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By Sherry Listgarten

Would you like more/better veggie options at your local restaurants?

Uploaded: Apr 3, 2022

I’ve been trying to eat less meat and cook more vegetarian dinners at home, but my range of veggie cooking is not so good yet. When friends suggested a few places for a dinner out recently, I thought I could get some inspiration from local chefs. But a quick scan of the online menus was underwhelming.

The first place had fourteen entrees but only two were vegetarian, and one of those was an omelet (?!) That was a “bar and grill” restaurant, so I thought it might be a special case. I looked at the dinner menu for the second. Out of ten options, only one was veggie (“crispy tofu”). The third wasn’t much different. Huh? There are an awful lot of vegetables out there. Why the dearth of vegetarian entrees?

Vegetarian dish at Menlo Park’s Flea Street Cafe

It’s more than idle curiosity. Restaurants have a lot of influence over what we eat. They can encourage us to try new foods or different preparations, and evolve our eating habits. As many of you know, the typical meat-heavy American diet is very high in emissions; by eating more vegetarian meals 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 feeding livestock (!). CarbonBrief reported a few years ago that there are three chickens in the world for every person, and the total weight of the animals that we are raising for meat is 15x the mass of all the world’s wildlife. We could certainly 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 leading the way? To get some rough numbers, I used OpenTable to identify ten popular, moderately-priced ($$) restaurants in locations around the Bay Area, covering a range of cuisines. I looked at the dinner entrees listed on their menus, totalling 132 in all. Of those, only 17% (23) were vegetarian, while 26% (34) were beef or veal and 11% (14) were lamb, which are among the highest-emissions meats. That is, the choices that we should most be reducing out-number the choices we should be leaning into by 2:1. The rest of the entrees were 26% seafood (34), 15% chicken (20), and 5% pork (7).

This is far from scientific, but it matches my impression that veggie entrees are often an afterthought. (1) While salad dishes are vegetarian, or easily made so, dinner options should go beyond a cold salad. Pizza, burritos, and fried rice are also easily made vegetarian, but I wanted to look at more varied entree options. I wondered if restaurants were holding back on veggie 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 $70 vegetarian entree incorporating truffles (not at one of the ten $$ restaurants).

Vegetarian food can be delicious and varied:

Local Union 271 in Palo Alto offers a local butternut squash/apple/sage risotto with truffle oil and shaved parmesan.

Broadway Masala in Redwood City offers fig and walnut kofta: “fig and walnut stuffed in paneer dumplings and served in aromatic sauce”.

Tri-Valley Bistro in Pleasanton offers a fried polenta cake “layered with red bell pepper, grilled eggplant, portabella mushroom, winter squash, cotija cheese, asparagus, creamy roasted bell pepper sauce & 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 housemade potato gnocchi with “butternut Rugosa squash, charred onions, Brussels sprouts, poached pears, candied pecans”.

Fig and walnut kofta at Broadway Masala in Redwood City

With so many options, why are vegetarian entrees scarce on menus? Maybe it’s because people aren’t choosing them. But I wonder, is it a chicken-and-egg situation? If half the menu reflected a range of appealing and sophisticated vegetarian options, would it still be the case that people weren’t enjoying them and coming back? There are so many ways to make delicious entrees out of vegetables, whether roasting or braising or searing or …. The waiters could talk them up (“customers seem to enjoy this new option”) to help get some traction.

I’m probably asking too much, but I would really like to see places with this kind of influence helping the rest of us out. Who better to help modernize our eating habits than a local restaurant?

Have you had a great vegetarian meal at a restaurant recently? What do you think of the options at your local restaurants? Have you talked about it with the owner or chef? I’d love to hear about your experience.

Notes and References
1. A notable exception is Indian restaurants because many Indians are vegetarians.

Current Climate Data (February 2022)
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