By many measures, the Triangle is an emerging foodie paradise. In addition to the baseline criteria of award-winning chefs, pioneering restaurants and a major farm-to-table movement, consider: A leading glossy magazine recently featured our taquerias and taco trucks; artisanal cheesemakers, chocolatiers, sausage makers and pie bakers work their crafts for us; barbecue is available in styles from down-home to way upscale; and then, well, there's LocoPops.
But we come up short on one measure: plenty of choices for the herbivores among us. We have just a handful of vegetarian-only restaurants, most of them of the same cuisine—Indian (see the list). They are concentrated in Cary, with one each in Morrisville and Chapel Hill, and are largely unknown by diners in other towns.
As the Triangle's population grows and its restaurant scene expands and diversifies accordingly, dining out can be a challenge for vegetarians and vegans.
Unless they're eating at one of the few veggie-only establishments, some vegetarians say, ordering can be a minefield. Many places offer vegetarians only one or two choices on a menu: It's the salad, the mushroom sandwich, the plain pasta or nothing. Animal product-based ingredients often hide in dishes billed as vegetarian; pans and grills are shared with meat. Often, the wait staff can't answer questions about the food preparation and ingredients to a degree that satisfies vegetarians—those that want to know, anyway, which isn't everyone—that the dishes truly are meat-free.
All that can bring discomfort to what should be a pleasurable experience.
Vegetarians aren't a simple, defined bloc. For starters, some people who use that label eat seafood, which makes others who use that label shake their heads. So, just as vegetarians (and vegans) have different reasons for eschewing meat (and animal-derived products like dairy), they have different opinions and expectations about restaurant choices.
Eating out is easier "if you can pretend there isn't lard in the beans," says Chapel Hillian Bill Bracey, a vegetarian for 36 years who has lived in the area for most of the last three decades.
Sometimes, just because a dish doesn't contain visible chunks of meat, the kitchen considers it meat-free. Other concerns are veggie burgers cooked on grills covered in drippings, and soups made with chicken broth. Bracey doesn't order soup out, unless he's at a strictly vegetarian place. "I've just learned to love to make my own soup," he says. (See a selection of vegetarian cookbooks.)
Though it's still tough, it's a little easier than it used to be, he says. There was a time when "if you didn't get a grilled cheese sandwich, there really wasn't an option."
All of this is conveyed with a sense of humor. Bracey says he doesn't expect to be catered to anywhere, whether it's a restaurant or a social gathering.
"I just go hungry," he says. "It's not that big of a deal to me."
It is a big deal, sometimes, for John and Jody Hamilton Davis, members of the Triangle Vegetarian Society. As vegans, they sometimes see their lack of choices as a problem and an inconvenience.
"It seems to be less so for vegetarians who eat both eggs and dairy or perhaps even just one of the two," they wrote in a joint e-mail, using the term "veg*n" to refer to both vegetarians and vegans. "Except at the restaurants that are particularly veg*n 'friendly' (have a good number of veg*n choices and/or are very accommodating in modifying dishes), there often is only one or two veg*n choices (not counting a salad), and those often have eggs or dairy as an integral ingredient or suffer greatly from having it left out."
Dilip Barman, who has been a vegetarian for most of his life, and became a vegan in the last decade, argues it's not all that dreary.
"I find it's not that difficult to find good vegan food," he says. Barman, who is the president of the Triangle Vegetarian Society (www.trianglevegsociety.org) and has taught vegetarian cooking classes, says the best vegetarian food often is found at non-vegetarian restaurants.
"Our Thanksgiving is at Parizade, and Parizade is not a vegetarian restaurant by any means," he says. "Parizade makes unbelievable vegan cakes."
Barman is enthusiastic about the vegetarian restaurants here. He lists as favorites Tower Restaurant in Morrisville, and Cool Breeze and Shree Udupi Café, both in Cary.
"I used to travel a lot for IBM, including the Bay Area and Atlanta, and I think we've got the best South Indian food in the country right here," he says.
Bracey and the Davises also have some favorites—many of them not strictly veggie places. The Davises, who volunteer as restaurant reviewers for TVS, made the following list, with veg*n choices as their weightiest factor: in Raleigh, Taste of Thai, The Irregardless Café and Abyssinia; in Durham, Twisted Noodles; in Cary, Lotus Leaf Café; in Carrboro, the Spotted Dog.
Bracey, who lives in Chapel Hill, says he frequents Lantern and 411 West, Franklin Street's much-touted Asian restaurant and long-beloved Italian eatery, respectively. But a local brewpub also makes his list.
"[Carolina Brewery] has a veggie burger that they make themselves," he says.
But Bracey sighs in memory of his few years living in California, where he dined at purely vegetarian restaurants such as Greens in San Francisco. "But, we've got Sage," he says, referring to Sage Vegetarian Café, which is, as far as we can tell, the only strictly vegetarian restaurant in an indisputably crunchy college town. "We've got a great one."
Bracey fondly remembers Pyewacket, a Chapel Hill institution for 25 years, and places like it—places he described as featuring "hairy-legged waitresses serving seaweed salads." Pyewacket, whose menu evolved from vegetarian-only to serving seafood, and then eventually meat, closed in 2002.
"I guess [vegetarian-only restaurants] don't make enough money," he says.
On the business side
Local restaurateurs say many factors affect their bottom lines, and vegetarian-only is a tough way to go. Like Chapel Hill's Pyewacket and Durham's Anotherthyme, Raleigh's Irregardless Café opened with an all-vegetarian menu but gradually broadened its offerings.
Anya Gordon, Irregardless Café's catering director and wife of founder-chef Arthur Gordon, lists the many costs that make up a restaurant's overhead—expenses that have to be paid no matter how many diners show up on a given day: salaries, food costs, gas for the stoves, electricity, water.
"It just comes down to covering your costs," she says. "One has to have a certain volume; otherwise, you can't pay your bills."
Serving steadily in Raleigh since 1974 except for an 11-month hiatus after a fire, The Irregardless Café was strictly vegetarian for its first six or seven years, Gordon says. Then it began serving fish. After another seven or so years, it added poultry, and then in the mid-1990s, beef. It sometimes serves lamb.
The Irregardless has never forgotten its roots, Gordon says, and still offers many vegetarian and vegan dishes on the menu every day. "We're still serving the vegetarian and vegan communities."
The reason for adding meat, Gordon says, is simple economics. "It wouldn't exist any more if it didn't because the market wouldn't support a vegetarian-only restaurant," she says. The changes could also be described as responses to customer demand. "That's how any of us survive, is by taking in the feedback," she adds. "If we're limiting the options [that] we're offering our customers, we're not going to stay in business."
David Bacon, owner of Pyewacket, explains how economics factor into taste.
"It's really easy to put out a tasty meal when you can throw a slab of bacon on something," he says. But in vegetarian cuisine, you have to build that flavor from scratch. "There's so much labor involved in making vegetarian cuisine tasty," he says. "So we had a struggle because our labor costs were so high. So in some ways having non-vegetarian items helped us out. Our food costs went up but our labor costs went down."
Bacon agreed with Gordon's point about customer demand. Vegetarians are a limited clientele, he says.
"There are a lot of people who talk it but don't live it," he says. "It's sort of like New Year's Day diets. We found that we needed to broaden our menu somewhat to broaden our appeal."
So over the years, the menu offered more meat. "It was kind of hard to keep everybody happy," he says. "It's a tough row to hoe. I know ethnic [vegetarian-only restaurants] tend to do better. I think in a place like Chapel Hill and Carrboro now, people want vegetarian options, but they want other things too.
"I think of Sage in Chapel Hill. They do a wonderful job, but again they're very small, and they're probably keeping a tight lid on their overhead."
- Photo by Lissa Gotwals
- Chapel Hill's Sage Café has served vegetarian-only fare, including this appetizer plate, since 2004.
Homa Jahannia, Sage's owner and chef, had overhead costs in mind prior to opening in 2004, but forged ahead anyway. "I wasn't nervous, but everyone else was," she says, referring to family and friends. "They had a lot of doubts that we would make it."
After almost four years, she says: "So far, so good."
Jahannia estimates that she has more carnivore customers than herbivores. They tell her they come because they love the food and the atmosphere.
Although she is a native of Iran, she wouldn't describe the food at Sage as solely Persian or Persian-inspired. Rather, it's "ingredient-inspired." She offers lasagna, pasta primavera and a Caribbean-inspired black bean and plantain dish, along with a mezze platter, osh (Persian soup) and fesen-joon.
The wider view
Nationally, it's not clear how the Triangle stacks up among veggie-friendly dining scenes. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) runs a Web site, goveg.com, whose top small city for vegetarian diners is Asheville. That's one reason why Yvonne Smith, a vegan who runs a MySpace site called The Traveling Vegetarian, visited recently. Smith calls Asheville "vegetarian paradise."
"I was a kid in a candy store there," she says. "As a vegetarian, if you can actually choose from the menu, it's just heaven."
Smith, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., says she was frustrated at the lack of vegetarian-themed food shows on the various cable networks that cater to food, travel, dining and cooking. "I just decided that I would do my own show," she says.
Part of Smith's mission, she says, is to inspire chefs and restaurateurs everywhere to think of vegetarian food as a legitimate cuisine, and a challenge to their skills in preparation and presentation.
"It's not about what you can't have," she says. "It needs to be about what you can have."
Here in the Triangle, vegetarians says they'd welcome more options.
"Anyone would like to go to a restaurant that caters to them," says Bracey. He would embrace an upscale, Magnolia Grill-type place for vegetarians, because chefs have such skill and creativity in the kitchen. "I want somebody to surprise me with a list of things I wouldn't have thought of," he says. "That's one of the reasons you go out to eat."
The Davises echoed that sentiment. "Finding a 'fine dining' restaurant for a special occasion is particularly difficult," they wrote. "And, as much as we like the restaurants we frequent, sometimes we're just tired of the same dishes and wish there was someplace else to go."
Create your own "vegetarian-friendly" options when dining out
Vegetarians interviewed for this story offered advice for improving dining-out experiences. These tips can be helpful to anyone with dietary restrictions, such as food allergies.
- Surf their turf: If the restaurant posts its menu on its Web site, you can get a good idea of what dishes are vegetarian or look like they can be made vegetarian or vegan. The menu will often provide a good idea as to how veg*n conscious a restaurant is.
- Pick up the phone: Unless it's very clear from the menu, definitely call. Inquire about sauces that might have animal-derived ingredients and non-entrée items like rice and bread.
- Pick up the phone again: Higher-end restaurants are more likely to be equipped (and even excited) to customize their food to your needs. If you have a special occasion coming up at a fancy place, call and speak to the chef. With enough notice (say, three days), they may be happy to make you something off-menu.
- Again with the asking: If you're at a restaurant and you don't see something you want, ask your server if the kitchen would be willing to whip you up something. You never know; you might think you're being a pain, but you might be inspiring a line cook.
- And finally, keep in mind: Even if these efforts don't generate ideal responses, you've helped raise an establishment's awareness about its customer base.