One course at a time, David Siegel consumes five gourmet dishes remarkable for their flavor and also for where the ingredients came from: sardines and sand dabs from Monterey Bay, Calif., squab and veal from the state's central coast, and strawberries from Oxnard, Calif.
"Ordinarily, I would be gun-shy and run the other way when I hear the word 'sardine,' " says Mr. Siegel. But "because they didn't have to preserve it in salt, this had a freshness and nonfishy taste I've never experienced. It was delightful."
The comment is music to the ears of Neal Fraser, chef of the well-known Grace Restaurant here, who designed a "Close to Home" menu where 90 percent of the ingredients are sourced within 400 miles. Advancing a so-called "socially and environmentally responsible" agenda throughout his restaurant – which includes serving filtered local tap water rather than bottled water from afar and fueling his own car with leftover vegetable oil – Mr. Fraser is part of a growing nationwide restaurant movement to go "green." The ideas are not new, say experts, but they are gaining fresh currency because of the burgeoning global environmental movement and new generations of youth with budding enthusiasm for long-established notions of sustainability, ecological health, and food safety.
As exemplified by Grace Restaurant, one key idea is to leave less of a carbon footprint wherever possible – choosing local meats, vegetables, fish, and fruit over those shipped from thousands of miles away. Another push is to support smaller local ranchers and farmers who avoid the kinds of animal diets and pesticides that are typically used for produce and meat and are often served in the nation's 1 million restaurants.
There is a laundry list of other strategies to reduce global warming: from recycling and composting waste to conserving water and lights, using nontoxic cleaners, tapping wind or other "green" power, and designing minimal-impact buildings. Like Grace, many restaurants are moving away from bottled water because of environmental concerns about bottle waste, refrigeration needed, transportation costs, and shipping containers.
"I just began to think about the future of the planet that my daughters would be inheriting and their children and so forth," says Fraser, who decided it was time to change after seeing the movie "An Inconvenient Truth," starring Al Gore.
Supporters report more interest by owners and diners than at any time since such notions began coalescing in the late 1960s. "The movement today is really huge and the debate is getting a far broader audience now," says Wynnie Stein, co-owner of Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y., considered one of the national pioneers of locally sourced organic farming. "It's everybody from restaurants to colleges to food-service directors in schools, hospitals. People are very concerned about the environment for themselves and future generations and there is a new urgency to dramatically expand on ideas that have been around for years."
One measure of the interest is the growth of the Green Restaurant Association, which certifies restaurants coast to coast and encourages them to take four new steps to help the environment each year. Founded in 1990 in San Diego, the association has seen the number of its certified restaurants skyrocket from 60 to 300 in the past two years. The group is also negotiating with major restaurant chains, which could rapidly boost membership to 5,000.
"In the last year we have gotten more interest than in the previous 16 years combined," says founder and director Michael Oshman. "It's beginning to build exponentially from interest of previous decades."
Such restaurants are also drawing attention to the plight of smaller farms, ranches, and suppliers whose practices fit the model but are in danger of being lost.
"Government policies are making it very hard for the smaller, independent, family-run businesses, which operate with higher environmental standards," says Mike Antoci, who runs Superior Anhausner Foods, a Los Angeles distributor. "Restaurants like Fraser's are starting to raise public consciousness about what is at stake."
The new spotlight is creating a domino effect, say observers, in which restaurant customers begin to ask more questions about the local-food movement.
"We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who value the availability of food produced right in their own community," says Linda Halley, who runs Fairview Gardens, a nonprofit organic farm and education center in Goleta, Calif.
Some observers question some of the claims of the local-food movement. They say it's entirely possible that food grown locally could have a considerably larger carbon footprint than food flown halfway around the world because transportation represents only a tiny fraction – some experts say as little as 2 percent – of the energy required to grow, store, process, and package the food.
Supporters say that the movement is raising questions that society needs to ask. Mr. Oshman notes that Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, with 200 stores nationwide, was the first large chain to be certified green last year and this year has announced it will run its stores on windpower exclusively. "If larger chains like this can do it, it shows this is not a fringe thing anymore."