I have tried to eat less meat and cook more vegetarian dinners at home, but my range of vegetarian dishes is still not very good. When friends suggested a few places for a dinner party recently, I thought I might take inspiration from local chefs. But a quick scan of the online menus was disappointing.
The first place had fourteen dishes but only two were vegetarian, and one of them was an omelette (?!) It was a “bar and grill” restaurant, so I thought that might be a special case. I looked at the dinner menu for the second. Out of ten options, only one was vegetarian (“crispy tofu”). The third was not much different. Eh? There are a lot of vegetables there. Why the shortage of vegetarian starters?
Vegetarian dish at Flea Street Cafe in Menlo Park
It’s more than just a curiosity. Restaurants have a lot of influence on what we eat. They can encourage us to try new foods or different preparations, and change our eating habits. As many of you know, the typical, meat-rich American diet is very high in emissions; by eating more vegetarian dishes, we can reduce our impact on the planet. Bloomberg reported a few years ago that 41% of the land area in the contiguous United States is used for livestock feed (!). CarbonBrief reported a few years ago that there are three chickens in the world for every person, and the total weight of the animals we raise for meat is 15 times the mass of all the world’s wildlife. We could definitely do with eating a little less meat. Americans consume more per capita than most of the rest of the world.
So why aren’t local restaurants in the lead? To get rough numbers, I used OpenTable to identify ten popular moderately priced ($$) restaurants in Bay Area locations, spanning a range of cuisines. I looked at the dinner entrees listed on their menus, totaling 132 in all. Of these, only 17% (23) were vegetarian, while 26% (34) were beef or veal and 11% (14) were lamb, which are among the most emitting meats. That is, the choices we should narrow down the most outnumber the choices we should lean towards by 2:1. The rest of the entrees were 26% seafood (34), 15% chicken (20) and 5% pork (7).
It’s far from scientific, but it fits my impression that vegetarian entrees are often an afterthought. (1) Although salad dishes are vegetarian or easy to prepare, dinner options should go beyond a cold salad. The pizzas, burritos, and fried rice are also easily vegetarian, but I wanted to look at more varied entree options. I was wondering if the restaurants were holding back the vegetarian options because they felt they couldn’t charge much for those dishes, but the prices were in the mix of other entrees, and I even noticed a vegetarian entree at 70 $ incorporating truffles (not at any of the $$ ten restaurants).
Vegetarian food can be delicious and varied:
Palo Alto Local 271 offers local butternut squash, apple and sage risotto with truffle oil and parmesan shavings.
Broadway Masala in Redwood City offers fig and walnut koftas: “figs and walnuts stuffed into paneer dumplings and served in an aromatic sauce.”
Pleasanton’s Tri-Valley Bistro offers a fried polenta cake “topped with red bell pepper, grilled eggplant, portabella mushroom, winter squash, cotija cheese, asparagus, creamy roasted pepper sauce and Parmesan cheese “.
Joya restaurant in Palo Alto offers a wild mushroom paella, with “saffron rice, roasted red onions, piquillo peppers, English peas, fennel and asparagus”.
Timber & Salt in Redwood City offers homemade potato gnocchi with “Rugosa butternut squash, charred onions, Brussels sprouts, poached pears, candied pecans.”
Fig Walnut Kofta at Broadway Masala in Redwood City
With so many options, why are vegetarian dishes rare on menus? Maybe it’s because people don’t choose them. But I wonder, is this a chicken and egg situation? If half the menu reflected a range of appealing and sophisticated vegetarian options, would it still be true that people didn’t enjoy them and didn’t come back? There are so many ways to make delicious appetizers from vegetables, whether roasting or braising or searing or…. Servers might talk about it (“customers seem to like this new option”) to help get some traction.
I’m probably asking too much, but I’d really like to see places with that kind of influence help the rest of us. Who better to help modernize our eating habits than a local restaurant?
Have you recently eaten a good vegetarian meal at a restaurant? What do you think of your local restaurant options? Have you discussed this with the owner or the chef? I would love to hear about your experience.
Notes and References
1. Indian restaurants are a notable exception, as many Indians are vegetarians.
Current climate data (February 2022)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, climate dashboard
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