London’s eco-friendly restaurants

Reducing food waste might be headline news, but what aboutanimal welfare, and sustainability? And are the green claims of restaurateurs justified? Guy Dimond meets an environmental expert who certifies the restaurants which can boast top eco-credentials

  • London’s eco-friendly restaurants

    The Water House © Michael Franke

  • See which eco-friendly restaurant won in the Time Out Eating & Drinking Awards 2008

    The hot topic in food and the environment seems to change every few months. Free-range chicken in, GM food out; locally grown in, organic from Kenya out. Resisting bottled water (in favour of tap) has even become a campaign issue in some right-wing newspapers over the last couple of years, as they flaunt their Cameron-style, freshly green credentials. But how many other environmental issues should we also be taking into account? And how can we prioritise what really matters?

    Free-range eggs might seem an obvious ‘must’ in the mire that is animal welfare, though very few restaurants specify what sort of eggs they use (and of course vegans argue that any egg consumption creates animal suffering). Fish should be from sustainable sources, but few menus specify that level of detail about their seafood. Organic produce is easier to locate, since most restaurants will specify this on a menu as they know a premium price can then be charged. But once you start factoring in ‘food miles’, restaurant waste, energy consumption, the broader issues of animal welfare and carbon footprint it’s easy to become confused and disheartened, and decide to stay at home and eat salad instead (from a farmers’ market, obviously).

    It’s not just restaurant diners who find the issues surrounding food ethics and sustainability confusing and complex – so do restaurateurs. Yet a handful have made huge strides to make their restaurants as environmentally friendly as possible. The first of note in London was the Duke of Cambridge organic gastropub in Islington, which remains a market leader. More recent restaurants to make a big splash in the media have included Arthur Potts Dawson’s Acorn House, then its newer branch, Water House. But for restaurateurs with less experience, where can they turn for help?

    The eco-wise London Food Link ( is a small, independent environmentalist charity which is mostly grant funded. It is part of the food charity Sustain which, in its own words, ‘…advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, promote equity and enrich society and culture.’ Part of London Food Link’s work involves coaching restaurants that express an interest in how to reduce their environmental impact. This work is also part of ‘Greener Food’, a joint project with a number of organisations, with London Food Link looking specifically at the food aspect.

    To find out how the scheme actually works, I followed Charlotte Jarman, the young environmental expert who conducts the audits for London Food Link, as she pored over the details of the recently opened Water House in Dalston with the owner.

    Jarman is, as you might expect, one of London’s leading experts on making practical suggestions to help restaurants reach their objectives. But her job also reminded me a bit of being an accountant or tax inspector, as it’s also important that she doesn’t have the wool pulled over her eyes, and gets a clear picture of how far the ambition meets the reality. There was, for example, a well-publicised incident in 2005 where a restaurant in Holland Park was claiming their meat was organic and charging accordingly, but it wasn’t; it was fined £7,500 when the false claims were discovered by the local council’s environmental health officers. While stumbling on false claims like this is not something Jarman has done yet, she does need to have a determined character to not be fobbed off by the good intentions which are not yet reaching fruition.

    At the Water House, 37-year-old Potts Dawson doesn’t look to be a typical eco-warrior, but has a brisk, business-like manner. We sit down and Jarman starts going through her long list of questions with Potts Dawson. The whole process, together with checking receipts and an inspection of the kitchen, takes most of a morning, and although co-operative and friendly, Jarman is a stickler for verifying the facts and not just taking things at face value.

    ‘There’s no beef on our menu as it’s too energy-intensive, and would also work out too expensive. For organic sirloin steak of the quality we’d be happy to serve, we’d have to charge £28,’ claims Potts Dawson. ‘No chicken, either – good chicken costs too much. We serve free-range English pork, though, as we have a good producer.’ The issue of what is a ‘good’ producer is leads to a detailed discussion about the extent to which you can trust your suppliers. Jarman is, quite rightly, keen on independent verification of green credentials by outside bodies and not just taking someone’s word for it.

    In an ideal world, we all agree, all fish would be approved by the Marine Stewardship Council, as it has rigorous standards for checking the sustainability of fish supplies. In reality, Potts Dawson finds MSC supplies limited and erratic, something which is not tenable in a busy restaurant. Instead, he relies on the same fish suppliers he has used for more than a decade to do the detective work for him. Room for improvement, suggests Jarman.

    Potts Dawson is not an advocate of using 100 per cent organic produce. Like most good restaurateurs, he prefers quality over an organic label, and would rather buy good local produce than organic from overseas.

    As we inspect the week’s receipts, it becomes clear that many of the cheeses Water House uses, while from renowned makers and suppliers (such as La Fromagerie), are not organic. Again, not a big problem, as most good producers are also ethically aware; the two tend to go together. The audit continues, covering topics as diverse as coffee (it’s not Fairtrade but is Illy, a coffee maker claiming to have a good track record on ethical management) to recycling and waste disposal.

    Potts Dawson points out that he ‘trusts (his) suppliers more than the people who collect the rubbish’, and has put enormous thought and effort into waste reduction and energy-saving at Water House; it’s where the restaurant really excels. He shows us the energy-efficient induction cooker which only uses power when a pot sits on the hob; the dishwasher which uses ozone to clean dishes instead of the usual damaging chemicals; the water filters that clean up the tap water to make it more palatable for customers (there’s no bottled mineral water here); the crusher that makes waste glass more compact for transport to recycling plants.

    The restaurant’s all-electric, and the bills are paid to a Scottish hydro-electric company (a renewable source of energy). Tall claims have been made in the press about Water House having its own hydro-power scheme and using the adjacent canal water to heat and cool the place, which Potts Dawson admits is ‘press nonsense’, and concedes that his solar panels and heat-exchange system aren’t working yet. Still, top marks for trying. Water House gets a favourable report, with just a few suggestions on where improvements could be made. As Kermit the Frog once sang, ‘It’s not easy being green.’

    London Food Link (

    Eco champs

    Time Out is collaborating with London Food Link to judge a Best Sustainable Restaurant category for the 2008 Time Out Eating & Drinking Awards.The restaurants will be assessed on both the independently verified environmental audits conducted by Sustain, and also on their merits as a dining experience by Time Out’s anonymous reviewers. See which eco-friendly restaurant won in the Time Out Eating & Drinking Awards 2008. The Clerkenwell Kitchen 31 Clerkenwell Close, EC1R 0AT (020 7101 9959) Farringdon tube/rail. Duke of Cambridge 30 St Peter’s St, N1 8JT (020 7359 3066) Angel tube. Saf 152-154 Curtain Rd, EC2A 3AT (020 7613 0007) Old St tube/rail. Tom’s Place 1 Cale St, SW3 3QP (020 7351 1806) Sloane Square or South Kensington tube. Water House 10 Orsman Rd, N1 5QJ (020 7033 0123) 242, 243 bus.