BERKELEY — Chef and food activist Alice Waters inspected damage to the facade of her famed Chez Panisse on Friday after a fire blazed through a landmark dining section of the Berkeley restaurant.
A small eating area with signature woodwork within the restaurant's front porch burned, but firefighters were able to extinguish the fire quickly and the bulk of the building was not damaged, fire officials said.
The fire apparently started in a sub-floor area of the building in the pre-dawn hours, but the cause has yet to be determined, said Berkeley Fire Department Deputy Chief Avery Webb. The location and circumstances of the blaze were unusual for a restaurant fire, Webb said.
"The business was closed at that time. There was nobody in the building that was encountered. People aren't usually in that area of the building. So that's just drawing our attention to the fact that we need to look at this pretty closely," he said. "There's not an obvious reason for the fire yet. The investigators are taking a look at it and not starting with any preconceived ideas of how the fire may have started."
No one was injured and neither the restaurant's structure nor its celebrated kitchen suffered, Waters said.
"I'm pretty shaky right now but I'm just glad no one was in the building," an emotional Waters said in an early morning interview with KRON-TV outside her charred restaurant. "So that's a great relief that in the middle of the night that this happened. It really focuses all your attention on what it is important."
Firefighters were still securing the scene Friday morning and had no estimate on when the restaurant will be safe to reopen.
"Chez Panisse is one of our most famous restaurants in Berkeley, and I was just hoping the damage wasn't too extensive," Webb said. "The majority of the restaurant is still intact."
Since Waters founded the restaurant in 1971, it has gained global renown in culinary circles for pioneering the creative use of fresh, local food in season.
Waters said she was weighing whether to expand the front porch dining area after arriving on scene early Friday to talk with fire crews and workers. A sprinkler likely spared the rest of the structure, she added.
Gourmet Magazine named Chez Panisse the best restaurant in America in 2001, and from 2002 to 2008, it was one of Restaurant Magazine's 50 best restaurants in the world.