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Sustainable in the South Bay: Silicon Valley’s Top 10 Restaurants

My fiancé (Kate) is attending Georgetown Med in the fall and we just hit the road for Washington, DC.  I’ve enjoyed eight awesome years in the Bay Area and feel fortunate to have gone to college, worked, and occasionally dominated adult league softball and basketball with so many amazing people.

Several awesome years in the Bay will put a smile on your face.

Several awesome years in the Bay have put smiles on our faces.

While we are extremely excited to check out the Capitol, we will undoubtedly feel some nostalgia for the West Coast.  Significantly less than our friends but more than the Trader Joe’s within walking distance of our soon-to-be-former apartment, I will miss the South Bay’s humidity-free weather.  Though I’ll still be able to vote with my dollars for Chipotle in DC, I’ll also mourn the socially-, environmentally-, and health-conscious meat and seafood options I’ll be leaving behind.  As a tribute to the delicious and reasonably ethical protein I’ve sampled south of San Francisco, from the grill-it-yourself round steak at the famous Mountain View Farmers’ Market to the bacon-wrapped, tempura fried hot dog at Calafia Cafe in Palo Alto, I have decided to rank what I consider to be the top ten restaurants serving sustainable meat and/or fish in Silicon Valley.

Completo

(from the Calafia menu)

Although eating sustainably is indisputably healthier than any other dietary approach, completely sustainable food is rare.  Raising plants and animals in complex, environmentally and socially responsible ecosystems on their natural diets and without the use of hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics can be difficult to do and even harder to scale.  The Global Animal Partnership, an organization that runs a tiered rating system for ethical, health-conscious meat production, has identified only 14 producers that run truly “animal centered” farms or ranches.  It’s also tough to identify sustainable meat when companies make vague, mostly unverifiable commitments to sustainability in an effort to capitalize on the growing market for real (unprocessed) food.  Each restaurant on this list, however, makes a convincing effort to move us towards the ideal – while some do so more informatively than others, most offer specific information about their suppliers.  Every listed business also provides a tasty, enjoyable dining experience.

The order of my list, therefore, relies on a weighted ranking algorithm similar to the one Kate and I used to choose Georgetown over other schools.  I first determined the criteria that mattered most to me, in order: sustainability, taste, selection, service, and atmosphere.  I then ranked the restaurants in each category (ties allowed) and applied the algorithm to determine overall rankings.  If you’re a math nerd like me and want further details, I’ve included the full methodology and scoring breakdown at the bottom of this post.

Honorable Mention: Country Gourmet
1314 South Mary Avenue, Sunnyvale, CA 94087
408-744-9446

Country Gourmet

Sustainability Rank: 10
Taste Rank: 10
Selection Rank: 8
Service Rank: 10
Atmosphere Rank: 11

The only order-at-the-counter restaurant on this list, Country Gourmet provides unlimited focaccia bread and the opportunity to hang out with the more mature patrons who take advantage of the restaurant’s special deals for senior citizens.  I’ve enjoyed specials from Niman Ranch in the past; though the staff doesn’t always know the origin of specific menu items and you’ll have to ask to be sure, they “purchase local, wild, free-range and organic products when available.”

10. Park Place
10050 South De Anza Boulevard, Cupertino, CA 94015
408-873-1000

ParkPlace

Sustainability Rank: 10
Taste Rank: 10
Selection Rank: 8
Service Rank: 4
Atmosphere Rank: 10

The salads aren’t incredible, but the flatbreads at Park Place are cheesy, crispy, and delightful.  Patrons can dine at a normal table or kick back on the couch-like seating outside.  As stated on their menu, “Park Place supports farms, ranches, and fisheries that are guided by principles of sustainability.”  However, you will still have to ask your waiter if you want more information about the source of a given menu item.

9. Vino Locale
431 Kipling Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301
650-328-0450

VinoLocale

Sustainability Rank: 3
Taste Rank: 1
Selection Rank: 11
Service Rank: 11
Atmosphere Rank: 3

Vino Locale takes the “slow food” movement very seriously and literally – prepare to wait a while to get your meal.  When it comes, it will be worth it.  If you’re there on a weekday, their bacon-wrapped dates are amazing.  The weekend menu is constantly changing, partially to keep the dishes as seasonal, local, and organic as possible, and though there aren’t many choices, you can be sure that each one will taste fantastic (I ate the best shrimp of my life at Vino Locale a few years ago).  Romantics will love the outside seating area and the live music that often accompanies the meal.

8. Tigelleria
76 East Campbell Avenue, Campbell, CA 95008
408-884-3808

Tigelleria

Sustainability Rank: 7
Taste Rank: 7
Selection Rank: 1
Service Rank: 4
Atmosphere Rank: 3

With pasta made in-house and an extensive array of appetizers and entrees for carnivores and vegetarians alike, Tigelleria is a perfect destination for a date in downtown Campbell.  Significant others have been known to enjoy the pocketed pita-like bread, accompanied with three unique spreads, that arrives while you peruse your dinner options.  A member of Slow Food USA, Tigelleria Organic Restaurant lives up to its full name by offering several 100% organic dishes, and while the Tigelleria menu doesn’t describe the sustainability of every dish, servers happily relay this information to interested diners.  The spighe al cinghiale (wild boar ravioli) and fettucine al pesto are superb.

7. Village Bistro
378 Santana Row #1035, San Jose, CA 95128
408-248-9091

VillageBistro

Sustainability Rank: 3
Taste Rank: 8
Selection Rank: 3
Service Rank: 4
Atmosphere Rank: 3

Featuring the second best bread of any restaurant on this list, Village Bistro recently revamped their menu and sadly discontinued two phenomenal dishes, the crab tostada and “forbidden” Thai curry.  I feel confident that the menu’s newcomers will similarly please those who eat there, however; Village Bistro’s wild caught seafood has been consistently better than that served at Lark Creek Blue (its sustainable neighbor that narrowly missed this list).  Village Bistro also serves a wicked weekend brunch.  The chicken, lamb, and most of the produce is sourced locally.

6. The Basin
14572 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, CA 95070
408-867-1906

The Basin

Sustainability Rank: 7
Taste Rank: 1
Selection Rank: 7
Service Rank: 1
Atmosphere Rank: 3

Only a dearth of vegetarian options and incomplete information about its meat sourcing keeps The Basin below the higher-ranked restaurants on this list.  While pricier than at other dinner destinations, the meals, particularly those that include mushrooms and/or fish, typically merit the cost.  The Basin’s enclosed patio – with perfectly-balanced temperature control and a tree that runs through the middle of the room – offers the benefits of outdoor eating without any of the drawbacks.

5. Bumble
145 1st Street, Los Altos, CA 94022
650-383-5340

Bumble

Sustainability Rank: 1
Taste Rank: 8
Selection Rank: 8
Service Rank: 4
Atmosphere Rank: 1

One of the most unique restaurants in the area, Bumble attracts families with young children like Ryan Gosling attracts everyone who can see.  They’ve got the highest staff-to-customer ratio I’ve ever observed, a playroom where they’ll entertain your kids for $5-$10 per half hour, and a heated adult patio for people unable to enjoy the magnification of the inquisitive young faces that peer through the domes in the playroom’s aquarium.  The construction across the street makes outdoor seating less agreeable for older folk, but it doesn’t deter the toddlers who have both staked claim to the sandbox and ordered fish-shaped bento boxes that may or may not include the restaurant’s delicious pretzel crusted chicken.  Bumble chooses their suppliers carefully – everything except their cured meats are local, and even their salami and prosciutto come from a Portland supplier that emphasizes sustainable production – and the taste of their dishes reflects the high quality of their ingredients.

4. Casa de Cobre
14560 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, CA 95070
408-867-1639

Casa de Cobre

Sustainability Rank: 7
Taste Rank: 1
Selection Rank: 3
Service Rank: 1
Atmosphere Rank: 3

The Basin’s sister restaurant, Casa de Cobre’s slightly more casual feel in no way detracts from it’s equally strong cuisine.  I was not a fan of my first foray into eating cactus and their guacamole, while good, isn’t the best in the area (see below), but the pozole (an older special), fish tacos, duck carnitas, and roasted wild mushroom side are incredible.  Like Tigelleria and The Basin, Casa de Cobre provides information about the sourcing for many of their menu items and commits to full sustainability “whenever possible.”

3. Zona Rosa
1411 The Alameda, San Jose, CA 95126
408-275-1411

Zona Rosa

Sustainability Rank: 3
Taste Rank: 1
Selection Rank: 3
Service Rank: 4
Atmosphere Rank: 9

Next to a tattoo parlor and within walking distance of San Jose Unified’s District Office, this small, family-owned, and easy-to-miss gem serves some of the best and most interesting Mexican food in the area.  It’s a little small, but the staff is uber-friendly and the food inspired.  Ever considered eating guacamole with bacon and pistachios?  You should – it’s delicious.  If you’re an avocado aficionado, the fried wedges will knock your socks off.  Lunchtime guests should also try the double-decker carnitas club.  And don’t forget about the callos (scallop tacos).  All the meat is from Niman Ranch and the seafood is wild-caught.

2. Calafia Cafe
855 El Camino Real #130, Palo Alto, CA 94301
650-322-9200

Calafia

Sustainability Rank: 3
Taste Rank: 1
Selection Rank: 1
Service Rank: 4
Atmosphere Rank: 1

Calafia’s “plant-eaters” half of the menu trumps every other restaurant on the list in vegetarian-friendliness.  Their meat is awesome as well.  Not only is the aforementioned “Completo” every bit as good as it sounds, but the pork belly buns, chicken drumettes, brussels sprout and potato pizza, and tempura fried vegetables are also all dishes for the ages.  For brunch, fans of ground meat will swoon over the David Chang burger, while diners who prefer a more traditional breakfast will find the potatoes hashed to perfection.  The origin of every ingredient is stated explicitly on the menu. Originally started by Google chef Charlie Ayers, Calafia proudly embraces its technological roots through the electronic gadgets that grace most tables.  Use them to order or to (among other fun applications) challenge your significant other to some couples trivia.

1. Mayfield Bakery & Cafe
855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94301
650-853-9200

Mayfield

Sustainability Rank: 1
Taste Rank: 1
Selection Rank: 3
Service Rank: 1
Atmosphere Rank: 3

I developed my algorithm before knowing which restaurant would come out on top, but Mayfield Bakery & Cafe (located right next door to Calafia Cafe) seems like an appropriate choice for first place for three reasons: my future father-in-law declared the ribs the best he’s ever had, the restaurant sources all of its meat from local California farms (the company that owns Mayfield even sources some of the food from their own ranch), and our waiter gave us two free, gigantic bags of assorted bread to take home after I asked for more to eat several times during our first visit (clearly an effective marketing tactic; we’ve been back countless times since).  The kale salad is awesome and every entree I’ve eaten has been mouthwatering.  Their chocolate chip cookies also make a delicious dessert.

That concludes the list, though fellow math enthusiasts and those who wish to debate the ratings in the comments will of course want to see both the methodology and the more detailed results:

Weights: sustainability (x5), taste (x4), selection (x3), service (x2), atmosphere (x1)

Methodology: Unweighted scores are determined in reverse order of rankings.  Since I ranked eleven restaurants, a restaurant in sole possession of first place in a given category would receive 11 points, the second place restaurant would receive 10 points, the third place restaurant 9 points, and so on and so forth (if two restaurants were tied for fourth place, they would receive 7.5 points each, the average of what sole occupants of 4th and 5th place would have received).  Weighted scores are then computed by multiplying the category weights by the unweighted scores, and each overall score is the sum of the restaurant’s weighted scores in every category.

Rankings:

Sustainability

Taste

Selection

Service

Atmosphere

Bumble

1

8

8

4

1

Calafia Cafe

3

1

1

4

1

Casa de Cobre

7

1

3

1

3

Country Gourmet

10

10

8

10

11

Mayfield Bakery & Cafe

1

1

3

1

3

Park Place

10

10

8

4

10

The Basin

7

1

7

1

3

Tigelleria

7

7

1

4

3

Village Bistro

3

8

3

4

3

Vino Locale

3

1

11

11

3

Zona Rosa

3

1

3

4

9

 

Unweighted Scores:

Sustainability

Taste

Selection

Service

Atmosphere

Bumble

10.5

3.5

3

5.5

10.5

Calafia Cafe

7.5

8.5

10.5

5.5

10.5

Casa de Cobre

4

8.5

7.5

10

6.5

Country Gourmet

1.5

1.5

3

2

1

Mayfield Bakery & Cafe

10.5

8.5

7.5

10

6.5

Park Place

1.5

1.5

3

5.5

2

The Basin

4

8.5

5

10

6.5

Tigelleria

4

5

10.5

5.5

6.5

Village Bistro

7.5

3.5

7.5

5.5

6.5

Vino Locale

7.5

8.5

1

1

6.5

Zona Rosa

7

8.5

7.5

5.5

3

 

Weighted Scores:

Sustainability

Taste

Selection

Service

Atmosphere

Overall Score

Bumble

52.5

14

9

11

10.5

97

Calafia Cafe

37.5

34

31.5

11

10.5

124.5

Casa de Cobre

20

34

22.5

20

6.5

103

Country Gourmet

7.5

6

9

4

1

27.5

Mayfield Bakery & Cafe

52.5

34

22.5

20

6.5

135.5

Park Place

7.5

6

9

11

2

35.5

The Basin

20

34

15

20

6.5

95.5

Tigelleria

20

20

31.5

11

6.5

89

Village Bistro

37.5

14

22.5

11

6.5

91.5

Vino Locale

37.5

34

3

2

6.5

83

Zona Rosa

35

34

22.5

11

3

105.5

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Voting with Our Dollars for Chipotle

Vote with your dollars.  That’s the message Mike Levy, my tenth grade history and ethics teacher, delivered to Moorestown Friends School’s graduating class in 2004 (the same year 34justice author Jon Zaid delivered a convincing anti-war speech to that same class).  That idea – that I send a loud message with my decisions as a consumer – has grown more and more compelling to me over the past ten years.  When I boycott companies for their horrible labor practices (like Walmart) or anti-gay attitudes (like Exxondespite their improvement a few days ago), use my Working Assets credit card or CREDO Mobile cell phone plan, or transfer my money out of major banks and into my credit union, I’m exercising some political power.

Advocating that people vote with their dollars supports a consumerism-driven society, which I find somewhat problematic.  And most items I purchase and the services I use, even the ones mentioned above, still have plenty of hidden costs along the production line – it’s virtually impossible to buy ethical gasoline, for example.  I am currently unwilling, however, to forego modern civilization to live an entirely ethical life, and I doubt I’d make much headway suggesting that we all sell our belongings and return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  At the same time, the more we consider the social, environmental, economic, and political costs associated with the items we buy, the better off the world will be.

Food has been a primary focus of my monetary votes since I took a nutrition class with Clyde Wilson during my junior year at Stanford, but I was initially more concerned with health than anything else.  Wilson convinced me to drastically increase my consumption of salads before meals, cut out every drink other than water (and the occasional alcoholic beverage) from my diet, and to dramatically reduce my intake of white carbohydrates.  I also began to order a CSA box from Albert & Eve Organics once I graduated.  It was not until reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, though, that I thought deeply about the political significance of our food consumption.  Michael Pollan, the book’s author, completely revolutionized my perception of both health and the social impact of our food choices.

Pollan beautifully summarizes the differences between typical industrial factory farms, industrial organic operations, local farms, truly sustainable farms, and wild foods.  He demonstrates how, when we eat processed packaged goods or most conventionally produced meat, we harm farmworkers, the environment, and our bodies in one fell swoop.  Pollan’s research on and ideas about food deserve considerably more attention than I will give them in this post, but an overview can help explain the impact of the gains he notes for food movements.  The industrial organic movement, for all its flaws, has grown into a multi-billion dollar a year industry largely on the backs of people voting with their dollars.  Consumer purchasing decisions have driven a food culture where many food companies (in the Bay Area, at least) attempt to portray themselves as pioneers at the cutting edge of the “slow food” movement.

The question, of course, is whether these companies truly outrank their competitors on food morality or merely want to hoodwink us into casting our financial votes in their favor.  David Sirota’s article on Chipotle’s new scarecrow ad (see below) caused me to reflect on this question as it pertains to Chipotle.

Sirota, one of my favorite columnists, argues that the ad misleads because it juxtaposes factory farming with vegetarianism instead of contrasting typical industrialized meat with meat from more sustainable sources.  Since most Chipotle eaters consume meat in their burritos, Sirota’s critique has some merit.  He does give Chipotle some credit, writing that he’s “actually psyched that there’s at least one major fast-food company willing to publicly rail against factory farming methods” and noting that Chipotle recently introduced sofritas, a vegan alternative, on their menu (for the record, sofritas are really freaking good).  But despite the ad’s problematic qualities and Sirota’s acknowledgements of some Chipotle positives, I think Chipotle gets an unfair shake in Sirota’s article.  The company is pretty revolutionary in terms of fast food and monetary votes for Chipotle can help support significant social change.

Full disclosure: I love Chipotle burritos.  I started eating them once a week during my sophomore year of college and probably still come close to that frequency of consumption.  Their deliciousness contributed to my New Year’s Resolution this year to only eat meat that meets, at a bare minimum, the sustainability standards Chipotle sets.  After doing some more research, however, I feel justified in having set that bar.

Though Chipotle’s ad is misleading, it does significantly more good than harm.  The difference between the food most people eat every day and Chipotle’s food is many, many times greater on nearly all the metrics Sirota lists – carbon emissions, energy supplies, water resources, and health – than the difference between Chipotle’s meat and vegetarian options.  Yes, Chipotle’s food is closer to the normal fare from the “Big Organic” industry than the food which one could eat at a truly sustainable farm, but I’d argue, based on everything Pollan brilliantly documents in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that the typical vegetarian’s diet does worse on these metrics than a diet which focuses on sustainability across the board and includes meat.  Two of the articles Sirota cites to claim the virtues of vegetarianism conflate meat eating in general with the majority of meat eating done in the United States, while the two others provide indirect support for my argument above.  Pollan also makes a strong argument that eating animals that live happy, free lives is completely acceptable from a moral perspective.  While I am fairly certain more people would be vegetarians if they followed Pollan’s lead and reflected on meat-eating by participating in the slaughter of animals raised on sustainable farms, I don’t think it’s Chipotle’s job to subject people to that imagery.  What Chipotle should have done in their ad, in my opinion, is shown some Niman Ranch pigs rooting around happily before having the scarecrow serve a carnitas burrito.  That would have been more honest.  But while Sirota deserves props for his commitment to vegetarianism, there isn’t a ton of difference from a social, environmental, or ethical perspective between that decision and the decision to eat sustainable meat.  If Chipotle’s ad drives people towards better meat options, that benefits us far more than the ad’s omission of the pigs hurts society.

I also think it’s important to give Chipotle credit for pursuing profit and ethics simultaneously.  Sirota contends Chipotle’s intentions are about profit alone, but as Elizabeth Weiss’s excellent New Yorker article on Chipotle makes clear, the company’s commitment to continuously improving the ethics of its food sourcing has been around for 12 years, much more time than the “slow food” movement has been a breadwinner for restaurants.  A lot of companies toss around claims about “all-natural” and “grass-fed” food with little indication about what these words actually mean, but Chipotle clearly defines the standards they impose on suppliers for their pork and indicate where they’d like to go for beef, dairy cattle, and chicken.  When a restaurant can’t source enough meat at Chipotle’s standards and must resort to conventional suppliers, the restaurant sticks a large sign explaining this issue at the front of their burrito line.  The sign is impossible to miss.  I know Chipotle has this practice not just because their communications director told the New Yorker about it, but also because I’ve been to a Chipotle displaying one of these signs in the middle of a chicken shortage.  Sirota mentions his belief that Chipotle “is interested in seeming vegetarian without actually being vegetarian,” driven in part by Chipotle’s failure, before 2011, to note on in-store menus that their pinto beans are made with bacon.  While it’s no consolation to Jews who unwittingly ate pig prior to that year, it’s worth noting that Chipotle mentioned the recipe on their website, always informed anyone who ordered a vegetarian burrito that the beans weren’t vegetarian, and issued a “razor quick” response and added a note on their in-store menus immediately after they were made aware of the problem.

Chipotle is far from perfect.  It took the company way too long to sign onto the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, a program intended to guarantee some basic rights for farmworkers.  There’s not a great excuse for the pinto bean oversight and the scarecrow ad should probably have shown some antibiotic-free animals.  In the context of ethical food production in the United States, however, Chipotle is towards the top.  In terms of widely available fast food, there isn’t a single company with food ethics remotely close to Chipotle’s.  And if the company’s past is any indication, Chipotle’s future will feature continued improvement.  I therefore can confidently cast my monetary votes for Chipotle and I hope you feel comfortable doing so as well.  Eating a Chipotle burrito is an incredibly delicious and easy way to “cultivate a better world.”

Update (7/14/14): For a Chipotle ad that contrasts factory farming with Chipotle-style meat production, see below:

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