A fire severely damaged the exterior of famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse at dawn Friday.
At 3:04 a.m., Berkeley Fire Department received an alert reporting that there were signs of fire coming from the restaurant. A squad of 18 Berkeley firefighters was on the scene in less than five minutes, and the fire was officially announced to be under control sometime after 4 a.m. The fire has wrought damages amounting from approximately $150,000 to $200,000, according to Acting Deputy Fire Chief Avery Webb.
“I’m just glad no one was in the building,” said founder, owner and executive chef of Chez Panisse Alice Waters. “It’s really amazing … there could have been as many as 200 people in the building at any one time. It really focuses all your attention on what’s important.”
Investigators have cleared out the burned area, and they believe that the fire originated from an electrical short in the equipment underneath the restaurant’s entrance. The problem may have been with an electrical timer that was used for the patio’s outdoor lighting, according to Webb.
“It is looking like it may have been an accidental fire,” Webb said. “It is not completely concluded at this point, but we are looking at the electrical (equipment).”
Damage includes burning of the restaurant’s entire outdoor porch, along with a small dining room near the front of the building. Though fire sprinklers managed to keep the fire from spreading to the rest of the restaurant, inspectors found that copper water pipes and electrical wires underneath the restaurant were damaged, according to Webb.
There were no reported injuries stemming from this incident.
The Berkeley Division of Environmental Health has examined the scene and is still determining the extent of the smoke damage. There is no significant visible damage, but there is a strong smoke odor, Webb said.
Though visibly shaken, Waters remained optimistic for the iconic restaurant’s future.
“The first thought I had was maybe we should extend the dining room out further,” Waters said. “Maybe we should make it a little larger, because it’s always been so small.”
Residents and fans of the restaurant alike expressed shock and sadness regarding the incident. Maria Garcia-Berry, a tourist from Colorado, had been hoping to eat at Chez Panisse this weekend.
“I’m a big Alice Waters fan,” Garcia-Berry said. “I collect her cookbooks. It’s really sad that this happened.”
Chez Panisse management is hoping to reopen the restaurant soon, though exactly when remains uncertain. At the moment, the restaurant has canceled all of its reservations through March 23.
“It is important that things are restored and reborn, but also that we take from this the inspiration to create something new,” says the Chez Panisse website.