparkling water, and the GM also apologized and asked me to submit a cleaning bill. They’d handled it; we put it out of mind and went on with a splendid evening without missing a step.

My friends, who are serious food mavens from Toronto and visiting the café and our area for the first time ever, made a point of thanking our service team for their fine job and went back to the open kitchen area to thank the cooks too. Here’s the visitors’ perspective:

“. . .and surprising how quickly we dovetailed into an effective team of drinkers. And diners. I have to say that Chez Panisse was everything I had hoped it would be.

Looking back on it I wish we had tasted those two bottles of Cote Rotie but given the 4 am wake up call my troops had to endure, it perhaps was not an unwise decision. Next time we'll do a bit more damage.

As to the wines; I really loved the Chave and thought that it was firing on all cylinders, rich, intense and very long. It was a special treat. The Guigals were both wonderful. Doug, your storage conditions must be near perfect because both were in immaculate condition. I'm not usually a fan of the 83s but its nose really blossomed over the course of the evening. The 82 has developed into a special wine - with such balance that I suspect it will last quite a few years yet. The Trevallon is still a baby, but with - to my mind - First Growth potential.

I really hope that we can do it again.”

So, do I.

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