After being closed for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the iconic Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse announced plans to reopen its North Berkeley space, forcing out its 24-year-old subleaser tapas bar César.
The restaurant would open March 8 at 25% reduced capacity. However, its decision to end its subleasing agreement with César — which has been thriving during the pandemic — in order to open a new restaurant, sparked controversy.
“Moving to another location wouldn’t be horrible, but it’s not an easy thing to do to find the perfect location that fits the style of what we do,” said César general manager Cameron McVeigh. “I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants, and I’ve never worked at a restaurant with such a devout clientele.”
Besides having to leave behind their clientele, James Mellgren, a bartender at César for 17 years, is concerned about losing the “special relationship” César has with Chez Panisse.
Guests would come for drinks at César before or after their meal at Chez Panisse, Mellgren noted.
“We’ve always had a good relationship,” Mellgren said. “We’ve always joked that this was kind of the cocktail lounge for Chez Panisse.”
According to McVeigh, Chez Panisse is going to replace César with a new restaurant that has a similar concept, but different cuisine. McVeigh noted César’s lease is set to end July 31 if Chez Panisse rejects César’s request for a renewal.
Chez Panisse could not be reached for comment as of press time.
Mellgren emphasized how devastating this news is for both the staff and customers who have become like family.
“There are people that used to bring their kids here when they were toddlers, and now those same kids come here to order drinks,” Mellgren said. “César is central to this part of Berkeley, and we’re an integral part of the business community.”
The threat of eviction comes just as César started to gain momentum after having to close down for a couple of months when the pandemic started, according to McVeigh.
Mellgren added they have been “busy and thriving” every night.
“César has been unique among Bay Area restaurants in that it has been able to reassemble the entire front-of-the-house staff since the shutdown, contributing to an almost unprecedented continuity,” Mellgren said in a César press release.
Chez Panisse has offered to employ some of César’s staff upon its closure, McVeigh said.
However, McVeigh noted his employees — who have been working there for decades — are uninterested in the offer.
“It shows that people like working here,” McVeigh said.
This decision hit the customers just as hard as César’s management.
The “devout clientele” coalesced to start Savecesar.org, which has garnered more than 3,000 petition signatures to save their favorite restaurant, according to Berkeley resident Michael Wallman.
“The people who signed the petition consist of Berkeley, Oakland, East Bay residents, but the love for César’s goes past that. People come in from out of town and go there,” Wallman said. “I saw Keanu Reeves there.”