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All About Water

The ubiquitous carafe of ice-less water

   Have you noticed recently that many restaurants bring you “tap” water at the start of your meal in your own carafe and that it comes chilled with no ice? .....From neighborhood eatery to casual bistro to upscale restaurant, the chilled water, no ice, idea seems to be catching on. And why, you ask? It has to do with bottled water—being the environment’s biggest enemy, that is. Not to mention the restaurant’s worst nightmare when it comes to managing costs.
   The do-it-yourself filtered water idea is nothing new. Starting about two years ago, a number of restaurants, including a slew on the West Coast, started jumping on the bandwagon. It works like this: a restaurant offers tap water or bottled water, sometimes in the plastic form and sometimes in the sparkling, French-imported glass bottle form. The restaurant realizes that the bottles used to pour the water for its guests are filling up the landfills and contributing to toxic releases of methane gas. The restaurant also realizes it’s costing an arm and a leg to pay for these bottles, not to mention the costs for the customer. The restaurant decides to do something about it.
   Take Province, for one. “Everyone got tired of the $10 water charge on their check at the end of the night,” says Chef/Owner Randy Zweiban. The former National 27 chef is referring to the hidden costs customers notice on their checks at other restaurants after ordering bottled H2O.
   But that was just part of it. Province’s paperwork currently is in review for a LEED certification, meaning it’s been compliant with the stringent requirements regarding building efficiencies outlined by the United States’ Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Part of the requirements for earning such a certification is re-examining water use, in terms of water conservation and lessening a building’s carbon footprint, or negative impact on the environment.
   Although switching from bottled to filtered tap water didn’t directly impact LEED Certification credits in Province’s case, it did, however, fall in line with the restaurant’s overall mission: helping to preserve the Earth’s natural resources as much as possible.
   “Without completely knocking bottled water, the idea [behind in-house filtration for drinking water] was to create less waste,” Zweiban says.
   Without getting too technical, there are currently two large makers of this type of filtering system: one very local—Chicago-area—and the other based in California. At least one of the systems uses a reverse osmosis system of filtering, meaning pressure and a physical filtering screen are forced through a body of water to extract impurities out like a magnet while allowing the rest of the (purified) liquid to circulate and funnel into tubes for use.
   Though these systems have been in place for years for traditional cooking-water use, applying them to a drinking water application has done volumes (no pun intended) when it comes to helping restaurants not only prevent burdening local waste management streams, but also help decrease their costs.    
   One added benefit is that the filters don’t need to be replaced as often as one may think. “Cleaning and maintenance is pretty easy,” Zweiban says. “Being a smaller restaurant, we don’t do a huge volume on the water, but still, our system uses four different filters, and we only need to change them a couple times a year. There’s no real lime scale or other buildup on the filters, which is great.”    
   Both systems mentioned provide the option of both flat water and sparkling water. In fact, some restaurants in California use a water treatment system that adds natural flavoring to sparkling water, essentially creating an in-house soda-making capability. From lime to lemon to other citrus and vanilla flavors, the system offers just one more option for both restaurants and customers looking for a unique and healthful choice. Move over locally grown spinach, hello locally filtered water. At Province, the tableside carafes used to hold the water come from recycled glass, and “decommissioned” glasses head straight to the recycle bin.   
   But why no ice? It’s not like we really need it, but there’s a bigger reason behind the ice-free movement. Some restaurant owners say it’s just plain messy, with bussers trying fill up water glasses tableside without spills, something that occurs frequently during busy dinner rushes.   
   Aside from being “cleaner and nicer,” as mentioned, Zweiban says going ice-free has helped Province conserve more water. “We don’t really feel we need to use ice since our water systems really keep the water chilled,” he says. That along with saving water where one can in Chicago is helpful on a larger scale. While Chicago may have a Great Lake at its disposal, water costs continue to rise. While Province installed automatic faucet and toilet flushers, the city doesn’t legally require operations to use low-water-flow utilities. Province, in that sense, has taken a proactive step to conserve its water use.      Zweiban says his guests have responded well to the water offerings. “Our guests really like it,” he says. “Not to mention, it’s so much easier to just ask, ‘Do you want flat or sparkling water?’”    
   Here are some other restaurants using filtered water: 

   “We stopped using bottled water primarily because of plastic bottles,” says Mark Mendez, executive chef. “We read some stats on pollution and how many plastic water bottles are in landfills and figured why not just drop them altogether. We could have gone with glass bottles, but to be honest, we didn't really sell that much water anyway. Instead, we installed filters on all our taps and ice machines. We also use filtered water in the kitchen for cooking uses, and as a result, we’ve found it makes all our stocks and soup taste better. That goes for our coffee drinks, too.” 

Boka Restaurant Group 
   According to Kevin Boehm, partner, "We use a filtered water system for drinking water at Perennial and the reception has been amazing. People certainly have developed an awareness about the environment, and I think they like that their restaurant is thinking about it, as well. We don’t use ice because the water is chilled and pouring at the table with ice is difficult and can result in unnecessary mess and spills."

The Violet Hour   
   “We have always served filtered water in carafes at our establishment,” says Jason Cott, partner. “However, it is not so much for conservation sake (that is a nice ancillary identity), but that we want to keep our guests hydrated throughout their drinking experience. It would be disingenuous of us to keep promoting a glass of water for each cocktail and selling bottled water at the same time. So to give our guests the best drinking water, we filter it ourselves. Our filtering system also allows us to serve the cleanest ice in our cocktails. Ice is as important to a bartender as a stove is to a cook. It is puzzling when people will go to great lengths to drink filtered or bottled water, but fill their ice trays up with regular tap water. By using filtered water, we guarantee that the ice we utilize for our cocktails is of the highest quality.”

More Restaurants That Serve Filtered Water
A Mano  335 N. Dearborn St., 312-629-3500
Boka 1729 N. Halsted St., 312-337-6070
Cafe des Architectes 20 E. Chestnut St., 312-324-4000
Chicago Diner  3411 N. Halsted St., 773-935-6696
Cibo Matto  201 N. State St.,312-467-0200
Crofton on Wells  535  N. Wells St.,312-755-1790
Custom House  500 S. Dearborn St., 312-523-0200
Dharma Garden 3109 W. Irving Park Rd., 773-588-9140
David Burke’s Primehouse 616 N. Rush, 312-660-6000
Eve  840 N. Wabash Ave., 312-266-3383
Karyn’s Cooked  738 N. Wells St., 312-587-1050
Lou Mitchell’s  565 W. Jackson Blvd., 312-939-3111
L2O 2300 N. Lincoln Park West, 773-868-0002
Keefer’s 20 W. Kinzie St., 312-467-9525
Moto  945 W. Fulton Market, 312-491-0058
Oceanique  505 Main St., Evanston, 847-864-3435
Perennial 1800 N. Lincoln Ave., 312-981-7070
Province  161 N. Jefferson St.,  312-669-9900
The Publican  845 W. Fulton Market, 312-733-9555
Spiaggia  980 N. Michigan Ave., 312-280-2750
312 Chicago  136 N. LaSalle St., 312-696-2420

Published: August 09, 2009
Issue: Fall 2009 Water Issue