Tap Water Might Be Making a Comeback

California chef says serving tap water pleases customers and the environment.

May 22, 2007 — -- The newest wave in dining chic is something as common as dirt. It's water -- and not just any water. Tap water. This accessible liquid is back and is being served at some of the finest tables in America.

When Mark Pastore opened Incanto restaurant in San Francisco, he wanted guests to feel welcome, and nothing said "welcome" better than offering something for free.

"We greet our guests with an offer of complimentary sparkling or flat water," he said, "rather than trying to sell them a bottle of water, which is so common at fine dining restaurants."

The Cost of Hospitality

Pastore's gesture of hospitality, however, is actually costing him money.

He uses a two-part commercial filtration system that first pulls physical particulates from the water, and then a submicron filter that pulls out any chemical impurities not caught by the city's filtration system. He also has a carbonation tank so he can offer a choice of still or sparkling. It cost Pastore $5,000 to install the system, and another $1,200 to $1,400 a year to run it.

"This is a system that's designed to fit the capacity of a busy restaurant like … ours," said Pastore. "It costs us money, but we think it comes back to us in good will."

Customers, he said, are sometimes bewildered, sometimes wary, but always, it seems, pleasantly surprised.

"95 percent of the people, when we offer them complimentary sparkling water, their eyebrows go up and they think that's a good idea," Pastore says. "A few people are so trained to shunting away bottled water that they look at you and say, 'I just want tap water.'"

"To me, it's a pleasure and a gift," said one happy diner, Marsha Irwin. Another customer, Gail Perin, is tired of the high cost of bottled water. "Sometimes you leave a restaurant, and your water bills are as high as your wine bills. There is something wrong with that picture."

"To take the water from our reservoir and serve it on its own is revolutionary," says Ella Lawrence, a local food writer.

No Bottles, No Revenue?

Food writer Ella Lawrence hopes the tap water revolution catches fire. She brought Harry Denton, a rival restaurateur, to Incanto for dinner, and he said he'd like to follow suit at his nightspot, the Starlight Room.

"I have to pass it by a huge corporation," Denton says, "and I am going to (try) after being here tonight." Asked if he would lose money if he stopped selling water, Denton laughs and says, "I sell booze."

Booze brings in the big bucks, but so does water. For some restaurants, the thousands of dollars they make on water each month is a lifeline.

But not so in Berkeley, Calif. Alice Waters, the green goddess who owns the groundbreaking eatery Chez Panisse, had her "Aha!" moment at a vending machine.

"When I went to the Coke machine and saw the bottled water with the Italian name, I just knew the big corporations were getting in on the bottled water business, and I just felt like this is something that should be free to everyone."

The Tap Trend Is Spreading

Waters thought more about tap water on a trip to Rome. "I was in the parks and there were all these beautiful fountains, and everybody was drinking out of the water fountains in the park and I just thought it was so unusual now to have confidence to drink water from a park."

"What were we thinking?" Waters asks. "This is 35 years that we've been [drinking bottled water], and I think we have finally come to our senses."

Waters needed a water consultation, so she sent her general manager to see Mark Pastore at Incanto. With the arrival of their new decanters, bottled water at Chez Panisse is now became a thing of the past.

"It fits in perfectly with how we are thinking about food. We want to buy what's local," said Waters. "We want to support the people who are in close to the restaurant. We don't want to have to put that travel piece into the procurement of the food that we use at the restaurant."

Waters doesn't think it will be hard to pull customers away from bottled water. "We've always been in the education place at the restaurant. We are just going to say that this is important to do and I think you will be happy with the water we serve here. I think they will."

Earth Benefits From Drinking Tap

Both Waters and Pastore agree that using glass decanters rather than plastic bottles is good for the environment.

"One of these carafes lasts somewhere between 1500 and 200 servings before it breaks or chips," Pastore says. "If you think about somebody drinking 1500 bottles of water, and you think about surrounding ourselves with 1000 or 2000 bottles of water and you think about all the energy that went into making 2,000 bottles and shipping them around compared to the resources that went into making one carafe … That's where the real environmental savings for a system like this really lies," said Pastore.

"When you think about the cost to the environment to be hauling water," said Waters, "I mean, it is such a crazy idea. Halfway around the world. There is just something wrong about that."

If it seems like a paradox that Mark Pastore still imports the wine at his Italian eatery, he answers this way: "The question is, do you want to try to reduce your environmental impact to zero, or do you want to look and find places where you can do a little bit better?" he asks. "We think this is an area where the benefit of having a rare wine from Italy is much, much greater than having a rare water from the Swiss Alps."

So how does one serve a lovely glass of 'Eau de Tap?' Mark Pastore says it should be slightly chilled, not on the rocks. "Ice deadens the palette," Pastore cautions.

Another benefit of tap water? It contains a little 'twist' of fluoride that's good for your teeth.