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Photo: Alanna Hale

At this San Francisco eatery, the focus is on fighting climate change, but the food still has to taste good

In early 2016, The Perennial opened in San Francisco to collective media fanfare. Stories painted the restaurant—from Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint, the team behind Mission Chinese and Commonwealth— as a mashup of Jetsons futurism and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, uncharted terrain triumphantly tackled by two renegade restaurateurs on a mission to save the Earth.  

The San Francisco Chronicle asked, “Is the Perennial the restaurant of the future?” Eater SF promised that “… The Perennial’s Sustainable Model Will Break the Mold.” Bon Appetit wondered if this was now “the country’s most sustainable restaurant.” The coverage was big and breathless. It positioned The Perennial as part of a clickbait-flavored throw-down for the planet, a restaurant with a mission to save the world. Now, 18 months after it opened, we check in on The Perennial to see what’s worked, what hasn’t and if diners really care.

At The Perennial, it's about "doing our little part" to address climate change. Helynn Ospina

What does the country’s most environmentally friendly restaurant look like?

The Perennial doesn’t wear its sustainability on its sleeve. The ceramics are thick and stark; the tables and bars offer enough wood to evoke a very stylish tree funeral; a mish-mash of ’80s pop and gently worn Top 40 plays during dinner service.  

For the restaurant to be successful, it needs customers of all environmentalist stripes, from die hard to DGAF. So The Perennial looks and feels like an everyday restaurant, while behind the scenes it quietly debones the restaurant industry’s most wasteful practices. The stovetop hood, a notorious power waster, has a temperature sensor and turns itself on and off as needed. Whole animals are butchered in-house to reduce waste. Compost enters a continuous lifecycle from restaurant kitchen to hydroponic greenhouse. Under our feet, a carpet made from recycled materials cushions each step.

A year and a half in, is The Perennial the restaurant champion of sustainability?

“Our goal was not to become the most environmentally responsible ever, but to be the most environmentally responsible we could be, the most that we could imagine,” says Karen Leibowitz, co-founder and director of communications for The Perennial. “It was not really about competition. We’re trying to create a place where everyone can do their little bit without the expectation that each of us is responsible for the whole thing. And from the very beginning, we came at it from the perspective of we don’t think we can do it alone, but neither can we pretend there’s nothing to be done.”  

She’s frank about the restaurant’s impact and purpose. “I’m under no illusions that this restaurant is going to single-handedly address climate change,” says Leibowitz. “It’s really a matter of doing our little part and creating a space where people can talk about these things and come up with solutions and take a step into a positive engagement with an issue that can be overwhelming.”

The Perennial co-founder Karen Leibowitz Alanna Hale

How does the Perennial work?

If you want to understand the system of experimentation at The Perennial, you’ll find it at the bottom of a glass.

Ice machines are impressively wasteful. They take a valuable resource, water, and according to Leibowitz, use twice as much of it as the ice they produce. To create more efficiency around water and energy use, bartenders at The Perennial began freezing water in glasses at the end of the night. The next day the glasses are cold, the pre-batched cocktails require less ice, and the minimal ice that’s used comes from an energy efficient pellet machine. In the beginning, they froze ice along the side of each glass in a thick, glacial swoop. The results were striking, but impractical and led to messy, time-consuming spills. Also the creative lack of ice waste hadn’t transformed into the icebreaker they thought it would. “I thought it would be more like, ‘Everyone is talking about ice in the bar!’ but people just want to have a drink,” Leibowitz says. Now they’ve kept the efficiency by freezing water at the bottom of each glass, but lost the headache of doling out perfectly frozen pours.

It’s a miniature view into their overall process: create and innovate, but be realistic. Build on what works, and be fluid when it’s time to shift.

“You’ve gotta contribute to healing the world. That’s what a human life is about.”

“The restaurant can be energy efficient and use green cleaning products, but really the most important work is happening on the agricultural side,” says Leibowitz. “The overall idea of The Perennial was for the restaurant to be highly sustainable, and what we’ve learned over the last year and a half is that it’s really the farms that are doing the most important work. Our role is as a liaison between farms and eaters.” This realization has inspired their next project, which will connect consumers and restaurants to regenerative farms, hopefully starting in the fall.

What ideas can other restaurants adopt easily?

Reduce your ice waste. Don’t contribute to the landfill of plastic straws when straws literally made of straw work just as well (and, bonus, are way more attractive). Expand your thinking.

“Thinking about the impact of farming and food waste is something everyone, restaurants and consumers alike, can take on easily,” says Leibowitz. “And [food waste] has been a hidden resource for us. Because we’re fixated on food waste, we’re using ingredients in unusual ways, and that has been a spark of creativity.” Kernza bread, for instance, transforms into next-day seasonal toast, then the crusts and ends are steeped in cream and turned into ice cream. The last bread crumbs are sprinkled on the staff’s family meal.  

Do diners really care if their meal is more Earth-friendly?

“There’s a range,” says Leibowitz. “Our goal is really to just meet people wherever they are.”

Food sparks conversations without requiring tons of context. A heady bite of dense kernza bread may inspire you to ask about the rare perennial grain that’s flooding your taste buds, and in that case, the staff is happy to chat. But they don’t push it. “You can have a totally enjoyable dinner that’s sustainable, and it will not put you out, at all. If you want to, it can feel exactly like every other restaurant at this level. And if you want to, you can find out a lot about sustainability.”

The Perennial is still in its infancy. New changes and projects continue to pop up as the ambitious restaurant grows and evolves. It’s more than a space for crisp cocktails and sustainable small plates; it’s the embodiment of how Leibowitz now lives her life. “You’re not going to save the world,” she says, “but you’ve gotta contribute to healing the world. That’s what a human life is about; it’s about doing something good.”