Environmentally Friendly Restaurants in San Diego - Part I

Lettuces on Organic Farm

“Going green” is a cloudy term, one that has different definitions and criteria depending on the context. While many businesses are announcing they are “going green,” the degree to which they are doing so is highly varied.  As restaurateur Joseph Bastianich explained in an article in the NY Times earlier this year, “there are many ways to be green.” One restaurant may go all-out with their efforts to be environmentally friendly, while another might target just one aspect of their operations. While both may claim they are going green, that doesn’t mean they are both going to the same lengths to ensure they are switching to sustainable practices.  This two-part article examines the different ways restaurants can become more environmentally friendly.

Different Shades of Green

While the general definition of “going green” is to reduce environmental impact, there is no one path for getting there. Energy use, waste production, reliance on fossil fuels, and food sourcing are all facets of a restaurant’s operations that can be examined to reduce environmental impact.  But just because a restaurant makes changes in one area doesn’t mean they are completely “green.” For example, a restaurant may switch to using biodegradable takeout containers but continue to serve imported bottle water—so while they are helping decrease landfill waste they are also relying on fossil fuels to transport water. Another restaurant may be committed to serving house-filtered water, but may rely on toxic cleaning products in their kitchen and restrooms. No two restaurants are going to have the same environmental impact, yet hundreds of restaurants around the country will claim to be “green.”

Further complicating the “going green” process is the tricky issue of determining which actions are most beneficial for the environment—the truth is, we don’t always know. While the environmental benefits of some actions, such as composting organic food scraps, are generally uncontested, other actions, such as sourcing local food, have not been proven to be entirely more sustainable than their alternative.

Take, for example, a 2006 study (full report here) by New Zealand’s Lincoln University, which assessed the lifecycle carbon footprint of lamb production, concluding that grass-fed lamb raised in New Zealand and shipped 11,000 miles by boat produced less carbon emissions than feedlot lamb raised in Britain and shipped domestically. 

Interestingly, the manner of production for ingredients used by a restaurant has an enormous impact on how environmentally friendly that restaurant is. Choosing products based on how they were grown, raised, or produced is one of the most important environmental decisions restaurateurs can make. Michael Pollan, in a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, cites that food production and distribution accounts for 19% of fossil fuel use in America. Furthermore, industrial food production methods, including feedlot meat, mono-crop agriculture, and pesticide use, contribute to carbon emissions—according to the same article, up to 37% of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. As Pollan so eloquently explains, because industrial pesticides are made from petroleum and fertilizers from natural gas, “when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing out greenhouse gases.”

Sourcing produce that is raised according to organic principles—without chemical fertilizers or pesticides—ensures a break from some of our petroleum dependency. Sourcing animals raised conventionally—on pastured land on a natural diet rather than in feedlots on a diet of corn—reduces the greenhouse gas emissions involved with our food source. And sourcing foods from local farms that follow these conventional growing practices further reduces the carbon footprint of a meal by reducing food miles.

Choosing Sustainable Food Sources

Many restaurants around the San Diego area have made a commitment to local, organic, or sustainably raised ingredients. Perhaps most notable is the Linkery in North Park, whose transparent food policies include sourcing from independent farmers who are committed to traditionally and sustainably raising pastured and grass-fed livestock. The Ritual Tavern, just down the street from the Linkery (and owned by a former Linkery employee) also strives to exclusively serve sustainably sourced meats and produce. Other notable San Diego restaurants with a commitment to conventionally raised food include Sea Rocket Bistro, whose owners commit to local seafood sources, and Whisknladle, whose kitchen philosophies include working exclusively with local produce and making as many ingredients as possible in-house.

Even restaurants whose primary mission does not necessarily involve the source of their food have made the commitment to source from sustainable producers. Chefs at the Lodge at Torrey Pines, JSix, Currant, Starlite Lounge, Stone World Bistro & Gardens, and Arterra all consistently strive to work with local producers, organic produce, and conventionally raised meat. Dozens of other restaurants source from local, conventional, or organic farms—including Chino Farms, Crows Pass, and La Milpa Organica—that use no commercial fertilizers or pesticides. In fact, many restaurants work with Robert Farmer, of Moceri Produce, whose “Locals Only” program distributes produce from local farms to local restaurants, making it easier for restaurants to incorporate local produce into their menus. San Diego’s Specialty Produce also sources fruit and vegetables from many independent Southern California farms.

Many area restaurants have made a specific commitment to sustainable meat sources. Burger Lounge sources beef for their burgers from Tallgrass Beef, a Kansas-based company that raises grass-fed cattle on open pastures, a method that has less greenhouse gas emissions than raising industrial feedlot practices. Zenbu Sushi owner Matt Rimel actually started his own fishing fleet to source the restaurant with sustainable, hook-and-line caught fish; he recently forayed into the grass-fed beef business with his new butcher shop: Homegrown Meats. Conventionally raised meats from Niman Ranch, Fulton Valley Farms, and Jidori Chicken are also mainstays on many local restaurant menus.

Another enormous issue in restaurant sustainability is water.  Transporting bottled water from international or even national sources uses an immense amount of fossil fuel; when bottles are not recycled properly, discarded bottles increase waste. Many restaurants have begun to question the merits of serving water such as San Pellegrino or Perrier, and are turning instead to sources closer to home. For example, the Cohn Restaurant Group, which owns 11 area restaurants, including Thee Bungalow, Island Prime, and Indigo Grill, has taken the notable step of switching to locally filtered water.  At each of their restaurants, guests that order bottled water will receive filtered water from nearby Palomar Mountain served in reusable bottles.

Sourcing ingredients that have been conventionally raised, grown without pesticides or chemicals, or produced outside the industrial model is just one of many ways a restaurant can take steps to become more environmentally friendly. In part two of this article, we examine other important facets of restaurant operations, including energy use and waste generation, as well as several agencies that certify environmental efforts.

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