Stories / Awards

Step Into the 2020 Design Icon Award Winner

JBF Editors

September 21, 2020


Chez Panisse exterior

In order to qualify, a restaurant or dining space’s design must have remained substantially unchanged for at least 20 years and must have influenced and inspired the design of subsequent restaurant and dining spaces. Additionally, the restaurant/dining space must still be in operation.

Chez Panisse, the renowned restaurant in Berkeley, California is our 2020 Design Icon. At the center of the restaurant design, as with the food, service, and ethics of the dining experience, is Alice Waters. The spirit of collaboration that she brought to the project shaped the space, from materials to people to dining ware. 50 years later, it is still as relevant, beautiful, and affecting as ever.

Waters’ time spent in France in her formative years inspired more than just the restaurant’s name; it awakened her sensibilities to how food and design work hand-in-hand: what was on the plate, what that plate looked like, what the napkin looked like, and how the things in the room reinforced what was on the plate were all important. And in 1971, at a time when few people were looking at, much less reimagining, the Arts and Crafts movement, Alice Waters adopted it as the style that best expressed her ideas about handmade, locally sourced, and detail-oriented craft, elevated to art.

From her gathered experience she commissioned the local artists, craftsmen, architects, glass makers, lighting designers, calligraphers, and botanists who together created the restaurant that is Chez Panisse. Intuitively understanding that natural, hand-crafted materials—polished wood, copper, iron, leather and stained glass—could be the ingredients for the perfect way in which to savor a hand-crafted, organic meal was ahead of its time.

The tactile, luxurious, and handmade interior reflects her idea that art and craft should be everywhere. The graphics are part Deco, part Japanese-influenced, seen through the community of artists she loves. The lighting is crafted both as object and as a source of perfectly warm illumination. Stained glass helps color the light, and materials everywhere exude the warm glow of redwood. The materials are also a part of the idea of cooking: copper pots over wood-fired iron stoves, vessels of glass, and even the animal hide are at home in the kitchen. It’s almost as though the front of house material palette is in conversation with the engine of the restaurant, the open kitchen.

After a fire in 2013 shuttered the restaurant for a three-month renovation, Waters was able to see the silver lining from the tragedy. She gathered many of the original craftspeople and builders to reinvigorate Chez Panisse in a sort of Bay Area artisan reunion, including the original architect Kip Mesirow. The restaurant re-opened with a fresh façade, reconfigured dining rooms, updated lighting fixtures throughout, and some technological and safety updates. 

“Receiving this award is an unexpected and tremendous honor, not just for me, but for the eclectic group of artisans and craftspeople who have contributed to the design of Chez Panisse, a design that evolved from a harmonious convergence of influences—Bernard Maybeck, Christopher Alexander, and traditional Japanese architecture, to name only three—and from the aesthetic shared by all my collaborators, from the coppersmith Khalil Mujadedy to the builder Kip Mesirow, who masterminded our first alterations in 1971, returned to design the upstairs café in 1979, and returned twice more, to redesign and rebuild after the fires of 1982 and 2013,” said Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters.

“A few details have been critically important to me since the night we opened," she continued. "Lighting, for one: It’s taken years to find the exact mixture of candlelight, rose-colored filters, copper trim, and verre eglomisé to produce exactly the flattering warm light I’m always looking for when I walk into a restaurant. And I’ve always insisted on human scale, natural materials, as little stainless steel as possible—and fresh flowers in season, grown nearby. On behalf of everyone who has been part of transforming Chez Panisse into what it is today, thank you to the James Beard Foundation for recognizing that we eat with all of our senses.”

The Design Icon Award is decided by the Restaurant Design Committee.


Learn more about the James Beard Awards.