How Calgary’s River Café became one of Canada’s most sustainable restaurants

River Café is set on a unique island in Calgary’s Bow River. Credit: River Café

Stop by Calgary’s River Café for lunch on any given day and you’ll find the lights off but the kitchen bustling. 

Head shot of Sal Howell, owner of River Café in Calgary, in an off-white dress and a gray cardigan.

As the owner of River Café, Sal Howell operates what is arguably Canada’s greenest restaurant. Credit: River Café

The restaurant relies on natural light rather than electricity to illuminate its dining room during the day, one of the many ways owner Sal Howell minimizes the restaurant’s environmental footprint. 

In an industry where food waste, transporting ingredients long distances, and high energy and water consumption are all too common, River Café has become a pioneer in demonstrating that running a successful restaurant doesn’t have to take a negative toll on the planet. 

Recognized with numerous awards for its efforts—including certification from the Leaders in Environmentally Accountable Foodservice (LEAF) organization and recognition as Canada’s “Most Eco-Friendly Restaurant” by Canada’s 100 Best in 2019—River Café might just be the greenest restaurant in Canada. 

Read on to learn about how the restaurant got started, its place in Canada’s sustainability landscape, and where the team hopes to go next.


Getting the green light

Customers dine on River Café’s patio in Calgary featuring off-white umbrellas and wooden tables and chairs.

Customers can dine al fresco at River Café in warmer months. Credit: River Café

Howell embraced an eco-friendly ethos right from River Café’s opening in 1991. 

The restaurant operated as a seasonal, open-air pavilion before a 1995 rebuild transformed it into a year-round operation. Howell’s interest in sustainability began when she used repurposed and reused materials to construct the restaurant’s new home. 

“I think the underlying value was wanting to do the right thing,” Howell says. “When you learn more about the [sustainability] issues, you can’t ignore them, and you want to make a difference.”

River Café’s setting on an island in the middle of the Bow River feels a world apart from Calgary’s urban cityscape. Howell hoped the sense of being in nature would translate to the menu.

“We wanted to serve food that was of the place that we had created,” Howell says. Finding suppliers who shared the restaurant’s locavore philosophy was no easy task given that it was the mid-1990s, and farm-to-table cuisine wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is today.

“We made farm-to-table our mission, and we lived and breathed it every day,” Howell says. Her team went to rural farmers’ markets, farms, and gardens. Through word-of-mouth, they looked to find ingredients that weren’t imported.

Howell also tried to reduce the restaurant’s waste at a time when composting and recycling programs were less common. “Our goal was to figure out: what’s the least amount that we can put in the landfill?” she says. “Sustainability really became a lens through which we see and evaluate all aspects of our operations.”

The entrance of River Café, a farm-to-table, eco-friendly restaurant championing sustainability in Calgary.

River Café has showcased the best of Alberta’s regional bounty since the 1990s. Credit: River Café


Becoming Canada’s greenest restaurant

A dish served at River Café in Calgary garnished with edible flowers

Some of River Café’s dishes incorporate edible flowers. Credit: River Café

“You don’t become Canada’s greenest restaurant or Canada’s most eco-friendly restaurant overnight,” Howell says. “It takes time to figure out how to solve all these problems.”

Howell wasn’t afraid to rebuff prevailing restaurant trends in favour of sustainability. “It used to drive me crazy that people were selling water from Italy and France and these bottles were shipped all over the world,” she says. “We are in Alberta with [access to] glacier-fed water from the Rockies.” 

Howell installed a system that allows River Café to serve its own filtered bottled water. The restaurant soon switched to 100% green energy, partnering with sustainable energy company Bullfrog Power to use wind-generated electricity and green gas. The team also reduced the restaurant’s water usage by finding alternatives to water-cooled refrigeration in the kitchen.

The sustainable practices extend to the food as well. Prioritizing local sourcing means finding alternatives to ingredients that don’t grow regionally—like citrus.

River Café’s onsite garden grows tangerine marigold, French sorrel, lemon verbena, tuberous begonias, and lemon balm in place of lemons and limes. 

“We chose years ago not to use citrus in our food and find the acidity and the citrusy flavours that do so well in balancing sugars and fats in other plants,” Howell says. 

The kitchen looks for ways to further minimize its waste. “When it comes to an apple, we will use the peel and the core. We use every part of the animal; we use every part of everything,” Howell says.


A sustainable future

A close-up photo of a dish featuring slices of sweet potato on a brown sauce, with colourful flowers and herbs, at River Café, a restaurant in Calgary

Charred sweet potato, farm goat feta, hazelnut molé, and apricot. Credit: Pauline Yu, River Café

Howell admits that eco-friendly operations often come at a higher cost—a challenging trade-off in an industry known for its tight margins—but her team succeeds in making decisions that serve their bottom line as well as the environment. 

When Canada banned single-use plastics in 2022, it didn’t have an impact on the restaurant because River Café had already done away with their use. When recent supply-chain issues increased shipping costs, the restaurant was able to rely on local sourcing. 

“Some of our initiatives might cost us a little bit more, but in the long run, we were well set up for some of the changes that came later,” Howell says.

River Café’s green philosophy is built into its pricing, and Howell says diners have always been willing to pay to support the restaurant’s efforts. 

Howell hopes to keep pushing her restaurant to do more and relies on her team to lead the charge. 

“I look to everyone in the kitchen and in the front-of-the-house for their ideas because they’re on the front lines noticing, ‘I keep putting the same thing in the garbage. How can I change that?’’’ she says. “It’s surprising what you can achieve when you get everybody involved and everybody working toward the same goal.”

Learn more on River Café


Jessica Huras is a Toronto-based food and drink writer. Eat your way across the city (and beyond) with her on Instagram @waysofwanderers