Summer Solstice: Restaurants Farm Fertile Ground in New York City


The summer solstice marks the official start to summer, and for many cultures around the world, this seasonal change is met with celebrations of fertility, abundance, and plentiful sun. For New Yorkers, however, the start to summer signifies the arrival of days spent wading through thick air, dreaded sojourns on sweaty subway platforms, and staggering ConEd bills–reflections of our addictions to air-conditioning. In a city of concrete, brick, and steel, it is all too easy to forget the greener pleasures of summer–especially when contact with nature is limited to bodega flower stands and grocery store produce aisles.

However, there are some places in the city that have made an effort to sow a few patches of green onto this gray patchwork. The following is an exploration of some New Yorkers’ attempts at cultivating produce within the city’s limits. While many restaurants and markets boast locally sourced food items, these urban pioneers are actively breaking soil in the five boroughs, making substantial contributions to their kitchens and farmstands from their own urban pastures. The question remains: Are all of these attempts genuine efforts to bring fresher, more sustainably sourced ingredients to a city with staggering consumption problems? Or, as the skeptics claim, marketing ploys, pitched to the politically correct urban liberal with bad habits, a guilty conscience, and a large bank account. You be the judge…

Rosemary’s is a newcomer to the New York restaurant world (it opened just last Friday) but is already the subject of much speculation. The restaurant boasts a rooftop garden with beautifully manicured rows of vegetables planted in traditional soil beds. However, because the garden was only planted on May 5, many of the herbs and vegetables in the garden are not yet ready to be harvested, thus the restaurant must still source a fair amount of produce from outside their farm. With a “no reservation” policy and a packed house each night, it could be challenging to sample the offerings at this locale. Rosemary’s big brother, Bobo, also has a bit of a green thumb. Although not entirely self-sustaining, Bobo grows a variety of herbs in its back garden, including rosemary, lavender, mint, and basil, which are used to supplement the herb consumption of its bar program. This West Village restaurant is also home to an apiary whose hives produce 50 pounds of honey twice a year that is collected for use in Bobo’s Meade and various desserts.

Bell Book & Candle is a great example of a restaurant that approaches the constraints of urban space with ingenuity, sourcing 60 percent of the produce served in their restaurant from their own roof. The garden was not built with traditional soil-based planting methods but relies on aeroponic towers. These towers–futuristic white pods that evoke a sci-fi landscape–sprout everything from herbs to lettuce and tomatoes. The plants are fed a nutrient-rich water-based solution that’s free of pesticides or artificial additives. Furthermore, when produce is ripe for the picking, it’s plucked and consumed same-day, providing a product that’s richer in taste than crops that are prematurely harvested for shipment.

Another example of inner-city creativity is the Riverpark farm. Riverpark may seem like somewhat of an anomaly in the chaos and congestion of Manhattan, but this Tom Colicchio restaurant is a thriving, verdant oasis amidst the skyscrapers of Kip’s Bay. The Riverpark restaurant sources vegetables from its adjacent farm, a 15,000-square-foot plot that produces a bounty of diverse vegetables. Plants are grown on recycled milk crates and are truly “farm to table,” picked and eaten on the same day. There are over 165 types of vegetables growing at Riverpark, and the restaurant estimates that the farm meets 50 to 60 percent of the kitchen’s needs, with 100 percent of herbs, lettuce, and flowers coming from the farm. Some crops–like eggplant, strawberries, radishes, and mustard greens– are sourced almost entirely from the garden during their growing season and when featured on the menu. In cases of surplus, extra produce and herbs are pickled, smoked, and dried for use later in the year.

The folks behind Roberta’s, in Bushwick, are urban pioneers in more ways than one. This restaurant is not only home to extraordinary pizzas (and lines), but also to an impressive garden. For the past three years, Roberta’s has been sprouting everything from tomatoes and beets to peaches and Red Russian Kale, boasting over 70 varieties of vegetables, fruits, and edible flowers. Their set-up consists of two hoop houses, a hot house perched on top of two shipping containers (which also happens to be home to Heritage Radio), and an additional 30 containers in the restaurant’s backyard and event space. The restaurant offers a rough “guesstimate” that about 10 to 15 percent of their produce comes from their garden. However, while these numbers may not be as steep as BB&C’s or Riverpark’s, Roberta’s also receives a lot of their greens from Queens-based veggie powerhouse the Brooklyn Grange, which Roberta’s had a hand in starting.

The Brooklyn Grange is a sprawling, green rooftop acre located, despite its deceptive name, in Long Island City. Home to hundreds of thousands of plants, the Grange’s products are herbicide-, insecticide-, and synthetic-fertilizer-free and include tomatoes (over 40 varietals), lettuce, beets, carrots, and radishes, among others. Although not associated directly with a single restaurant, the Grange sells to many local restaurants, including Roberta’s, Bobo, Joseph Leonard, and Marlow & Sons. Their products may also be purchased at local farmstands and through a CSA. In its first year alone the Grange produced over seven tons of vegetables, a shockingly plentiful crop for a garden perched atop an old industrial motor products building. But, if a tree can grow in Brooklyn, a rooftop farm can grow in Queens.