Twenty Years in the Heart of the Gourmet Ghetto
By James Mellgren | Photos by Cherie Azzopardi
César, the popular Berkeley tapas bar, turned 20 years old this year. In human years, that isn’t old enough for César to order one of its own cocktails, but it’s a significant milestone nevertheless in the infamously volatile restaurant industry. Such an achievement requires a good location, consistent quality and service, a loyal following, and maybe a little luck.
César is located next door to another Berkeley landmark, Chez Panisse. The two are friendly neighbors, but there’s a bit more to that relationship. It was within the walls of the venerable Chez that the idea for a bar next door was born. César’s three founding partners—Richard Mazzera, Dennis Lapuyade, and Stephen Singer—were all connected to Chez Panisse in some way, and as their idea took root, their thoughts turned to the same French film trilogy that had inspired the name for Alice Waters’s restaurant 30 years earlier: Panisse is one of the central characters in the film trilogy Marius, Fanny, and César. César is the proprietor of the sleepy quayside bar in Marseilles where virtually all of the story is set.
Not wanting to mimic the French influence of their famous neighbor, the partners turned toward the Iberian Peninsula and decided to feature tapas, the little dishes of Spain. And if Chez served good wines to complement their inspired food, then César would turn that table and offer good food to accompany their inspired drinks. César became the first real Spanish-style tapas bar in the Bay Area, immediately winning rave reviews throughout the region. And as for the drinks, Patricia Unterman once called it “the greatest bar in the world.”
Another Chez Panisse alum, David Tanis, served as consulting chef in the beginning, but it was his idea to hire Maggie Pond as executive chef, a decision that secures his place in the annals of César. Already an aficionado of Spanish cuisine, Pond created most of the restaurant’s signature tapas over the 13 years that she presided over the kitchen. During that period, she traveled to Spain almost every year to eat and even cooked occasionally in some of the region’s best tapas restaurants.
When Pond left in 2011, her sous chef and protégé Moises Rojas took over the reins as executive chef, a role he holds to this day. Rojas has put his own stamp on an expanded menu, adding many of the most popular montaditos (open-faced toasts topped with assortments of vegetables, meats, and seafood). A pork stew derived from his mother’s recipe has become a must-have item whenever it appears on the menu.
Working in a kitchen about the size of a walk-in closet, Rojas and his team create an astonishing number of dishes each day. The tapas are a perfect marriage between artisanal ingredients from Spain—hams, cheeses, piquillo peppers, boquerones (sweet, tender white anchovies), vinegar, spices—and high-quality local meats, fish, and produce. Adhering to the restaurant’s founding principles, Rojas has his fish and seafood delivered daily from nearby Monterey Fish Co. His filet mignon, made with local grass-fed beef, has earned what amounts to a cult following among regulars, who appreciate the chef’s secret technique for tenderizing the meat.
“César is a restaurant with great bones,” says general manager Cameron McVeigh. “It’s a model of efficiency and aesthetics. Having worked in restaurants for over 25 years, I recognize how special this place is. I come from fine dining, so I appreciate being able to offer professional service in a lively, casual environment.”
As important as the food is to César, the beverages have always been central to its identity, and the cocktail list in particular has forged a loyal following through the years, in large part due to the remarkable consistency of the staff. Bill Whitely, César’s very first employee, still runs the bar, and along with McVeigh has helped maintain its high standards.
“The drinks are rooted in simplicity and quality ingredients,” says McVeigh. “Many of our original cocktails are still ordered regularly, even though they are no longer on the menu. As cocktails have become more popular and customers more savvy, I try to offer new variations on classic combinations. Cocktail trends come and go. The trick is borrowing from the best within those trends.”
Chez Panisse is known for having spawned a veritable Who’s Who of chefs, and in a similar way, César has been an incubator for some of the Bay Area’s best bartenders. Among them are Dylan O’Brien, who opened Bloodhound and Churchill in San Francisco and Prizefighter in Emeryville; Scott Baird, now a successful bar consultant in the Bay Area; and Jessica Maria, who brought new life to the Hotsy Totsy in Albany. Founding managing partner and bartender Olivier Said moved next door to open the cooking school Kitchen on Fire.
Wine also plays a key role at César. The list is international in scope, with special emphasis placed on Spanish blends and varietals. At any given time there are around two dozen wines offered by the glass, as well as an impressive list of sherries, madeiras, ports, and spirits that can be perused by simply asking to see the big black book. “We offer wines that go well with our food,” says McVeigh, “but, since we are also a bar, the wines must also be great on their own. Spain is one of the most exciting wine regions in the world right now, offering increasing quality and great value. What makes Spanish wine so intriguing is how it seems rooted equally in tradition and innovation. Winemakers there are often making the old new again, and better.”
In 2003, Ten Speed Press published César: Recipes from a Tapas Bar, authored by yours truly along with Olivier Said, who did all the photography and drawings, and Chef Maggie Pond, who provided tapas recipes. The cookbook was hailed by Food & Wine magazine in their annual cookbook issue as “one of the ten best cookbooks of the year.”
César enjoys a loyal clientele, many of whom have been coming in literally since the day the bar opened. A group of regulars convenes at 5pm each day, and many patrons show up weekly or monthly. McVeigh believes the fealty comes from the way the kitchen’s recipes remain relevant. “We offer food that is comfortable and reliable, made with quality ingredients. The simplicity of our dishes can be revelatory, and our tapas are as popular as ever, great for socializing and for satisfying any appetite.”
Both bar and restaurant, César is a neighborhood meeting place and destination dining spot. It’s the unofficial cocktail lounge for Chez Panisse and a popular watering hole for those looking for quality in what they drink. McVeigh, newest partner Hal Brandel, and their staff all remain dedicated to maintaining the tradition of Spanish tapas, American cocktails, conviviality, and hospitality as they look forward to César’s next 20 years.
Food writer James Mellgren is currently at work on his latest book, Foreign Correspondence: Mostly True Tales from a Life in Food. He lives with his wife in Berkeley.
Photographer and creative content guru Cherie Azzopardi is a design company associate by day, plant mom and artisanal chef by night. Instagram: @sharedbycherie
Salt Cod & Potato Cazuela
From César: Recipes from a Tapas Bar by James Mellgren and Olivier Said, Ten Speed Press, 2003
This is one of the oldest dishes on the César menu. It has garnered legions of fans, and the few times it has come off the menu there has been such an uproar from devotees that it immediately went back on. Despite many American diners’ lack of familiarity with the main ingredient, salt cod is a much-loved commodity in Europe, so there are many versions of this dish in Spain and around the Mediterranean.
1 pound salt cod fillet, soaked in water for 2 days, changed daily
1⅓ cups milk
1⅓ cups water
1 bay leaf
4 cloves garlic, cut in half
4 sprigs thyme
½ yellow onion, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
3 russet potatoes, peeled
½ cup olive oil infused with garlic, or as needed (divided)
1 cup heavy cream, or as needed (divided)
2 teaspoons dried red chili flakes
½ cup bread crumbs from day-old sweet baguette
16 slices day-old baguette, each ¼ inch thick and toasted
Drain the cod and place it in a large sauté pan. Cover with the milk and water. Wrap the bay leaf, garlic, thyme, onion, and peppercorns in cheesecloth and tie with string. Drop the bundle into the pan, bring to a simmer over low heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain, discard the bundle, and let the cod cool. Pick through the cod and remove any bones.
Meanwhile, cook the potatoes in boiling salted water until tender. Drain the potatoes and mash them with ¼ cup of the oil and ½ cup of the cream in a large bowl.
Preheat the oven to 350°. Slowly mix the cooked cod with the remaining ¼ cup oil and ½ cup cream just until flaky. Fold the cod into the mashed potatoes. Taste and add more garlic oil or cream if necessary. Stir in the chili flakes.
Divide the salt cod mixture among 8 individual cazuelas (terra cotta casseroles) or ramekins, and top evenly with the bread crumbs. Bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Stick 2 toasted bread slices into each portion and serve immediately.