Anthony Bourdain called Jeremiah Tower “the first sexy chef,” but his legacy goes beyond his looks. Tower ran the kitchen at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, before opening his own restaurant, Stars, in San Francisco. There, he pioneered the open kitchen and could be found in his stark-white coat and a magnetic grin—always with a glass of Champagne in hand.
If you haven’t heard his name, it’s because he’s been relatively quiet since selling Stars in 1998, minus a short stint at Tavern on the Green and a 2016 documentary about him, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent. But his legacy lives on. Here, he talks about a moment in restaurant history and one of his most lasting fine-dining contributions: Champagne by the glass.
In the documentary, it seems like Stars might’ve been one of the first bar-focused restaurants at the time. Is that correct?
It was certainly, certainly, the first where the bar was in the dining room. We did $3 million in the bar when the cocktails were $3.25. The kitchen was on one side of the restaurant and the bar on the other, with everybody else in between. So, it was amazing theater on both sides. I would also bartend lunch one day a week—a financial disaster because I never did learn how to do credit cards. When I was bartending, the word would get out and the place would be packed because everyone knew they were going to get free drinks!
“Every night at 6 pm, since I’d been there for 10 hours already, I would go and have a glass of Champagne at the bar and say hello to everyone before heading back into the kitchen.”
Stars was also the first restaurant ever to serve Champagne by the glass. Any ideas why that was?
It’s just that no one ever thought of drinking Champagne by the glass. Weird, because it seems impossible now. I had talked to a wonderful wine salesperson who worked for Young’s and Veuve Clicquot. I think it was her idea, because I always had Champagne next to me in the kitchen. Within the first year of coming up with that idea, we sold 900 cases of Veuve Clicquot by the glass. I might have drunk 100 of the cases myself though!
I also wanted them to come directly from France, and once they didn’t. So, I called [the supplier] and said, “Your 30 cases of Champagne are in the street. I saw the code. These came from all around the United States, and that’s not our agreement.” He said, “Well they’re not really on the street.”… Of course, they weren’t, but he came screeching over in a truck and picked them up. So, they never did that again! On the back of the Champagne label you can see a code, and if you know how to read it, you can see exactly when it left France.
You worked very hard in the kitchen. Was Champagne your counterbalance?
Yes, and that’s why every night at 6 pm, since I’d been there for 10 hours already, I would go and have a glass of Champagne at the bar and say hello to everyone before heading back into the kitchen.
One of my favorite stories about Stars was the night that this naked homeless streaker came through the restaurant. He came from Golden Gate, and the other entrance was down into the alley, but you had to go the whole length of the restaurant to get to it. I was standing out in the dining room saying hello to somebody, when he came running through. I stopped him and said, “Get this man a glass of Champagne!” There was no, “Get this man out of here,” you know, it was just like, give him some Champagne. And the dining room loved it! Everyone was screaming and clapping. It was a magical restaurant, and since I knew all the rules, I knew I could play with them all. I didn’t break them so much, just played with them.
Could you imagine Stars existing at another place or time?
No, I couldn’t. You couldn’t have Danielle Steel wearing a $250,000 Dior, matching $2 million diamonds with two bodyguards, sitting next to a young prom couple who’d saved up for an entire year just to come. You can only do that in San Francisco, in an atmosphere where you’d have the people from the PUC [California Public Utilities Commission] sitting next to Pavarotti. It was ridiculous, and a lot of fun!