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Aug 16, 2007 12:35 PM

Is gourmet L.A. out to get vegetarians? (long)

I just posted this on my blog. It's a bit of a rant but I think it's reasonably warranted. I'm wondering whether other vegetarians (and pescetarians, and omnivores, and so forth) agree with my POV.

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Up until recently I would have staunchly defended L.A. as one of the most vegetarian-friendly cities on the planet. Sure, it would have finished slightly below your Berkeleys or your New Delhis, but it would have been right up there. I might even have gone so far to say that vegetarians are finally starting to hold some of the high cards in the giant Texas Hold'Em game of the foodie culture.

Well, not so much anymore. If we had, say, pocket jacks a few years ago, right now we're down to maybe a queen-three. Meanwhile, our carnivorous brethren are getting Ace-King after Ace-King.

What's the deal? And why did I feel the need to keep that poker metaphor going for so long? I really don't know the answer to either of these questions. I just know that it feels to me like vegetarians are slowly being shown the door by the gourmet community. Maybe they've figured out that they can still pack the house without catering to us, or maybe meatless is no longer chic in their circle. Whatever the reason, it sucks.

Let's get specific. Providence and Craft. Two of the hippest, hottest, hardest-to-get-into restaurants in L.A. right now; both opened within the past year or so. Both of them also feature exactly zero vegetarian dishes. Not a single one. Not even a token angel hair pasta with diced tomato and basil (the fancy restaurateur's equivalent to the undercooked Gardenburger). Neither of these places is a steakhouse or sushi bar; they're both in the category of New American cuisine, and from my perspective the New America has a reasonable number of deep-pocketed vegetarians, but I guess the chefs disagree. Fraiche, not quite as scene-y but nonetheless a cornerstone of the Culver City Gentrification Project, squeaks by with one pasta dish (ravioli with English pea and mint). Ketchup, the fun new place for us kids to drop a ton of dough, has every kind of fancy-ass burger except the veggie kind. But perhaps the greatest insult comes from Abode, the hot new "green" restaurant that trumpets its devotion to "sustainable artisanal cuisine" but offers only a single vegetarian appetizer (eggplant chorizo) and no entrees. Am I missing something, Abode? You could grow all the ingredients to make a kick-ass veggie dish on my balcony; isn't that slightly more sustainable than your cured meats and foie gras and oysters?

I like to think that I don't have unreasonable expectations. Sure, it would be nice to see a meatless establishment attract the same kind of scene and press as Cut or Katsuya, but I'm enough of a pragmatist to understand that you need a certain amount of meat and fish to bring in the masses. What I don't understand is why it's too much trouble for someone who calls him or herself a world-class chef to come up with just one or two veggie dishes that are as mindblowingly original and delicious as the rest of the omnivorous stuff on the menu.

Last fall Alexis and I had an awesome dinner at Saddle Peak Lodge. Not a ton of choices for us, obviously, but we still had excellent salads and great pasta dishes. Now, when a place with deer heads and antique rifles on the walls caters to vegetarians better than the latest and greatest place on Melrose, I think it's fair to say that something's a little amiss.

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    1. You're probably right -- meat is pretty chic right now, what with wagyu beef, pork belly and everything else. Top chefs are nearly always omnivores, and their menus reflect their palates.
      I love meat as much as anyone, but nearly every time I eat in a top restaurant I feel robbed of my veggies. I had an amazing filet mignon at a chi chi event catered by Patina, but the first course was crab salad and there was perhaps a tablespoon of spinach on the plate with the filet. Where's the fiber, folks?
      Fortunately, for nearly every Ketchup there's a Lucky Devils, for every Providence there's a Grace, etc...to some extent anyway.

      1. The original comment has been removed
        1. Have you thought about contacting Craft and Providence to ask if they can work with vegetarians? The fact they do not have a vegetarian entree does not mean they will not accommodate a vegetarian.

          I had a fabulous dinner at Postrio in Las Vegas where one of our vegetarians made an entree out of the sides that came with the meat- and fish-based entrees. I think that was much better than being stuck with pasta with tomato-basil sauce.

          1. While meat is in fashion right now, I'm not sure I understand your comments, especially about Craft, which has at least 25 side dishes (including myriad roasted mushroom and 4 different potato preparations, pasta dishes, and 12 different vegetable dishes) which at least appear to be vegetarian. Unless they are using chicken stock to prepare all of these, I'd say a vegetarian has a LOT more options at Craft than at most restaurants. The nature of the menu at Craft is that everything is a la carte, and even though there are no "Main Courses" that are vegetarian per se, there are many, many good options for a non-meat eater on the Craft menu.

            As for Providence, I wouldn't characterize it as anything other than a Seafood Restaurant. It might be popular and trendy, but it is not, as you say, a restaurant focusing on "New American Cuisine" -- per the restaurant bio, it's goal is to "offer an array of the world's premium wild seafood and shellfish presented in their purest and simplist form." I think it unfair to criticize a restaurant for fulfilling its stated mission.

            The above quote is from their website: http://www.providencela.com/

            As for Abode, I haven't eaten there yet and their menu is not online, so I can't comment, but I do think you wrongly focused on Craft and with Providence, you are singling out a place that *is* akin to a sushi bar or steakhouse, as their stated mission is to do seafood. Most of the top places in town that I've been *are* very vegetarian friendly -- I have two regular dining companions who are vegetarian, and among the new restaurants where they both really enjoyed their meals are Mozza and Hatfield, not to mention old standards like Lucques, Grace, AOC and Osteria Angelini.

            2 Replies
            1. re: DanaB

              I was going off of Craft's dinner menu that's posted on their site. I understand your point, but I really don't think I'm judging them unfairly. A side dish is a side dish; a main dish is a main dish. Yes, I could go there and order a bunch of vegetables and mix them up into something interesting... but that's not anywhere near the same thing as the chef offering and preparing a legitimate vegetarian dish (which can be found at plenty of other places with much, much smaller menus than Craft).

              But I didn't realize that Providence was truly a seafood restaurant. Zagat has them categorized as "American (New)," which I guess is incorrect.

              1. re: nick_r

                Actually, the original point of the Craft menu was to allow people to mix and match to create their own combinations. I think you might be pleasantly surprised. Also, keep in mind that a lot of high end restaurants offer vegetarian tasting menus if you ask.