Good Eats
January 27th, 2011

A San Francisco restaurant whose motto is “organic, fresh, local” finds the same winning combination in its design.

If there was a LEED-system equivalent for certifying restaurant menus, The Plant Café Organic in San Francisco would get a Platinum rating. Unlike other establishments, which might proudly trumpet “organic arugula” or “grass-fed beef,” The Plant’s contemporary California-Asian cuisine comes with asterisks, very few asterisks, that mark the nonorganic ingredients. (Pressed for an example, co-owner Mark Lewis says, “Tamarinds. We searched and searched, but there are no organic tamarinds being grown anywhere in the world.”) Aside from a few outliers such as the aforementioned tamarinds, ingredients are also locally sourced, which means no tomatoes for sandwiches in the winter. Lewis and partner Matthew Guelke, two former tech guys, joined up in 2005 to launch a new wave of responsible eating. “We like to say we run a private nonprofit food organization,” Lewis says jokingly.

With environmental consciousness on the brain, Guelke and Lewis turned to San Francisco’s CCS Architecture to create an equally sustainable restaurant design. The firm’s principal, Cass Calder Smith, AIA, had designed one of the first LEED-certified restaurants in the U.S., the Wild Goose on Lake Tahoe, Calif., about 10 years ago. The collaboration with Guelke and Lewis has now resulted in three Plants, all representing Smith’s aesthetic, which relies on the honesty of unvarnished industrial and natural materials for longstanding appeal.

The Pier 3 location is the second of The Plant’s three branches, and its splashiest: It’s right on the waterfront, close to the city’s landmark Ferry Building. Like its neighbor, The Plant at Pier 3 is also an adaptive reuse project, a vivid new life for a historic turn-of-the-century warehouse. “I think that reusing buildingsand not adding more than you need tois a very big part of sustainable architecture,” Smith says. “You look at the footprint of what it takes to build things, and it’s pretty significant. And if you start with a pretty sparse program, you can use a lot of restraint in the design. The SoHo lofts [in New York City] are probably the most sustainable concepts around, where you recycle a building and keep the spaces pretty much as is. This is sort of the restaurant version of that.”
In this case, the warehouse was divided by an open breezeway that once allowed railroad cars to load goods right onto boats docked at the pier. With the help of a creative kitchen designer, Robert Yick, Smith took advantage of the bifurcated space to separate the kitchen from the dining room. The result is a relaxed, elegant 1,400-square-foot dining area across the way from a bustling kitchen and a casual counter-service café with mezzanine seating.

Inside the lofty, 18-foot-tall dining room, Smith used a palette of natural and recycled materials. He left the raw warehouse space’s original wood timbers and steel girders untouched for their vintage character. The long bar, with a tile backsplash, zinc countertop, and concrete tile toe-kick, is designed for durability, while an open pizza oven (gas-burning to minimize pollutants), creates a warm ambiance. Smith added a soffit of wood slats overhead to help with the acoustics, and raised the main floor, made out of rugged ipe, 8 inches so that diners could have a view of the water through the original windows, which had to remain untouched due to the structure’s historic status. Restaurant tables are made out of reclaimed hickory, accompanied by rustic schoolhouse chairs painted gray. Off the back of the space, Smith also added patio seating, designing a steel-framed extension covered with an outdoor awning. A living wall on the café’s north side is planted with wispy tillandsias, which require only an occasional misting.
Guelke and Lewis wanted to produce as much energy as possible, so they installed a 300-square-foot, 6kW solar array, the largest that could fit on the available roof space. It supplies about 20 percent of the restaurant’s electricity. The restaurant is also the first in the U.S. to use electrolyzed water for cleaning. A water electrolyzer increases the acidity of regular tap water so it has the germ-killing potency of bleach. The acidic water has been approved by the city’s health department in lieu of soap for all the kitchen’s hand-sanitizing stations; the dishwasher is awaiting a retrofit. “Since we opened the first Plant, we’ve been constantly researching what we can do to be greener, from recycling cut wine bottles as drinking glasses and old books as check presenters, to bringing in the latest technologies we come across,” Guelke says. “The restaurants as a whole are as green as we can make them.”

“The Plant would have qualified for LEED, and we started off by going through the checklist,” says Smith. “It’s a synthesis of many things: simplicity, restraint, practicality. If you do these things with the right amount of knowledge, you end up being pretty sustainable.” In the end, the complexity and fees associated with the LEED process deterred the team from officially seeking certification.
Now, Guelke and Lewis are working to bring The Plant to more people. Their first franchise will be an outpost in a most unlikely realm: San Francisco International Airport’s newly refurbished Terminal 2. To that fast-food arena, they’ll bring their sustainable fare, accompanied by sustainable design guidelines. Look for The Plant’s signature veggie burger to take off with travelers at the beginning of 2011.


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Lydia Lee writes about architecture and design from Menlo Park, Calif.