The Plant Cafe Organic

The green-thumb ethos of this San Francisco eatery is perfectly reflected in its rigorously green interior design.

The first thing you notice when you walk into the Plant Cafe Organic at Pier 3, on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, is the stunning view of the Bay. But the experience is all of a piece: the modern, Scandinavian-influenced interior with slatted-wood tabletops and unfinished Brazilian-walnut flooring; sleek zinc and stainless-steel equipment in the bar and open kitchens; the homey atmosphere created by the slate-gray schoolhouse-style chairs and the open fire from the pizza oven; and the sunlight streaming through the large windows and floor-to-ceiling glass entrance.

What you won’t realize is that the restaurant is one of the most sustainably designed eateries in the city, if not the country. Those tabletops? Made from reclaimed hickory. The gleaming zinc and stainless steel? Nontoxic. The roof? Packed with PVs. The Brazilian walnut is from a sustainably harvested forest, and the natural light is, of course, an energy saver. And the building itself? A historic warehouse once used for goods awaiting transport to the California Delta. It’s the most significant recycled feature of the entire project.

For this deft melding of elegance and environmental awareness, the Plant at Pier 3, designed by Cass Calder Smith’s CCS Architecture, is a Smart Environments award winner this year. The firm, which has offices in San Francisco and New York, won the same award four years ago for the Plant’s flagship restaurant, located in a former bakery in San Francisco’s Marina neighborhood. (The restaurant was then called Lettüs but changed its name after the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant chain challenged its trademark application.) A third restaurant, also designed by CCS, recently opened in San Francisco’s financial district.

Matthew Guelke and Mark Lewis, the owners of all three restaurants, have a simple goal: to rid organic fare of its hippie image and make it appealing to the masses. “Our mission is to try to get the best quality ingredients at reasonable prices, so people could eat this way daily if they wanted to,” Guelke explains. It was imperative that the design of the restaurants reflect this philosophy. “When we approached Cass, we wanted some of his clean, modern, timeless style. We wanted to take this food and not make it too granola, so your father, your great aunt, whoever, can eat here,” he says.

Smith made his name designing staples of San Francisco’s vibrant restaurant scene, including Restaurant LuLu, in the South of Market district, and Rose Pistola, in North Beach. He also designed several spaces in the renovated Ferry Building, a foodie mecca near Pier 3, and, more recently, La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, a Peruvian restaurant at Pier 11/2. Smith has designed some 60 restaurants, about ten of which have included green elements. His first sustainable restaurant was the Wild Goose, in Lake Tahoe, almost a decade ago; it was one of the first LEED-certified restaurants in the country.

For Smith, the green question is not, Why do it? but, Why not? “It isn’t much different than saying, ‘I think we should paint the wall blue,’” he says. “It’s not political. I’m not a political person. It’s just common design sense. It’s almost like a mistake if you don’t do it.”

Smith calls his approach at the Plant “clever restraint.” He says, “A lot of design is focused on what you do. I like to focus on what you don’t do. What we add in is just enough. Fortunately, a lot of the building is really interesting. We add counterpoints with some new things and use them as minimally as possible.”

Straddling a rail passageway, the Plant at Pier 3 features two distinct spaces, each accessed from an outdoor breezeway. The primary kitchen, a take-out counter, and a mezzanine-level café are located on one side, while the sit-down restaurant, the bar and pizza oven, and the outdoor waterfront seating occupy the other. Smith smoothed the potentially tricky food-delivery circuit by installing (next to the restaurant entrance, and across the breezeway from the kitchen) a staff-only sliding door that leads to a small, wood-enclosed relay station. In order to keep the large, existing windows, whose high sills obscured water views, Smith raised the floor eight inches. Reuse is the reigning mantra at the Plant, down to the smallest details: the beer and smoothie mugs are made from sanded-down wine bottles, the check presenters are repurposed old book covers.

The restaurant’s most sustainable features, however, are less visible. They include a water-electrolyzer system, and a six-kilowatt photovoltaic system on the roof, which Guelke estimates provides 30 percent of the electricity. The electrolyzer system, from EcoLogic Solutions, converts tap water into acidic fluids (which are used instead of bleach to clean counters, floors, and windows) and alkaline fluids (which the owners plan to use for dishwashing). According to Guelke, the Plant is the first restaurant in the country to adopt this technology commercially. For his part, Smith is increasingly interested in making energy conservation a focus of his work. “Buildings use a huge amount of oil,” he says. “It’s good to use sustainable products or reclaimed wood, but the much larger impact comes from the energy side.”

Pier 3 is located in a national historic district, and one of the biggest challenges for the design team was implementing all the sustainable elements while staying within the strict guidelines for the rehabilitation of landmarked structures. The rooftop solar panels had to be lowered because they would have protruded six inches above the rooftop. The team is also awaiting awnings for the front of the building, since the state historic-preservation office has vetoed all the designs they’ve submitted so far. Despite these frustrations, Guelke says, straying from his and Lewis’s vision would have belied the point of their project. “If we cut corners,” he asks, “then why are we doing this?”

Smith believes that the challenges the space posed—environmental concerns, historic regulations—ultimately led to the desired end. “You’ve got these problems to solve that are unique, and the solutions are unique,” he says. “So you end up with a restaurant that’s unique.”

In a city full of flashy new restaurants that come and go, Guelke and Lewis aim to create timeless establishments with staying power. And they feel confident that Smith’s design for the Plant at Pier 3, which opened in June 2009, reflects this vision. “The key is sticking to basics,” Smith says. “If you apply architectural design fundamentals carefully to a restaurant, you get good architecture. Where it’s challenging with restaurants is—it’s very competitive, and they need to pop, and the bar is very high, so people probably throw more into the pot than they should. But if you can restrain yourself from doing that, people will get it, they’ll understand it, and they’ll come back.”

Guelke has already seen Smith’s prediction realized. “A lot of restaurants start out quite busy, with the hype, and they continue that way if they’re really hot, or they start to peter out,” he says. “We had the exact opposite experience. Nobody knew who we were, and slowly they started to hear about us until we were jammed.”

The 2009 IIDA/Metropolis Smart Environments Awards winners:

CCS Architecture

Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects

Hopkins Architects and Centerbrook Architects and Planners

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