San Diego Surfrider’s Ocean Friendly Restaurants program currently has 77 participating restaurants, making the county one of the nonprofit’s hotspots, according to CJ O’Brien, Surfrider’s Ocean Friendly programs manager.

“There is a lot of excitement and traction in San Diego. Our ocean-friendly restaurants range from food trucks to fine-dining establishments. Surfrider has been tackling the plastic pollution problem for over a decade now. It’s a complex problem with what we view as a simple solution—cutting off plastic use at the source.”

As a Surfrider Ocean Friendly Restaurant, Cesarina Ristorante looks for opportunities to reduce water usage. Image: Sam Wells courtesy of Cesarina Ristorante.

Cesarina Ristorante in Point Loma already fit the mandatory requirements of the program when they applied in 2020, but co-owner Niccolò Angius was inspired to create additional improvements. “One of the optional criteria was water conservation. It’s common practice in restaurants to thaw frozen ingredients under running water, so we changed that. The other was recycling, which we’ve always done, but we’ve improved by educating the staff. They started rinsing out metal cans instead of throwing them in dirty, for example.”

Takeout, which prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was only one to two percent of Cesarina sales, went to 100% during the shutdown, and then leveled out at about 10–15%. In order to help recreate a little of the in-restaurant experience, they commissioned local artist Nadiya Atkinson to create hand-drawn illustrations for their eco-friendly to-go packaging. The cardboard boxes are wax-lined to help preserve heat and contain the sauce of Cesarina’s Italian dishes. Angius explains the extra effort put into their takeaway business, “Pasta is difficult to travel if it isn't done right. Shorter shapes tend to travel better. Our cooks have been instructed to cook the pasta a little less and add a little extra sauce, compared to the same dish for dine-in, because the pasta will continue cooking in the hot sauce so when the food gets home, you have the perfect dish like you would at the restaurant.” His go-to to-go order? “Lasagna is perfect. It even tastes great when it’s cooled down a little. There are items we don’t offer for takeout, like fried items. Even if our guest insists, we still won't sell it for takeout.”

Executive chef Nick Green views sustainability as one of his core roles at Adelaide Restaurant in Del Mar. “As a chef today, if you’re not thinking about these issues you don’t have a right to be cooking.” He joined the Ocean Friendly Restaurants program to help teach and motivate the next generation of chefs and restaurateurs. “I like to educate my team, so having the support of a program like this gives me resources to explain why we do what we do.”

Serẽa brunch. Image: Michelle Stansbury.

Chef JoJo Ruiz is known for his advocacy of sustainable seafood at his restaurants Serẽa and Lionfish; he faced a new opportunity with his latest concept, Temaki Bar in Encinitas, to create a lower-waste takeaway program. “We wanted a strong to-go experience, so we have really cool custom rectangular boxes for the maki roll. It’s almost like taking home a little pizza box but for sushi. But it’s not cardboard—it’s a recyclable, thicker paper.” Chef Ruiz looks beyond sourcing sustainable customer-facing packaging and also works with vendors to help reduce waste behind the scenes, like employing reusable crates for fish deliveries.

The Plot in Oceanside is one of Surfrider’s Platinum restaurants, meaning they meet all of the optional criteria in addition to the mandatory requirements. That includes a partnership with reVessel where customers can purchase and bring in reusable containers for to-go orders. Jessica Waite, cofounder of The Plot, is excited to see the reusable container program expand as they open new locations in Carlsbad and Costa Mesa: “A swap program is a little tricky in terms of getting the systems into place. It might cost a little bit to implement, but it offers long-term value for the business.”

Johan Engman is the founder and CEO of Rise and Shine Hospitality Group, San Diego’s largest hospitality group to join the program. One of the criteria they are especially passionate about is composting. “We’ve been doing it for five years or so; it has cost us a lot of money, but we felt like it was the right thing to do and it cut down what we put in the landfill by about 40%,” Engman shares. Not all composting initiatives have proved successful, unfortunately. Five years ago Engman introduced compostable coffee cups, “The problem was that when someone is throwing that out, they have no compost bins to put them in. So it ended up not helping because there are so few places to dispose of compostable cups; we would find our cups in recycling bins which actually contaminates those bins.”

Engman encourages individuals to reflect on how they can help lower waste: “Declining takeout utensils is an easy step people can take to help reduce. It’s easy for people to think, I’m just one person, what difference can I make? But small habits make a big difference.”


A different version of this article originally published in issue 70 summer 2023.

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About the Contributor
Michelle Stansbury
Michelle Stansbury is a food enthusiast and the founder of Eat, Drink, Be SD, sharing the best restaurants, bars, and happenings in San Diego. Misuse of the word "literally" drives her figuratively insane.