Young and Hungry

‘Shroom for Improvement: The Politics of the Vegetarian Entree

The Politics of the Vegetarian Entree

Michael Landrum has been getting some flak lately over his portobello mushroom caps.

Landrum’s Arlington eatery, Ray’s the Steaks, offers a slew of entrées for diners to choose from, including 21 different plates of beef and four kinds of seafood dishes.

But, if you happen to be vegetarian, the ’shrooms, marinated in balsamic vinegar, grilled and plated on a recent evening with eggplant, broccoli, tomatoes, grilled onions, and blue cheese, are your one and only option.

As a guy who makes no bones about his meat-centric business, Landrum would hope that the meatless crowd could simply appreciate the effort. “We’re trying here,” he says.

To the contrary, he says, some people “take great offense that someone would dare offer grilled portobello mushroom as a vegetarian option, and that it’s somehow lacking.” Landrum is baffled by this. He notes, “Twenty years ago, 10 years ago, [the portobello] was the most exciting thing in the vegetarian world.”

To a beef-focused entrepreneur like Landrum, the portobello’s burger-like shape and meaty texture probably seems like a no-brainer. To the modern vegetarian diner, however, it seems like an afterthought, what with the farm-to-table movement elevating other produce—such as heirloom squash and purple cauliflower—to newfound prominence.

But appeasing the veg-heads was never really the point, Landrum says. Putting the standalone fungus on his steakhouse menu isn’t about attracting vegetarians at all. To the contrary, it’s about not losing steak eaters.

Landrum explains his single-veggie-entrée strategy like this: Say a family of five walks into his restaurant one night. Mom, dad, and two of the kids are all carnivores. But the third child doesn’t eat meat. If Landrum’s menu doesn’t cater to her tastes in some way, he risks losing the whole group. “I have five family members who otherwise wouldn’t be here,” he says.

There’s a term for this form of minority rule in dining. It’s called the vegetarian veto vote.

It’s an idea that Erica Meier talks up quite often. “It’s just the concept that when a group of people are choosing where to dine out, that the majority rarely rules,” says Meier, executive director of the Takoma Park-based nonprofit animal-rights group Compassion Over Killing. Part of Meier’s job involves lobbying local restaurants to include more meatless options on their menus. Earlier this year, her organization launched a new campaign providing comment cards that diners can casually leave alongside their bill to encourage restaurant managers to expand their menu offerings to include vegetarian and vegan dishes.

On a recent afternoon, Meier was on the phone with the manager of Julia’s Empanadas, asking the kitchen to trade in its traditional egg wash for an egg-free substitute in order to make the eatery’s vegetarian empanadas amenable to patrons who are following an even stricter vegan diet.

Meier takes credit for helping to convince some 35 Baltimore- and D.C.-area restaurants to create or enhance vegan menu options. For her purposes, the vegetarian veto vote is a persuasive part of the overall argument.

It’s not exactly an easy sell. Many chefs and restaurateurs are reluctant to forgo precious menu space on full-size plates of mushrooms and tofu—items traditionally viewed as loss leaders.

“I’ve only got six or so spaces,” says chef Kyle Bailey, “so I want to make sure I cover everything”—everything, that is, except a main course to please the meatless crowd, which his Logan Circle restaurant Birch & Barley entirely lacks. The restaurant does accommodate special orders for vegetarians, but those are rare. According to Bailey, the kitchen fields just one or two requests a night. “Because the majority of people want fish and want meat, we have to make sure that we cater to those people, too,” he says.

The threat of a vegetarian veto doesn’t concern Bailey nearly as much as losing money. “I think there’s also a fear,” he says. “What if you only sell two [vegetarian entrées] a night? That is a failure. That’s a failure rate for any other dish.”

But Meier contends that the numbers are moving in her favor. While only a small segment of U.S. population identify as vegetarian—less than eight million of the more than 300 million Americans—Meier notes that an additional 22.8 million are “vegetarian inclined,” according to a 2008 study sponsored by meatless advocacy magazine Vegetarian Times. This suggests that many omnivores are apt to skip the animal protein when presented with another option.

And the more vegetarian offerings that are readily available, Meier says, the more people who are willing to try them—regardless of whether those people are vegetarian or not.

“The power of using the vegetarian or vegan vote is behind the growing number of people who are looking for these options,” Meier says.

In D.C., in particular, the numbers are even more favorable to Meier’s cause. LivingSocial, the Washington-based daily-deals site, surveyed 20 major cities this past September and concluded that D.C.’s “preference” for vegetarian and vegan fare ranks number one, with eight percent of diners identifying as vegetarian or vegan, compared to just five percent nationwide.

At Eatonville, restaurateur Andy Shallal’s Southern-inspired eatery on 14th Street NW, Meier’s lobbying ultimately culminated in the addition of a vegan jerk-marinated tofu entrée sold for $15. General Manager Michael Woods says he was initially skeptical about how well the meat substitute would fare at a place better known for fried chicken and baby-back ribs. While the tofu is by no means a top-seller—accounting for about five percent of entrée sales at Eatonville this past October, Woods says—the vegan dish isn’t the restaurant’s worst performer, either, even outselling the grilled salmon.

Danny Bortnick, executive chef at Firefly in Dupont Circle, doesn’t need a lobbyist to tell him the stats on vegetarianism in the District. “We have a lot of vegetarian customers and the sales show,” says Bortnick.

 

Firefly is that rare D.C. restaurant, not labeled as vegetarian-specific, which nonetheless offers not one but two meatless entrées on the menu. “For a long time we just did one and it just kind of came to mind that vegetarians come here and essentially eat the same thing every time but meat eaters have tons of choices,” Bortnick says. “It just didn’t make sense to me.”

On his seasonally rotating menu, Bortnick now generally keeps a starch-based entrée—most recently, a kuri squash and porcini mushroom risotto—and one shining with vegetables, demonstrated by late-season eggplant reuniting with mozzarella and tomato. Sales aren’t awful. Combined, these two items accounted for about 18 percent, or nine percent each, of entrées sales last month, he says.

The Politics of the Vegetarian Entree

Other D.C. eateries that offer vegetarian-friendly entrées report similarly steady, if not stellar, sales of those items. At Ripple in Cleveland Park, chef Logan Cox makes agnolotti to showcase the über-seasonal vegetable of the moment, currently pairing beets and olives with tarragon and ricotta. This rotating pasta dish accounts for about 20 percent of overall entrée sales, he says.

At Café Saint-Ex on 14th Street, where a recent kitchen expansion finally allowed chef Billy Klein enough refrigerator room to offer a permanent menu slot for a meatless plate, the sweet corn risotto cakes aren’t just taking up space. Burgers generally account for 50 percent of sales. But of the rest, the cakes represented about 17 percent of sales last month, Klein says.

At Ray’s the Steaks, meanwhile, the dubious portobello dish fares pretty poorly. The restaurant regularly cranks out between 3,000 to 3,500 covers a week, Landrum says, but only eight to 15 of those diners order the vegetarian entrée.

As much as Landrum respects the vegetarian veto, he’s not naïve enough to offer something he can’t afford not to sell. Of the portobello, Landrum says, “I could afford to run at a loss and still recover my costs on alternative uses.” Leftovers provide heft to the mixed-mushroom side dish and eggplants appear in kitchen staff meals, he notes.

“Despite public opinion,” Landrum jokes about his image as an anti-establishment restaurateur, “I think that it’s a necessary service for every restaurant to offer the most hospitable environment for all guests, even the not frequently occurring occasion of a vegetarian diner.”

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

  • JC

    There are so many reasons to choose a vegan lifestyle. Here are two short videos to help everyone understand why so many are making this life-altering choice: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKr4HZ7ukSE and http://www.veganvideo.org

  • Brooke

    Restaurant owners need to do more research before creating vegetarian dishes. Many people simply don't like mushrooms, so a mushroom dish is always going to be a poor seller if it is your one and only option for vegetarians. Same with salads. The best bets are ethnic entrees or ethnic inspired dishes. Tofu is a usually a don't, as most typical chefs have no clue how to cook it properly. Never make a vegetarian dish an omnivore wouldn't absolutely love. A vegetarian dish should be just as well thought out as any other dish on the menu, it shouldn't just be an afterthought. I would also say that any chef that doesn't fully embrace a vegan item on the menu is insanely stupid. You can charge a relatively high price for a vegan or vegetarian menu option compared with the cost. They can usually be made with ingredients a kitchen would normally have on hand anyways or with dry/frozen ingredients that don't spoil like meat. Also once a vegetarian or vegan knows a restaurant has a vegan option they like, they will usually come back as that restaurant may be the only one in their area that is vegan/vegetarian friendly.

  • Rich

    As a vegetarian, restaurants that feature only a mushroom entree or promise that the chef will whip something up gets a veto from me. If they don't care enough to put as much thought into a vegetarian dish as one of their meaty ones, why should they get my business? Apparently they don't want it.

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  • VegHead

    Are we really still having this conversation in this day and age? There are multiple food products that cater to a vegetarian diet yet restaurants and chefs (food experts?) still can't figure out how to get a creative and balanced vegetarian dish into their menu?

    I agree that an "ethnic" dish is a good way of meeting this gapping hole because these cultures HAVE figured out how to creatively conjure complete meals. The reasons for this are multiple, but the end result is a delicious dining experience for a veggie like me.

    There are some non-ethnic places that have figured this out, but many have not. Those that have get me to return and support their establishment.

    Is it not surprising that the group with the fastest growing vegetarian or vegetarian-inclined population doesn't yet cater to it? In the meantime, we'll be supporting those ethnic restaurants that do. Hmm, I'm already thinking of delicious spices.

  • dchomegirl

    I exercise my vegan veto often -- and I let restaurants know it. If my (omnivore) boyfriend or friends and I skip a restaurant because it doesn't accommodate me adequately, I will let the host or manager know in person, and/or visit the website and leave feedback later about the owner's/chefs' failure of imagination and lack of business smarts. Kudos to Erica Meier for bringing this expanded voting-with-dollars to the forefront.

  • steve

    People just need to stop hopping on the whole vegiterian/vegan hipster craze. Just eat a damn burger already! you dont like it? dont go to a steak house! Or in this case burger joint. DUH!

    Thats like expecting good chinese food from a place called Tony's Italian Pizza Kitchen

    Idiots

  • Jen

    I'm fairly active in the community and organize a lot of events that are not vegan-based. I'd never thought of it as being a 'vegan veto', but the article is right- I, and many people I associate with who are not vegetarian, skip restaurants who don't make an effort to provide decent meals for the veg crowd.
    Additionally, I have little respect for a 'chef' who can't come up with a decent veg dish- heck, man, have some quinoa on hand and use whatever veggetable and seasonings are already part of your supply. I'm fairly certain any chef worth his salt would be able to create a delicious, nutritious meal from that.
    As for the individual who commented only to insult people for making different choices than himself- Steve, I think the point of the article is that if the Steakhouse doesnt have a veg option, we WILL be going elsewhere and taking our friends with us.

  • steve

    Jen,

    As you should. But i think the point is, dont go to an inherintly meat place and expect good vegan food.

    As far as choosing to be vegan, its another weird hipster choice. Its one thing to PREFER to eat vegiterian options, but dont take your hatred of meat out on the rest of the normal world.

  • Jeff

    I'm vegetarian and try to be as flexible as possible when it comes to choosing a restaurant with a group. However, I draw the line at steak houses and seafood restaurants because the food is usually not inventive or interesting. So it's no surprise in this article that some inventive restaurants claim 20% sales from veggie entrees while the steakhouse claims <1%

  • Michael Landrum

    I am not sure how well this article conveyed my conversations with Stephanie regarding how hard we work to serve a well-thought out, well-prepared, satisfying and balanced Vegetarian entree that is compatible, visually and stylistically, with the rest of our offerings--despite very little demand--and despite losing money on each individual plate we serve.

    We do this because we feel it is vital and important for every restaurant to offer the maximal hospitality to each and every guest regardless of their dining preferences.

    It may not be enough for every one (as is demonstrated in the comments above), but we really are trying and we really are doing the best we can.

    --Michael Landrum

  • steve

    Michael,

    no need to apologize. you run a fine establishment and I wouldnt worry about skipping a beat for these vegan hipsters. It's not worth risking ruining your business to please a fad that will end in the next few years.

  • anon

    @Steve

    I think you should reread the article -- the example at Rays was a family of 4 with 3 carnivores and one vegetarian kid (yeah, I know ... just some confused kid in your opinion). I doubt the vegetarian kid sought out Rays as much as agreed to go without being pissy. The business recognizes that they don't want to lose the other three steak eaters in the party.

    I agree with the commenters on the poor selection of portabella as a vegetarian option -- it's usually the path of least resistance for restaurants making the most minimal level of accomodation. In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain says something like '$14 for a plated of grilled zuchini and eggplant isn't going to hurt my bottom line.' It's like saying I'll feed you, but I won't put any thought or effort into it. I like portabellos -- so much that I can grill a perfectly good one at home with minimal effort. Why would I eat out or pay a premium for it?

  • Val

    Steve, it's not a fad when it has existed for millenia.

    Michael Landrum, I think the problem is that you said, “Twenty years ago, 10 years ago, [the portobello] was the most exciting thing in the vegetarian world.”
    That is the point--it is the old stand by that a lot of vegetarians are sick of. However, I don't go to your place for that entree, I go there to treat my meat-eating husband, and I really enjoy the excellent wine and service as well as the quality mixed greens, spinach, mac and cheese, and potatoes. That is plenty for me, but more in that vein would certainly be well received.

    Obviously a vegetarian should not expect to be feted at a steak house, but as far as other restaurants, I feel if a chef cannot cook non-meat dishes in a satisfactory way, he or she has failed as a chef.

  • Samfan

    Sounds like the 2.5% ruining things for the 97.5%. God hates vegetarians.

  • http://birchandbarley.com Erik Bergman

    I think that our approach to menu creation and accommodation of dietary restrictions was misrepresented in the article above. To be clear, we do indeed offer vegetarian entree options. The current selections are entree portions of our risotto (although it is listed under "to start") as well as our pastas & flatbreads (listed under "to follow"). Our risotto is currently made with red beet puree, roasted and diced yellow beets, beet stems and leaves sauteed in raspberry wine vinegar and pumpkin seed oil and served with whipped goat cheese. Our Tagliatelle with Kabocha squash and okra has bottarga on it that is easily left off without affecting the integrity of the dish. We believe both of these options are delicious vegetarian entree options. If you include the Pumpkin Flatbread (a large order of which would also easily sate anyone as an entree) then we have three listed entree options for vegetarians. Our servers are trained to guide you to those options. If those don't suffice, we often make new preparations out of the ingredients of other dishes we have on hand. Last night I served a guest an entree of hulled barley with butternut squash puree, diced and sauteed butternut squash and seared brussel sprout leaves. This also makes no mention of how we regularly accommodate vegetarian (and sometimes even vegan)tasting menu requests (with beer pairings!) on the spot, with no advanced warning.

    What I hope to communicate is that we, in no way, overlook the dining pleasures of any one group. Rather, we strive to accommodate any and all dietary restrictions, as well as any other special requests from our guests. I will point out that we are regularly commended by the gluten-free community as we offer gluten-free crust for flatbreads, stock a (very good) corn-based pasta, fried chickpeas on the complimentary bread board and a selection of ciders and gluten-free beers, as another way we go above and beyond for certain diners that are not listed on our menu.

    Erik Bergman
    General Manager
    Birch & Barley/ChurchKey

  • Christina

    I wholeheartedly applaud the work of the group Compassion Over Killing and encourage more restaurants in the DC/NoVa area (and beyond)to meet the needs and demands of the non meat eating diner. I never eat somewhere where there are limited options and would certainly give consideration to dining (and spending) at somewhere that does.

    Unfortunately, I haven't experienced the 'minority' vote theory, and instead, have only experienced the mindset from meat eaters that they're 'certain I can find something on the menu to eat' when dining out. Their mistaken ideas that I can 'just take the meat off the salad' or 'eat around the meat' or that 'chicken isn't meat' are just offensive and thoughtless. When more restaurants offer creative non-meat options - which are incredibly easy to develop for cooks and chefs alike - then everyone wins.

    To those that say, "just go eat some meat", I offer many reasons to say, "no". From the proven health benefits that a non-meat eating diet brings, to the grave environmental impact of the meat industry and the lack of sustainability of this industry, to the extreme animal cruelty perpetrated, living meat free outweighs the brief enjoyment of eating meat every time.

  • John

    To those who say the vegans are ruining it for everyone else, not so. We're expanding the menu options. I exercise a vegearian veto farlt often, and I probably got Capital Ale in Richmond to give the same discount to their vegan burger they give to their other burgers on Burger Night. Perhaps the 2.5% with, say COPD are ruining it for all the smokers? Not really.

    Some of the comments here, just like on some other forms I've encounterered this week, are mean and bullying, and I'm tired of it. I'm nearly vegan because my family history is full of cancers and cardiovascular iseses that research shows are caused by a neat heavy diet. I guess you want us all to die. Or mabe can didisagree without calling people idiots. But a burger place can fairly easily put out a vegan burger.

  • Java Master

    To hell with the preachy, political correctness of the veggie-heads. They are worse than the political extremes of the lefties and righties in their intolerance and distain for the rest of us. If you don't like my portobello mushrooms, kids, stick 'em up your crack for we care!

  • anon

    @Erik,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I haven't eaten at BB/Churchkey but it wouldn't have even been on my radar as a place to consider without that clarification. Honestly, at most meat-centric non-vegetarian restaurants I wouldn't expect much beyond an option or two, which it does sound like you provide. I may not seek it out but at least I wouldn't be excluded if I landed there. It's also good to know of a place to recommend to visitors with celiac disease

  • http://innerdomesticity.tumblr.com ABM

    I want to commend Erik & Michael for their thoughtful comments on this article, rather than taking offense at some of the comments posted about providing a more veg-centric menu.

    I also think a clarification on the Bourdain "$14 for a plate of zucchini and eggplant" mentioned in an earlier comment is merited. If the veg entree includes perishable items (produce), the restaurant has to order increased stock to have on hand which may not be used and cause them to incur a loss, from what I understand about menu pricing.

  • anon

    on the grilled veggies

    the point is that most restaurants typically have some simple components on hand that can be used for such purpose. They're not stocking piles of the stuff for the odd chance they have to feed someone off menu.

    I also aagree that the price point reflects more than ingredients. It's time to prep, plate, serve, clean, etc. I don't balk at the price as much as the lack of imagination. And if perishability is such an issue, use dry whole grains and/legumes, which can be complimented with seasonal vegetables used for other purposes (ie quinoa, faro, etc)

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