For the sustainably minded, eating out can feel as much as a minefield as preparing food at home – more so, in fact. Food waste, animal welfare, the treatment of staff and sustainable sources of food and drink are issues chefs and guests alike need to consider. Fortunately, there are some questions you can ask to ensure a meal out doesn’t compromise your conscience as well as your wallet, from where the meat and fish comes from to the restaurant’s tipping policy, to whether or not you can take your leftovers home. Think about eating out as a way incentivising those restaurants who are doing the right thing by these issues, or are at least trying to, advises Will Beckett, founder of the Hawksmoor restaurant group. After all, putting our money where our morals are is one of the best ways to change the world, one dinner at a time.
1. Look for sustainability certifications
In ideal world, you would be able to take restaurants at their word when they say they are sustainable. In reality, the word is hard to define and can easily serve as a fig leaf for poor practices. “One of the issues with eating sustainably and ethically is trust. How do you tell the difference between what’s real and exaggerated greenwashing yarn?” says Beckett. “One way is to get to know the restaurant, and the people who work there – but there’s only so many restaurants you can get to know. The other is certification: Food Made Good, Green Restaurant Association and B-Corp, which for us is the pinnacle,” he continues, “because it brings so many facets of sustainability together under one certification.” Hawksmoor is one of a first British restaurants to have achieved B-Corp status; another is Big Mamma restaurant group, which operates globally. Such certifications – which are regularly audited – provides the reassurance that the restaurant really is doing what they say on its website. The Michelin Green Star is not a certification, but it is an highly respected awards scheme which highlights restaurants at the forefront of the industry when it comes to their sustainable practices. Apricity in Mayfair, Osip in Somerset, Inver in Scotland and Terroir Tapas in Bournemouth are all examples of restaurants with a Michelin Green Star.
2. Consider animal welfare
Animals which have led happy, high-welfare lives with minimal stress at slaughter aren’t just a more ethical option – they taste better, too. Look for native or rare breeds which must meet high standards in order to be registered: Gloucester Old Spot, Hereford beef, Herdwick lamb and Belted Galloway beef are some of the most common and will invariably be listed on the menu. Check out the restaurant’s website before visiting; if they know and are proud of the farms they source from, they will have much of the information there. If in doubt, ask your waiter, advises Beckett. If they can’t answer, and can’t find the answer out from their manager, then that’s a red flag.
3. Go for sustainable fish
Ninety per cent of the world’s fish are either fully exploited or overexploited. The Marine Stewardship Council app is a godsend for anyone who feels a bit at sea when it comes to eating fish sustainably, with the best seasons and sources for every edible type of fish. Broadly speaking you want to avoid those which are caught by trawler, and plump for those in season, in abundance and caught on a small scale. Keep an eye out for phrases such as dayboat and hand-dived.
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4. Eat seasonally
If a restaurant is offering you asparagus and strawberries in December, they aren’t going to be sourcing them from Britain. They’ll have been flown in from around the world or grown in hot houses, both of which are fairly poor options as far as sustainability – and taste – goes. “Menus should be changing with the seasonality of produce, not just winter, spring, summer, autumn,” says Juliane Caillouette-Noble, managing director at Sustainable Restaurant Association. This means you might see variations on a theme, as the menu evolves: “A dish that’s done with winter tomato might be done with broad beans a few months later. There might be tweaks on your favourites,” she continues. Of course, certain produce is either perennial or can be stored year round – or will have been preserved through fermentation, drying or pickling.
See what’s in season year-round with our seasonality calendar.
Look to the lights, the kitchen equipment, the heating: “There are things in the fit-out that signal an eco-mentality,” says Caillouette-Noble. LED lighting, induction hobs, reusable containers as well sophisticated technologies such as capturing excess heat from fridges and freezers to power the hot water in customer bathrooms – all are indicators that a restaurant is thinking about sustainability beyond surface level. If you’re wondering how you might access that information, contact the restaurant management directly, or look the restaurant up on the SRA’s website. Look at the physical make-up of the restaurant, too, says Apricity chef owner Chantelle Nicholson: “It’s quite obvious if things are shiny and brand new, rather than pre-loved, chances are there’s not much effort being made elsewhere either.”
“It’s not a huge contributor toward carbon footprint, when compared with food and drink, but it’s important for signalling,” Beckett points out.
5. Are the staff being looked after properly
If you’re a repeat customer, you can infer this from how many staff members you recognise over time. If you’re a one-off, ask about the working hours. Disappointing though it might be, it’s often a good thing if restaurants are closed on Mondays, says Caillouette-Noble. “If an independent restaurant is closed on a Monday it probably means staff have two consecutive days off, which is a marker of good practice.” Cafe St Honoré in Edinburgh – long held up as a beacon of good practice – is closed Tuesday and Wednesday each week. Early closing times are a good sign too, she adds. Nicholson closes Apricity at 11.00pm to allow her mostly female team to get home safely. Another potential indicator of wellbeing is on a restaurant’s socials: if there’s plenty of staff engagement, the chances are they are happy and supported in their roles rather than working all hours without recognition. There’s no need to worry about where your tips are going anymore though: from June 2024, 100% of all gratuities must legally go to staff.
6. Spot the plastic
Plastic bottles, polystyrene boxes – these are tell-tale signs of an unhealthy plastic dependency. Look for restaurants with filtered still and sparkling water systems – the Cinnamon Collection in London has them across the board – and try to support places that insists its produce is delivered in reusable crates rather than polystyrene – “the absolute worst to dispose of” according to Katie Toogood, co-owner of sustainable fish restaurant Prawn on the Lawn in Padstow.
7. The last straw
We’ve watched that video of a sea turtle having a plastic straw removed from its nose so you don’t have to. Now all you have to do is avoid them like the plague and ask your local restaurant and bar to do likewise.
8. Ask for your leftovers
And, better still, carry a just-in-case lunch box with you, so neither you nor the restaurant need to worry about packaging.
This could be bread from yesterday’s potatoes, cheese from used coffee milk or carrot top pesto – but it could also be a menu that operates a ‘when it’s gone, it’s gone’ policy. “If a dish is sold out, that is a good sign” says Caillouette-Noble. “It means the restaurants is being careful and not overproducing.” If you’re looking at a menu that is “four pages long, with every possible variation on a salad” you need to more concerned. Skye Gyngell with her scratch menu at Spring at Somerset House is one of the new breeds of chefs taking the old-fashioned value that food is too good to waste. Some restaurants have taken to teaming up with local breweries, distilleries and bakeries to utilise their waste, and vice versa. In east London, Acme Fire Cult’s ‘marmite’ is made using leftover beer yeast from 40FT brewery opposite, while its ‘mole’ is made from leftovers from the neighbouring bakery, Dusty Knuckle. In Newcastle, Träkol uses spent grain from its brewery to create spent grain crisps for the restaurant menu.
Discover our advice on how to reduce food waste.
10. Go veggie
Or partly veggie. At least don’t discount a vegetarian dish as an option. The biggest impact we can have on our carbon footprint as individuals is reducing the amount of meat we eat, and there is no better place to explore vegetable-based meals than in places like Bubala in London or Land in Birmingham: restaurants with such resplendent plant-based menus, you’ll forget meat was ever an option.
Want to learn more about a flexitarian diet? Check out the benefits of a plant-based diet and get essential advice from a dietitian.
11. But don’t feel you have to rule out meat entirely
All too often the plant-based debate falls into a binary, says Nicholson – which isn’t helpful. “As a planet we need to exist as an ecosystem, and animals are integral to soil health, to our culture, to people’s livelihoods. We do need to reduce our consumption of ‘bad’ meat [industrially produced, with scant regard to animal welfare] but we also need to support the people who are doing it well.” The rule here, as with most things regarding sustainability, is to think of the big picture, says Beckett. Do you need that bog-standard supermarket mince in a spag bol on a Tuesday? Or would you rather save your carbon footprint for something more meaningful, to savour at the weekend? ‘Regenerative’ is the word to keep in mind when you’re perusing menus and websites, which means farms which support biodiversity and soil health. Another way to judge whether a restaurant cares about sourcing meat sustainably is to look for less popular cuts or for by-products of the meat industry. “Spent laying hens, retired dairy cows, ewes which are no longer lambing, male calves – these animals are all too often being culled, when we should we be eating them,” Caillouette-Noble explains.
Get started with our tips on ways to eat less meat.
12. Watch your wine
And not just for the sake of your hangover. Like food, producing wine can be a polluting and carbon-expensive process – so look for terms including ‘low intervention’, ‘organic’ and ‘biodynamic’: all are indications that producers are creating wine in such a way as to regenerate, rather than degrade, the land. It’s also worth paying attention to what the wine comes in. That glass bottle has a larger carbon footprint than any other part of the wine-making process, which is why many sustainably minded restaurants are looking at kegs and circular bottle schemes. “People think glass is recyclable – but recycling should be the last resort. The energy entailed in breaking down the bottle and recreating a new one is huge,” Nicholson points out. Transporting heavy glass bottles is also carbon intensive. “Borough Wines is really innovative both in starting the conversation around keg wines, and enabling restaurants to refill their bottles,” says Caillouette-Noble.
Take a look at more ways to drink sustainably.
13. And the beer
For the same reasons, beer from kegs or aluminium cans is far more sustainable than bottled beer, satisfying though it may be to drink from.
14. Leave the garnish
When Revolution bars dropped the passion fruit from their porn star martinis in 2021, they saved more than half a million passion fruits per year and reduced the bar group’s carbon footprint by more than 100 tons of CO2. “They serve no purpose,” says Nicholson, who also dropped garnishes from her drinks a few years back. “They just go in the bin.” Ask for your margarita without a lime slice and piña colada without the pineapple – unless you’re going to eat it, of course.
15. Avoid bottled water
In an age of soda streams and filtered water on tap, removing bottled water from the menu is “a no-brainer” says Nicholson. If your favourite local is still serving bottled water, ask them if they’ve considered having a soda stream installed.
Check out our tips for sustainable cooking and eating…
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