Photo by Corby Kummer
Lost loves, restless and handsome young men of Marseilles called to the sea instead of romantic and familial duty, short-tempered and randy but kindly older men, some of them rich and willing to give their wealth to a young woman simply because she's pretty—is it any wonder Alice Waters wanted to name her restaurant for a character in a trilogy of 1930s films by Marcel Pagnol?
If you haven't seen the films, do. Like everything to do with Chez Panisse, they're more rooted in reality, including full recognition of tough truths, than you'd think from the image of the restaurant, which gets more fey and precious the farther you get from it. Abandonment, broken families, economic depression, wasted youth, and lechery all appear in Pagnol—as do tenderness, redemption through friendship and benevolence, and the love that only burning disappointment and acceptance of human failings can bring.
Plus, of course, there's the south of France in the thirties, which helped bond Waters to Pagnol and his evocation of a place she came to love in her own youth. She named her daughter, Fanny, for the romantic heroine of the series. She didn't name the restaurant Fanny, she told the young man who played Marius, the romantic lead in a revival of the 1954 musical Fanny that opened last night at the Encores! series in New York, because someone pointed out that "Panisse was the one who had all the money." The founders didn't even know that the name also referred to the chickpea pancakes that are the street food of Nice (pain de Nice, she explained), for four years after they named Chez Panisse.