Eating out with dietary restrictions can be a hassle. As a former vegetarian with a newly gluten-free wife, I've encountered firsthand the difficulties of choosing restaurants that cater to diners with diet restrictions.
While vegetarianism and, increasingly, gluten-free diets are becoming more mainstream, vegans — those who eschew all animal products — have a tougher time. Butter hides in many restaurant dishes; cheese is a flavor and protein booster of choice for many vegetarian meals.
So I recently set out to find the best vegan dishes at nonvegetarian restaurants. Of course there are wonderful places that cater to vegans and vegetarians, including Ipanema Cafe, Fresca on Addison and Strange Matter. But here are three restaurants that don't specialize in meatless meals and nevertheless have worthy vegan offerings.
The fine dining choice: Stella's
Serving Greek cuisine means that olive oil, not butter, is the fat of choice for cooking, which means there are a number of vegan dishes on the menu at Stella's. There are some classics, such as hummus and tabouleh ($8) served with vegan pita bread, and dolmas (skip the tzatziki, $8). Melitzanosalata ($5) is a roasted eggplant dip similar to baba ghanouj but without the tahini. Roasted beets ($7) are fantastic, served with olive oil, lemon and raw garlic; there's a bright acidic punch to match the earthiness of the beets.
Beyond sides and appetizers, the lentil soup ($5/$7) is a comforting, if not exciting, tomato-based and mildly spiced version of this classic. The bowl portion is enough for a meal. At lunch an artichoke and hummus sandwich ($8) is served with piquant Kalamata olives and sweet, roasted red peppers. Or if you want a hot meal, briami ($12) is a braised medley of squash, eggplant, tomato, peppers and potato. On one visit I had the eggplant dip, beets, and artichoke and hummus sandwich — all of which delightfully rely on raw garlic for seasoning, and I offended everyone with my breath the rest of the day. Plan your meals, or your day, accordingly.
1012 Lafayette St.
Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m.
Friday: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-11 p.m.
Saturday: 5-11 p.m.
Sunday: 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
The comfort food choice: 821 Cafe
At 821, meat lovers can order a one-pound burger served between two grilled cheese sandwiches, but there's also a vegan chicken salad sandwich on the menu. If it's bar or comfort food, 821 probably has it in meat and veggie forms. The vegan chili fries ($4) are enormous, a perfect drinking companion to soak up excess alcohol from 821's well-chosen taps. Fried artichoke hearts ($8) aren't elegant, but they're strangely habit-forming with a classic crunchy exterior and creamy interior, served with a spicy sweet chili sauce.
And as long as we're sticking with fried and unhealthy, the buffalo tofu ($7) has been a favorite of mine since before it was on the regular menu. Beer-battered tofu is covered in buffalo sauce and served on a roll with lettuce, tomato and vegan mayonaise. The house-made veggie burger ($7.25) feels healthier, with black beans, sweet potatoes and quinoa, a South American grainlike seed, making up the patty, with an avocado for a topping. Though the patty could be firmer, the subtle flavors strike a nice balance of sweet and savory with a hint of garlic. 821 offers an extensive vegan menu with breakfast choices, appetizers, sandwiches, salads and pasta.
825 W. Cary St.
Monday-Wednesday: 8 a.m.-10 p.m.
Thursday-Friday: 8 a.m.-11 p.m.
Saturday: 9 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sunday: 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
The international choice: the Nile
The Nile has been serving Richmond's best authentic Ethiopian consistently since 2006. And while I often go in for yebeg alicha, akin to curry lamb, and doro wat, spicy stewed chicken, there's also an extensive vegetarian menu. Vegans rejoice, the menu clearly announces: "All dishes are totally vegan," which gives you 10 entrees from which to choose.
My recommendation? Get the vegetarian sampler ($15) and choose five of those 10 dishes. For Ethiopian food neophytes, the food is served with injera, a gluten-free, spongy flat bread, which you break off in pieces to use as your utensil. My favorites are the atkilt (cabbage), gomen (collard greens) and yemisir wat, a lentil stew cooked with the ubiquitous berbere spice mix, giving the dish both earthy and spicy notes. The mushroom tibs replicate the cooking and seasoning style of many of the meat dishes and are worth trying. If you order with a meat-eating friend, be sure to specify whether you want your food separated. Ethiopian food usually is served all on one plate. S
Nile Ethiopian Restaurant
309 N. Laurel St.
Lunch: Saturday-Sunday, noon-3 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Sunday-Monday: 5-9 p.m.
Bar open nightly until 2 a.m.