West~bourne: A Sustainable Restaurant That’s About More Than Just The Straws

How this restaurant is really making a difference

Photograph by Nicole Franzen.

West~bourne owner Camilla Marcus is the one who suggested the headline for this article. "I'm dying to have an article that says it's about more than straws, because it is about so much more than straws," she tells me when I talk to her in July about her restaurant's sustainability practices following Starbuck's announcement that they would begin phasing out the newly controversial drinking utensil.

"The crazy thing to me is that everyone is obsessed with straws, but there's no central composting infrastructure in New York City. Los Angeles has had it for decades. You are required to compost in Los Angeles, they will not pick up your trash. The fact that that's not possible here, and yet we're working on a ban on straws, I’m like, 'You've got the impact on the scale kind of opposite.'" Marcus frequently brings up California when speaking about her "accidentally vegetarian, decidedly wholesome" SoHo all-day cafe that opened earlier this year. Even its name is inspired by the street she grew up on, and its cuisine is a nod to classic L.A. cuisine ("a lot of people from L.A. will come in and know exactly the references, like where certain dishes come from").   

It's the familiarity that the space exudes that feels most West Coast to me, though. While I am there interviewing her, Marcus, at one point, interrupts our conversation to say hi to three regulars whom she knows by name and ask them about their day. A few minutes later, she gets back to me before having to excuse herself a second later to walk up and talk to the cashier in a hushed voice. She sits back down, and we resume the conversation. Soon, though, we're interrupted by the customers again who come over to thank her—Marcus just treated them to their lunches. "It's our six-month anniversary, and they've been coming here since the beginning," she says to me by way of an explanation. "Those two over there are co-workers who come here for lunch. How amazing is that?" While that does seem unusual in New York—where people barely step out to grab a soup to eat at their desk, let alone take an hour lunch with their co-worker at a restaurant—it's what Marcus intended to encourage with west~bourne. "I always knew we wanted communal seating. It's something that I grew up with in L.A., and it isn't that common in New York. A lot of our regulars start to know one another, and I think there's something really nice in having those random interactions that you don't usually get to have," she says.

To further create the feeling of home in the space, she kept the design organic. A wood kitchen island centers the restaurant and provides a front seat view into the kitchen, and puts you on the same side as where the drinks are made. Communal and small round tables flank the exposed brick-wood beam part of the wall. While brick wasn't originally in the plan for the "1960s Los Angeles, a little bit of Big Sur"-inspired design, it came into the picture when Marcus unexpectedly uncovered it in during construction. "They had to cover it for 70 years from the prior tenant. We had this big debate with our designer from L.A., Studio Mai, because brick is very New York, it's very not West Coast. He was like, 'I don't know about this brick, I think we should cover it.' And I was like, 'I'm sorry. This is an architectural gem.' It felt historic, and we just had to keep it." Thus, they compromised. Marcus got her brick wall, while the restaurant's other side got outfitted in white tile that, admittedly, does add a brightness and openness to the space that brick wouldn't. 

But don't let the clean design of the restaurant and the mismatched pillows thrown haphazardly into the window nook table ("you get the best lighting here for food photos," she tells me) fool you into thinking that its design caters solely to millennials. "[When designing the space,] I was like, 'If I see millennial pink, I'll kill someone.' Everything's very pastel-y and very Instagram bait right now, and, obviously, social media is the biggest way people hear about places and share what they're into, but I was kind of tired of clickbait and everyone following trends," she says. "As a millennial, I think we're a lot smarter than people give us credit for, and I think there's a lot of pandering to those trends, but that's because a lot of the people designing those trends aren't millennials. So, it's like they think they know what we want, but not necessarily." 

So while you won't find millennial pink banquettes or pineapple-print wallpaper, you will get a homemade celery soda-kombucha, chia pudding with rose water and petals, and vibrant vegetable-grain bowls. Though Marcus is quick to say that the only requirement for a dish to appear on the menu is that it's "flexible day to night. Like for dinner, so many people have waffles and wine, which is something that I just never would have seen [before in New York]." 

West~bourne is the type of restaurant where you can add an egg or avocado to any dish available, or mix and match things that are on the menu for something entirely customizable. And while the restaurant is vegetarian, Marcus—who makes a point to say that she's not a vegetarian, and neither is her culinary director, Amy Yi—says the menu naturally evolved into being meat-free when the two conceived of dishes that would "celebrate really special produce." Though she does add: "As a society, we have to eat less meat. I think that's an undeniable fact from an environmental standpoint." Maitake mushrooms are given center stage, alongside Wild Hive Farm grains and chili oil-topped kale, in the Sunset Grains bowl; seasonal greens (like broccoli rabe and Brussels sprouts) are highlighted with the help of sun-kissed tomato aioli, smoked almonds, basil, and mint in Griffith Greens. What you won't find, though, is any imitations of meat or soy replacements. "For me, a lot of the places that fall in the 'vegetarian' camp are either very preachy, or very artificial and trying to be something else, like with quote-unquote 'chicken wings.' I do want to eat chicken wings, I just don't want to eat them in this other form," she says before adding:

Why can't it just be a place where it's really delicious, really authentic, and honoring vegetables? If you have something unique and flavorful and from the earth, you cook it well. You don't batter fry it, mix it with seitan, and call it something else. You could just have a really great eggplant, a really great piece of cauliflower, that's cooked well and has an interesting sauce. It doesn't it mean that we don't enjoy crispy tacos the way that we have them here, but it means respecting things in their best, natural state. To me, it has to be a balance of things and having different colors, grains, legumes, vegetables—and thinking about sourcing in a thoughtful, sustainable, and high-quality way. 

Given Marcus' Californian roots, her approach to food isn't entirely unexpected—her background, though, is. After graduating from UPenn, she went to culinary school at the French Culinary Institute at night and worked at Dell'anima restaurant in Manhattan (in its opening year no less) during the day. While getting her JD/MBA at NYU, she helped Tom Colicchio open Riverpark, before taking a short hiatus in L.A. (where she worked at a real estate private equity fund) and, eventually, joining Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group to work on business development. And while she is grateful for her "unbelievably supportive" male mentors, she is happy to now be in a place alongside "the most women I've ever worked with." She explains: 

Being in business development, very few women are in those positions, especially on a construction site. I mean, the number of times I would go to meetings and people would ask if I was Danny's assistant or they would be like, "Wait, we thought Marcus was coming," and I'm like, "No, that's my last name." I would sign emails, "Warmly, Camilla," and they would be like, "Dear Marcus." Like, I know you want me to be a man very much, but that's not going to happen.

Even now, as a business owner, she still occasionally observes the different treatment she gets as a woman. In fact, shortly after she opened west~bourne, she had to report a food delivery driver who was "incredibly horrible to me and very disrespectful... He didn't realize that I was the business owner, not that that would have mattered to him." She doesn't let that get her down, though: "You try and find people to work with that are lovely and you know are fair and supportive of women, and I think I've worked really hard to seek those out and really only exclusively surround ourselves with people who respect that, but it's a little bit more extra work and a little bit more finesse."

As a result, she tries to support other women in the industry, by having an all-female leadership team and giving a spotlight to other women-run businesses. For instance, west~bourne is the only place in Manhattan that carries pies from Four & Twenty Blackbirds, a Brooklyn bakery run by sisters Emily and Melissa Elsen. "We all have to support people fairly and equally." She also acknowledges the importance of successful women who "really go the extra mile to be there for women—they counsel each other, they share the big, the bad, and the ugly and, from the business standpoint, try and find certainties that can help collaboration."

Her love for collaborations extends to the products she sells in the tightly curated "market" area of the restaurant. "I love finding new California makers and creating interesting partnerships with California companies that most people don't know here, and getting to share them," she says. She takes pride in carrying Industry Standard T-shirts made in L.A. ("Most clothing manufacturing is mostly overseas, so to have something made in downtown L.A. is amazing"); mugs by L.A. ceramist Robert Siegel ("They have the highest demand. It's nice to see people share with us, like, 'This is my morning coffee, this is what I woke up to,' and we're in their homes. I think it's something really special"); and olive oil from Grove 45, started by two women born in 1945 ("They're in these beautiful aluminum containers, and I just love their story, I really do"). 

This desire to introduce customers to California's best is even more apparent in her wine selection. In fact, during our interview, she is especially excited to see one loyal customer because she can personally tell him that an installment of his favorite wine has arrived in the restaurant. (Yes, she buys his lunch, too.) As a longtime wine club member of Sonoma's Scribe Winery, she especially loves to serve their wines in the restaurant, but also when her beverage consultant introduces her to new vineyards. "All of the vineyards that we work with—similarly to us—care about the Earth, care about giving back, care about doing this responsibly and ethically. And they make amazing wines that you don't see often, so it's really nice to be able to highlight them," she says. "Also, I love people who wanna do interesting things!" So while you might be hard-pressed to find the ultra-popular Pet-Nat natural sparkling wine in even its hometown of North California, Marcus somehow got "lucky enough" to get three bottles to serve in the restaurant. 

And yet luck, it becomes apparent over the course of the conversation, has very little to do with anything Marcus sets her eyes on. In her desire to make west~bourne a zero-waste and sustainable restaurant, she pays for a private company to compost its waste. The reusable napkins at the restaurant are made from recycled denim ("We're gonna be, I think, selling them; we started having a lot of requests for people to buy sets"), the straws and tasting spoons are compostable, tap water is the only water option, and the cleaning products are all green. In addition, Yi attempts to use all parts of the ingredients on-hand. "A lot of our would-be-food-waste, like broccoli stems, gets rolled into our falafel and sauces and condiments. Hopefully, by doing this, we're inspiring our guests to eat all food parts. You can eat the stem at the top of a carrot. Our beet chips, for example, it's just beet shaves. They're delicious, and you would never know."

A more apparent way that Marcus contributes is by donating 1 percent of every single purchase, through the Robin Hood Foundation, to The Door, a youth development agency, located three blocks away from west~bourne. What's more, Marcus hires people from the hospitality training program to work in the restaurant. "Giving back and building my local community has always been very important. So much of what I see is things going abroad when we have quite a lot of things to work on and fix here in our own backyards. When I tell people about The Door, it's kind of shocking that that exists in SoHo [one of New York's most expensive neighborhoods] in one of the biggest, most developed cities in the world," she says. By setting a give-back component, she hopes to show customers how easy it is for them to do good by just making a conscious decision:

You make more decisions and more purchases in your life on food, and where you drink, and where you grab a coffee, and where you have dinner with a friend, and that spiral effect, that compounding effect, can have a really large impact—just by having a coffee. Like you have to do very little, you just have to enjoy. I take pride in the fact that what we created something that's really sustainable internally, and something that hopefully requires very little of our guests. Just the consciousness of this can be a really special way to help your neighbors and be part of your neighborhood.

But, most of all, she wants people to enjoy a place that she created as being akin to a second home. "We want to be the place that you think of for, 'Hey, had a great experience, love it there, it's delicious, the people are nice, but also this does something really powerful.'" If the headline is any indication, west~bourne will be that place. Marcus usually gets her way.