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

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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.

* * *

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. Here, these people can help.

    http://www.vegparadise.com/

    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. 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.

          2. Yes, you're right. If one is not willing to drop big bucks on pork belly or beef, they really aren't looking for your business. We're just not in fashion at the moment. I can live with that. No Tracht's (Long Beach) for me.

            1. I think the fancy meats are a trend at chef-driven, big name restaurants. Remember that in this body conscious area there have been plenty of awful attempts at vegetarian restaurants; fortunately I'm an omnivore and mentally block out memories of them :-).
              I always think ethnic when I want to eat tasty vegetables. Middle eastern - falafel, hummus, baba ghanoush, lentil salad, and more. Southern Indian - dosas and idlis, oh my.
              Gotta go, I'm hungry again......

              4 Replies
              1. re: DiveFan

                And don't forget Korean tofu soup.

                1. re: mlgb

                  Korean tofu soup isn't vegetarian! It's almost made of some sort of stock--fish, pork, beef--and often has bits of pork or shellfish in it as well.

                  Sorry, hate to burst your bubble, but most kimchi isn't strictly vegetarian either. Most recipes use fish sauce or even whole oysters.

                  1. re: AppleSister

                    I'm not a strict vegetarian and eat fish, for heath reasons I want to eat something other than a gut-busting, artery-clogging, ass-plumping 2 pound slab of red meat. I usually get a fish stew or the tofu soup with clams etc. Are those always made with beef and pork?

                    Not claiming to be Korean food expert so thanks for the clarification.

                    1. re: mlgb

                      Fish stews will have a fish stock. The stock for tofu soup can range from anchovies to clams to beef to chicken, so you should ask if it's important to you. Tofu soup traditionally also has pieces of pork in it, but I know the big LA chain has so many varieties, they may just omit it in the one they call "seafood." Also, keep in mind that your statement that you don't eat meat may not be understood as excluding meat stock, too. I was once in SF at a beloved Italian restaurant, and when my friend asked if there was meat in the soup, the waitress replied, "No, only a little proscuitto for flavoring," and this was SF!

                      I love tofu and grew up eating it, but most Asians who eat it regularly don't think of it as a meat substitute, and so you can't assume that something with tofu is meatless.

                      And I'm all for the kind of vegetarianism that's okay with a little bit of meat :)

              2. I feel your pain - as a veggie and someone professionally involved with the restaurant industry, the lack of veggie options makes me crazy. I honestly don't consider pasta or risotto to be a suitable veggie entree (I can make those at home!) and I'm shocked at lack of imagination in so many chefs when it comes to non-animal protein. Too many times I've had to make due with creating a meal out of sides and I don't understand how restaurants think that this is an OK way to treat customers. I've called ahead to restaurants to let them know I'm a veggie if I'm going with a group and they often do provide something special, but it's generally pasta with veggies, or on occasion, a plate of plain grilled veggies. There are some restaurants that do fabulous, interesting and varied vegetarian entrees, like Grace or Melisse, and I wish there were more!

                I just went to Fraiche, and the menu on the website had a vegetarian entree, but when we went there, it was taken off - so maybe it wasn't selling.

                2 Replies
                1. re: artichokey

                  You're right, one or two pasta or risotto dishes IS a cop-out and yet, these days, that seems to be the upper limit of what newer restaurants are willing to put on the menu.

                  Chaya Venice's crispy fried tempeh dish is one of the most delicious things I've gotten anywhere. Why isn't it "cool" for other chefs to do things like this? It's not like having that on the menu doesn't leave room for the zillions of meat and sushi options at Chaya. I really don't get it.

                  1. re: artichokey

                    One of my favorite dishes at Fraiche is vegetarian -- the farro salad.

                  2. No sympathy for the "Veggie's".
                    Dining is a sensual, decadant experience and most "diners" are open to trying it ALL.
                    In my everyday life, I eat very healthy, rarely prepare meat dishes, love to cook fish, can't live without colorful fruits and veggies...when I go out, I want flavor, taboo experiences, things that I will not do at home...dining is my "naughty/filthy" time, the time to "soil my temple"...and if I'm gonna do that, it better be worth it....it's like doing nasty things in a Hotel...let someone else clean up the mess.
                    The majority of diners want meat, fat, (Fat IS Flavor!!! animal fat is tasty) and something exciting. Animals are tasty and exciting and rest. are not just around to give you a great experience, they are here to make money...the chef needs to pay his/her rent...so, money speaks, the majority of people who "dine" eat adventuously, so they cater to who comes in...85-95% non-veggies.
                    Call ahead and ask for an exception or open something veggie friendly if you think there are so many out there who could support a place like that.

                    9 Replies
                    1. re: tatertotsrock

                      Somehow I don't think that adding one or two vegetarian dishes to the menu would get in the way of a chef's ability to pay his/her rent.

                      There's a big difference between "catering to" and "accommodating." And the concepts are by no means mutually exclusive. It's entirely possible to cater to the meat-eating population (which I am well aware is the dominant one) while still *accommodating* the vegetarian one. (Or, shocking as it may seem, the meat-eating population who -- GASP! -- actually might prefer to eat meatless once in a while.)

                      If I ever do have the opportunity and means to open a restaurant, I will make it a point to serve an interesting and delicious array of carnivorous entrees alongside the meatless ones. Because I have this crazy idea that it would be possible to be successful without excluding anyone.

                      1. re: nick_r

                        Have you been to Grace?
                        The chef does amazing veggie freindly dishes that I also love.
                        It is rare to find veggie friendly places and unfortunately, the ones in LA, I do not care for.
                        I love to eat clean, fresh, and sometimes meat-less food, but I have yet to find a place that has food of "dining quality" along those lines.
                        Maybe someday one will exist.
                        I have to say, once, in Tempe, AZ, I stumbled across a place that had these amazing soups-couldn't get enough...great entree's-so delicious...took me 3 time to realize I was eating at a veganvegetarian place...so, there are some chefs that can create flavorful food that is not covered in Braggs and full of TVP..I agree, you'd think that they'd be in LA..hmm, makes you wonder, I am sure most yummy veggie chefs are living in happier, "greener" locations and are far away from our LA rat-race.

                        1. re: tatertotsrock

                          Grace is a favorite destination within my restaurant dinner club because Chef Fraser always does a veggie tasting menu for one diner while the rest get the regular tasting menu. I'm omnivorous, but I've always thought about ordering the veggie tasting menu myself. I imagine that it would be of the same high quality.

                          1. re: tatertotsrock

                            Really not necessary since there are plenty of nice options in Artesia (Indian), South Bay (Japanese), and Buena Park (Korean). And my favorite local Thai place has wonderful papaya salad and makes all of their stir fry dishes with a tofu option. I just avoid the restaurants with trendy artery-clogging "New American" menus. Happily, I'm not a westsider.

                            1. re: mlgb

                              Depending on how strict a vegetarian you are, you may want to be careful around Thai food because of the fish sauce.

                          2. re: nick_r

                            hmm. i've found that trying to keep everyone happy generally results in no one being happy.

                            i would expect that the menu of any dining establishment would reflect the strengths of the chef(s)' training as well as their own personal philosophies - which is their prerogative - tempered by the need to be able to remain in business by turning a profit. (i had a manager who was fond of reminding us that you could make the world's greatest horses--t sandwich...)

                            i would further expect that a head chef's training would be centered around preparations of meat vs. emphasizing meatless cooking. so it seems to me that it would require a pretty strong philosophical leaning to prioritize one's effort to designing/creating meatless entrees that are also not gastronomically inferior to any other entree on the menu; aesthetic reasons may influence a decision not to include the equivalent of a kids' menu selection for non-meat eaters.

                            any choice i would make to accommodate a customer preference i have no particular philosophical affinity for would be based solely on business reasons. i suspect that most business owners feel that way. of course, if you were an a-list celebrity whose patronage would have a huge impact on business... but most of us don't fall into that category.

                            would you insist that every BBQ joint include a meatless option on their menu?

                            1. re: barryc

                              Like I said, I'm not talking about sushi bars or steakhouses -- or BBQ joints, for that matter. I'm talking about places that purport to offer Californian/New American cuisine and yet can't even offer a SALAD that doesn't have meat on it.

                              High-quality vegetarian entrees have been a staple of California cuisine since the day Alice Waters came on the scene. They're not a concession. They're not a kid's menu. They're a creative culinary expression of our state's top-notch reputation for fresh and delicious produce -- slightly more creative, in my opinion, than flying expensive beef over from Japan.

                              1. re: nick_r

                                AMEN!!!!!

                          3. re: tatertotsrock

                            Another possibility for lack of veggie main courses - poor selection of product. I can't go into the wholesale places, but for instance Smart and Final caters to small restaurants and has a TERRIBLE selection. The big supermarkets in California could have smaller selections of veggies than 30 years ago e.g. lifestyle trend.
                            For my 'sensual' dining experience I'd like just a few of those thousands of Latino immigrant cooks to rediscover their veggie rich heritage (and say, read a few Eat_Nopal posts :-). Roasting the commonly available veggies on a grill isn't that prep intensive or time consuming either. A lot of the problem is failure to educate and to entice the customer with something different yet familiar.

                          4. i can't speak to the restaurants you mentioned, but i can say that i was served a terrific vegetarian meal at chaya venice the other night.. . . .

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: westsidegal

                              Was it the crispy tempeh? That's one of my favorite veggie dishes in town.

                              1. re: nick_r

                                yup.
                                it was absolutely delicious.

                            2. Be glad you are not a vegan. Or, as I am, a meat eater who eschews dairy.

                              Everything (it seems) is cooked in butter. Cheese seems to be sprinkled on everything. I can't order a dish in a Mexican restaurant without cheese being sprinkled on the beans.

                              I was a vegan for 14 years. I knew the score and didn't really expect accommodation from the rest of the world, even restaurants. The funny thing is, even though I now eat meat, simply trying to go no dairy is very difficult.

                              Butter is spread on toast, food cooked in butter, cheese on everything is so common that even when I specify, cooks/chefs forget ... I'm so used to it by now, I don't even consider forgetting bad service ...

                              8 Replies
                              1. re: PaulF

                                I probably would be a vegan if it weren't for the trials and tribulations you describe. And also, if I weren't so fanatic about cheese.

                                I'm sure you've thought of this, but kosher restaurants are a good choice for avoiding dairy. Recently I went to Pat's on Pico/Robertson, which was quite good considering the many margarine substitutions.

                                1. re: nick_r

                                  You know, I never thought of that ...

                                  I'm not kidding ... but it's a great idea ...

                                  I just thought of a good example of what I was talking about above ...

                                  Today, I ate lunch in Samosa House, a vegetarian Indian restaurant. I ordered dishes with no dairy and specified "no raita" on my plate -- no yogurt.

                                  Of course, the naan came smeared with butter. It's just done automatically.

                                  1. re: PaulF

                                    i go to samosa house several times a week.
                                    they are more than happy to make the roti (i've never seen them serve naan) for me "no oil, no butter."
                                    also, they are very good about telling me the ingredient list for all the foods about which i ask.
                                    most indian restaurants use WAY more butter in their cooking. samosa house is very unusual in that they primarily use olive oil (i've actually gone in their kitchen and checked.)

                                2. re: PaulF

                                  Go to a Chinese restaurant. We don't do dairy.

                                  1. re: sidwich

                                    Not sure it's a good idea. Are these the same kind of Chinese restaurants I'm thinking about? Here's a conversation I asked the waiter:

                                    "Is it vegetarian?"

                                    "Yes."

                                    "Does it have fish or shrimp?"

                                    "Yes."

                                    Just an aside: in other parts of the world where I grew up, a vegetarian is what you might call someone who's too poor to buy meat. So the idea of spending a lot of money to eat at a "gourmet" restaurant and choosing to NOT have meat (which IMO contributes the most flavor) has always puzzled me.

                                    It's a lifestyle choice. To each his own.

                                    1. re: WBGuy

                                      Well, for me it's a lifestyle choice but also an ethical one. But this isn't the place to get into that in detail, so I won't.

                                      Interesting point about vegetarians other places being too poor to buy meat. That's definitely not the case in most of America, where a poor upbringing generally means lots of meat and few vegetables.

                                      1. re: nick_r

                                        Actually, if you go to the truly impoverished parts of the US, the majority of diet is carbohydrates like potatoes and corn. Meat is considered a big prize to be stretched as far as possible.

                                      2. re: WBGuy

                                        My response was to the poster who asked about non-dairy dining options which included both vegetarian and meat-eating. I don't recommend your average Chinese restaurant for vegetarians for the reasons you state.

                                  2. I have never understood LA's reputation as veg-friendly. Lived there, visit there annually and I have always had to really seek out veggie options. Even places that SAY they can do vegetarian often have very pedestrian options.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: lobolady

                                      to lobolady: I would think that the reputation of L.A. as veg-friendly comes, to a large extent, from the support of consumers (and chefs) for incredible farmers markets, and more generally speaking, from having an impressive selection of fruits and vegetables in both small and super markets 12 months a year...

                                    2. Craft and Providence have been covered by other posters. Abode does do a vegetarian tasting menu (look where the tasting menu is listed when you go, towards the bottom) and on Wed (like many restaurants in the city) usually features a few vegetarian courses due to the Santa Monica Farmers Market (this applies to the chefs who shop it.)

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: brunello

                                        Nook has two vegetarian casseroles on the menu at all times. They also have a yummy mac & cheese - I've had this with a Caesar & it makes a nice dinner (it's not heavy). There are a lot of vegan Thai restaurants around now. Not fancy, of course, but I am thrilled to have a selection of soups I know are meat-free. A new Pitfire Pizza just opened on Westwood & La Grange; so far everything I've had is deelish, & there are good veggie choices. I think their Margherita pizza rivals Mozza's, & I'm not kidding (it's only $6.95). Of course, there are always the Persian places. For more high-end dining, I usually stick to Italian - usually more choices.

                                      2. I think we're still seeing the fallout from Low-carb diets reflected in protein heavy restaurant menus.

                                        I've been especially disappointed over the past few years with the disappearing vegetarian items at Whole Foods' hot food bar, deli, and prepared foods section. If there is one place where you'd expect vegetable soups and dishes to be prepared without meat stock... not to mention their emphasis on meat centered entrees.

                                        Even the tofu festival had little to offer vegetarians. You can see a full report at
                                        http://meatlessinla.blogspot.com/

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: meatlessinla

                                          Oops, this is my second posting on Chowhound. I'm sorry I didn't follow proper posting etiquette. Now I know.

                                          Have you tried La Cachette? The chef used to hold Friday night vegan full course dinners. They still have several vegan items on the menu (notified as vegan) and the chef is always happy to create a vegan or vegetarian meal and has an arsenal of vegan sauces and purees in the kitchen. It find it ironic that they've become so vegetarian sensitive since I ate there 12 years ago and the chef offered to make a vegetarian plate (off the menu since there was nothing vegetarian on the menu at the time) and I was served a plate of steamed vegetables. They were beautifully presented but I could have stayed home for that!

                                          -----
                                          La Cachette Bistro
                                          1733 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90401

                                        2. With the stunning array of vegetables so easily available in Southern California year-round, I feel that any creative chef in LA should be able to offer at least a few vegetarian options. I've only been here a few years, so I can't vouch for what it used to be like, but I do know that whenever my co-workers want to exercise the company credit card by going out for a meal, they invariably pick a steakhouse. Maybe there's some sort of underlying snobbery (on the chefs' and consumers' parts) about vegetables being less expensive, and therefore less of an "occasion."

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: katydid13

                                            I don't think it has anything to do with snobbery. Maybe it has to do with personal thriftiness or the realities of most people's lives. Prime cuts of beef sell for around $20 per lb. at a good meat market. If it's something you enjoy eating, unless you are rich, the only time you are going to indulge in it is on a special occasion or on the office dime. If anything, it has to do with the reality of the price of quality beef/meat/seafood, not the "snobbery" people might seem to relate to it. Even beautiful, high-quality, locally-grown vegetables in their peak condition that you can buy from the best farmer's market in town are not going to come close to the price of quality beef. (Thank god, or we'd all starve!) But it's sort of understandable that people who enjoy meat (or lobster, or crab, or oysters) are going to want to eat things they can't afford in their daily lives on the company's dime. I for one rarely will pay for a $40 steak at a place like Cut or Arnie Morton's personally, but I'd be happy to eat it if somebody else was paying.

                                            You could be right that people have not yet associated top quality produce as being worthy of the same kind of devotion as people give to high-quality meat/seafood. But then again, there are things like truffles that inspire even more devotion than almost any meat. But I diverge. I think the rarity is more important to most people than the price. While people do pay $2-3 per tomato at the farmer's market for perfect tomatoes, in the ordinary person's life, quality protein is much rarer, more expensive and harder to come by than quality produce (as it rightfully should be, when you consider the impact on the oceans and the land to raise it, it should be more expensive). YMMV.

                                            1. re: DanaB

                                              You make a good point, but given all the prep time involved in working with vegetables, I am far less likely to do a creative vegetarian dish at home than I am to cook a steak or chicken. (I basically live on salads.) My steaks are nowhere near as good as Arnie Morton's, but nevertheless I can and do cook steaks at home. When I go out to eat, I'm more interested in sampling stuff I can't or won't take the time to do on my own.