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Being vegetarian often means ordering the typical garden salad at some chain restaurant, only to find bacon bits dumped all over limp greens. Or getting the annoyed look from friends (and waiters) when you ask if the broccoli and cheese soup is made with chicken stock.
Whether you're seeking a romantic evening with a vegetarian sweetheart, drinks and appetizers with a vegan co-worker or you just want something more than the mundane, this list offers a few time-tested options for safe vegetarian dining.
Also consider The Nile, Thai Diner, the Jerk Pit and Aladdin's, among others with strong vegetarian followings. Ipanema Café
917 W. Grace St., 213-0190
Ipanema caters not just to vegetarians but to foodies in general. The chef is constantly changing the chalkboard menu to emphasize fresh vegetables, tofu, grains and flavor. Discover seasonal dishes such as the tofu pot pie with carrots, peas and celery, baked over mashed and grilled veggies, and paired with organic wine.
The staff is well-informed, helpful and attentive. And it's not unusual to see the owner working behind the bar, in the kitchen or serving tables.
The best time to dine is during the "wine down hours" Sunday-Thursday, 5-7 p.m. for $2 glasses. This also avoids the Tecate-guzzling crowd and the smoke cloud that hits after 10 p.m. $$Panda Veg
948 W. Grace St., 359-6688
This all-vegan Chinese restaurant offers a buffet on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings between 5 and 10 with spicy mock General Tso's chicken, fried rice, vegetable lo mein, doughnuts, mock beef and vegetables. Be sure to arrive right before 5 to get a good seat and fresh entrees.
Weekdays mean lunch specials with soup, rice, crispy spring roll and some traditional (or unusual) entrees for less than $8. The chef's specials are worth the extra buck, too. Try the double-cooked mock Peking duck, big enough for two, served with a side of moo shu pancakes, stir-fried veggies and hoisin sauce. Just be careful how many plates of the deep-fried goodies you eat -- soy fried is still deep-fried.
Check out Panda Veg's sister restaurants, China Panda in the Museum District and the West End, for delivery and takeout options. $821 Bakery Café
821 W. Cary St., 649-1042
The best vegetarian breakfast in town until 5 p.m. daily, except Mondays when the restaurant's closed. With mimosas, veggie sausage biscuits and gravy, portabella brie wraps as well as daily specials, this is a great brunch place. It's also a first choice for casual dinner with friends for vegan pasta or an eggplant Parmesan sub with choice of vegan chili, orzo or fries.
Unfortunately for some diners, the eclectic café's rotating artwork, great service and energy do not make up for the overwhelming crowd of perpetually smoking 20-somethings, or the lack of Bloody Marys. $Harrison Street Coffee Shop
402 N. Harrison St., 359-8060
With organic and fair trade coffee in a smoke-free environment, it's no wonder this is a meeting place for local artists, poets and musicians. Enjoy board games, Pac-man, books and a 100 percent vegetarian menu with options to make anything vegan.
The tempeh Reuben, with vegan Thousand Island, marinated tempeh, Swiss and sauerkraut on toasted rye bread, comes with a side of chips and is worth the fight for a parking space. Vegan baked goods as well as breakfast in the morning. $Crossroads Coffee and Ice Cream
26 N. Morris St., 355-3559
In the spot formerly occupied by World Cup, this shop near Virginia Commonwealth University offers bagels, tempeh bacon, vegan chicken salads, wraps, soups, salads and pizzas. There's always some new variation of lunch or dinner on the large menu, and specials change daily.
The homemade ice cream alone is reason to stop by, but the coffee, free wi-fi, vegetarian goodies and rotating local art make it a daily stop for some students and professors. It's the kind of place where the barista knows your name, the patio is smoke-free and the adjacent dog park is full of friendly faces. $Edo's Squid
411 N. Harrison St., 864-5488
Make reservations for Friday night and plan to wait anyway it's worth it. Try the broccoletti from the antipasto section. For primo, or the first course, try the creamy Gorgonzola penne with fresh peas. Vegan options are available with key ingredients such as fennel, lentils, asparagus or arugula and without the sass of eating at Mamma 'Zu. You can still get some of the best pasta around at a good price while keeping your meat-eating friends happy with daily specials such as duck and lamb. $$Sticky Rice
2232 W. Main St., 358-7870
Sticky is home to Cannon Ball Run, karaoke and piko (trivia) too, so this is where people go to get rowdy and enjoy unusual vegetarian and vegan sushi rolls such as the GI Jane, the Hot Hippie or the Tofu Max. Try the Garden Balls or Shiitake Happens for appetizers.
Wear your heels and show your tattoos this is a scenester showcase. The sake, beer and wine list isn't bad either, and the projector is always playing something ridiculous, from unique music videos to the deleted puppet sex scenes from "Team America." $Ellwood Thompson's
4 N. Thompson St., 359-7525
The natural food store has one of the best salad bars around for vegetarians and vegans. Vegan goddess dressing with faux bacon bits and vegan Parmesan cheese are reason enough to check it out, but with grilled tofu, bean mixes and fruit, this is a good weekly spot for lunch. The outside tables are a nice place to people-watch or meet fellow earth-conscious friends.
Try the vegan chicken salad sandwiches, fake steak or vegan egg salad, prepackaged in the deli section. Also, check out the vegan baked goods. $Cous Cous
900 W. Franklin St., 358-0868
Tucked in the lobby of an apartment building near Shafer Court, decadent mango martinis, saganaki (flaming sheep's-milk cheese) and hummus await diners in an elegant Mediterranean/Moroccan setting. This is a perfect spot for a romantic liaison, anniversary or change of scenery. Split one of the three flavors of sangria and try several familia meze, or family/small plates. The menu changes seasonally, but the tagine with slow-cooked tofu is aromatic and original. Go with a friend for late-night dining and stay for the bar scene or music trivia nights. $$Mekong
6004 W. Broad St., 288-8929
This Vietnamese restaurant is a favorite of vegans, businessmen, wedding parties and those regular folk seeking an authentic Asian restaurant that's not Chinese.
The Do's of Mekong: Go in a group of six. Get a volcano or two or three to share. Order the grilled tofu platter as an appetizer. This gluten-free dish comes with a dozen steamed rice pancakes, lightly deep-fried and grilled tofu, peanut sauce on the side, fresh basil, carrots and rice noodles. Make little Vietnamese-style spring rolls for everyone at the table. Order entrees from the vegetable section. Pass the clay-pot tofu, basil vegetables and rice bowl around to everyone via the lazy Susan.
The Don'ts of Mekong: Don't assume the seemingly vegetarian soups aren't made with chicken stock. I ask every time and get a different answer. Instead, opt for fried bananas after your meal if you still have room. $$Zed Café
5109 Lakeside Ave., 261-5656
A recent addition to the Richmond vegetarian scene now has a time-tested chef. Bill Foster creates dishes using organic, local and fair trade ingredients. The modern restaurant, with rotating art in a clean and upscale atmosphere, offers cloth napkins even at lunch. Try a 16-ounce elixir made behind the bar to boost protein and energy. At lunch the sandwiches and paninis come with sweet-potato fries or mixed greens with a house vinaigrette. A children's menu is available, too. Dinner vegetarian entrees are a little limited, but daily specials and a changing menu create more options for a frequent diner. Libations include juices, coffees, beer and wine as diverse as the menu. $$Relish,
101 S. 15th Street, 648-2233
How about an Arnold Palmer with black tea and homemade lemonade to go with your Thai peanut wrap? (Save room for the gelato.) Relish is a stylish spot that caters to vegans, vegetarians and meat lovers alike with a constantly changing menu. (The meat is all-natural as well as hormone- and antibiotic-free.)
An excellent salad bar features three daily soups: one meat, one seafood and one vegetarian. Also, the international hot bar has daily themes such as Southwestern, Thai, Greek or Indian, always with some vegetarian offerings like coconut curry tofu. After the sandwiches and other treats, their greatest asset is the friendly and involved staff.
Some of the bakery items are vegan ask about muffins. Beverages include teas, coffee, bottled sodas, beer and wine. And yes, Relish does have a breakfast that can be made with veggie sausage. Also check out the boxed lunches. This place is just getting started but is sure to finish at the top of vegetarian spots around town. Closed weekends. Offers private parties and catering. $TJ's at the Jefferson Hotel
101 W. Franklin St., 649-4672
Although chef Jannequin Bennett, a vegetarian authority, has left for Ellwood Thompson's, many of her signature dishes remain on TJ's menu. It's one of the few fine-dining spots in Richmond with a wait staff trained to use vocabulary such as "gluten-free," "vegan" and "vegetarian" without disdain; the computers even have keys for guests' dietary needs.
Try the gnocchi stuffed with sweet potato, walnuts and roasted shallots, the monk's curry or the portabella Napoleon for the less adventurous. This is a top pick for graduation dinner with the sirloin-loving parents, or for wine tasting with appetizers to impress the in-laws on a Thursday evening. Come for lunch, dinner or the Sunday champagne brunch. $$ SClick here for more Food & Drink