Chicago Restaurants Where Sustainability is on the Menu

The transition towards running a more sustainable restaurant can be intimidating, but three of Chicago’s most eco-friendly establishments provide a blueprint for success. Regardless of your business’ disposable income to begin this journey, the stories behind these restaurants present a vision for easy decarbonization.  

Lula Cafe has been at the forefront of combining farm-to-table with the urban brunch experience since its opening in 1999. By sustainably sourcing their meats, fish, and produce from farms in the Chicago area, they significantly reduce their carbon footprint from transportation and factory farming emissions. In doing so, they also support other local businesses, and have found acclaim in publications from the Food Network, Eater Chicago, and the Chicago Tribune. Another sustainable restaurant, Homestead on the Roof, features a 1,000 square foot rooftop garden, along with additional vertical gardens, that supply the business with seasonal fresh herbs and produce year-round. These are incorporated into many unique dishes like a smoked salmon BLT salad, Nam Khao curry, and a mushroom-chorizo empanada. Not only are these dishes delicious and personal to Head Chef Bryan Collante, but they are supported by organic ingredients that attract eco-conscious diners. The rooftop gardens and terrace also draw in customers who appreciate the beauty that a greener city has to offer, and ensures that the investment in rooftop gardening is beneficial in more ways than one.

Both of these restaurants follow recommendations made by the United Nations on the relationship between reducing shipping and subsequent carbon emissions. However, other research suggests that the type of food we consume and sell has its own, sometimes greater, impact on the environment. According to Our World in Data, animal products that require a lot of land and inorganic fertilizers—like beef, dairy, and lamb—emit the most greenhouse gases (GHG). Because food transportation makes up less than 10% of the GHG for most products, land usage and fertilizers are the most carbon-intensive aspects of meat production. Considering how these foods produce emissions at the source is key, because food transportation makes up less than 10% of the GHG for most products. Lula Café and Homestead on the Roof emphasize plant-based cuisine, particularly in Lula’s vegan tasting menu, and as a result their positive impact from buying local is amplified. 

This is not to say that going farm-to-table isn’t a worthy venture from an economic or environmental perspective. The popular party venue, bar, and brunch spot Uncommon Ground has seen decades of success from this business model. Aside from rave reviews about the menu, Uncommon Ground’s story—being the first certified organic rooftop garden in the U.S. and Illinois’ first certified organic brewery—appeals to many patrons. Like other forms of green roofs, not only does Uncommon Ground’s garden provide economic value to the business, but it also helps mitigate the effects of climate change.

Beyond growing their own produce, Uncommon Ground has partnered with a local beekeeper to maintain a honeybee hive and native bee houses in their garden since 2008.

According to the Bee Conservancy, habitat loss is one of the greatest threats to native bee populations. By taking a step like this, Uncommon Ground is helping to increase the livable habitat for Chicago’s bees in a way that also supports local beekeepers and contributes to their business—a model example of the multifaceted benefits of sustainable restaurants.

These steps and others—from sustainably sourcing menu items to energy efficient fixtures—could be the perfect approaches to making your business more sustainable. At Green World Alliance, we’re gathering green solutions, thought leaders, and attending industry-changing events. To find other ways to lower your carbon emissions, read about our sustainable research at the Green World Alliance website.


–Anna Langlois