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There will never be much vegetarian food. But there might be food without meat.


Since it's about lunchtime, it seems like a good moment to talk about Jay Rayner's piece on haute vegetarian cuisine. First, I need to make something clear, as these discussions often confuse people: I'm not a vegetarian. I limit my meat consumption to five meals a month, but I'm not a vegetarian.

That said, I eat vegetarian at all but five meals each month, so I'm interested in the availability of vegetarian food. And there's a lot less of it than you'd think. Take some popular D.C. restaurants that take pride in their use of produce. The Tabard Inn, for instance, makes beautiful use of local produce on their menu but only offers one vegetarian entree. They offer eight meat entrees. Firefly also has nine entrees, and also offers exactly one vegetarian entree.

I take this as a bit of a mystery. The mark-up on a plate of pasta is a whole lot better than the mark-up on a piece of locally raised lamb or fresh scallops. Which leaves one of two possible reasons for the relative dearth of vegetarian food on restaurant menus, and Rayner explains them well:

The conventional wisdom in the catering industry is that there would be more vegetarian restaurants and vegetarian options if chefs and restaurateurs saw a financial incentive in it. After all, they are businesses, not social services. That said, there has long been the suspicion that European chefs, schooled in the animal protein-based French classical tradition, were using this as an excuse so they would not have to engage with something they didn't understand.

If you look at the business being done by veggie-friendly restaurants like Jaleo and Oyamel and Rasika or Two Amy's, it's hard to take the business excuse very seriously. And the economic investment in having three vegetarian entrees rather than one is not great.

That leaves the cook-what-you-know explanation. As Josh from Two Helmets put it to me: "The issue here is this: For better or worse, we in the cooking biz use meat products to express our thoughts and skills and feelings about food."

I might even say it more kindly: It's easy to offer vegetarian food at a Mexican place or a Spanish place or a pizza place or an Indian place because vegetarian food is a more organic part of those traditions. You're not creating a "vegetarian entree." You're serving a Margherita pizza, or chana paneer. But if you're working from a restaurant that's more in the French tradition, you really have to work to figure out a vegetarian plate that feels natural fitting into the protein-with-sides formula. No one wants to make "vegetarian food" any more than they want to make gluten-free food. But if there are dishes they like to eat and think it profitable to make that don't include meat, well, that's a different issue.

Which is why I'm excited about this "haute vegetarian" idea. If trendsetting restaurants begin producing plates of food that happen to not include meat, hopefully other restaurants will just copy their dishes, and over time, adapt them and improvise off of them. It'll become part of the tradition. And that's what you need. If veggie-friendly food requires chefs to sit with a pen and a pad and brainstorm meatless recipes, there'll never be much of it. If it just requires them to emulate and tweak something they've long loved eating, then it'll become a natural addition to menus.

Photo credit: By Michael Temchine/The Washington Post

By Ezra Klein  |  May 4, 2010; 12:35 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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I think the market signals make this less than inevitable. DC is a great place for veg food, so vegetarians tend to go to the very veg-friendly places. That doesn't leave much demand for meat-free dishes at other places.

Posted by: AZProgressive | May 4, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Also consider the difference between vegetarian dishes and non-protein-centric dishes. Beans cooked with bacon/ham might not be vegetarian but aren't centered around the protein.

Posted by: ctown_woody | May 4, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

"That leaves the cook-what-you-know explanation."

I think there's something to this. The corollary is the eat-what-you-know explanation, which may also explain the financial incentives aspect as well. When it comes to selecting food, people seem to default to the traditions that they grew up with rather than trying something new that might work better for them at the moment. (Of course, this also seems to be how people select pretty much everything.) As any vegetarian will tell you, when ordering food with a group of traditional meat-eaters, you'll end up with a lot of meat-laden dishes at the table. But any vegetarian will also tell you that, frequently, it's the vegetarian dishes that get devoured first.

Similar to healthcare: We may balk at the thought of ordering Medicare, but once it gets to the table, we find that we all want a piece of it.

As to the "haute vegetarian" thing, I'll take your word for it.

Posted by: slag | May 4, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Dc is a terrible place for vegetarian/vegan food. It seems like most restaurants have just a single token entree, which isn't very helpful since if that one option happens to be unappealing, you're out of luck.

Overreliance on meat makes for staid and boring cuisine. Come on Frenchies, lets see some skill at work.

Posted by: etdean1 | May 4, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

As others have pointed out, there's a difference between vegetarian (no meat at all) and non-protein-centric dishes. I'm like you - I limit my meat consumption, but I have no problem with vegetable based dishes that may have meat broth or bacon in the recipe. Here in Baltimore there seem to be plenty of non-meat-centric dishes offered, even if few of them are strictly vegetarian. That's fine by me.

Posted by: jeirvine | May 4, 2010 1:20 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to hear you share more about your rational for reducing meat consumption (environment, ethics, health?). I'm something of a flexitarian myself for environmental reasons, and I'm always surprised how little awareness there is, even among liberals, of the environmental impacts of meat production.

We all know that trading your SUV for a Prius will reduce your carbon footprint, but few are aware that giving up meat has just as much of an effect, at much lower cost. (

Posted by: ChicagoMike | May 4, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

Like Ezra, I try to limit my meat consumption to 5 meals a week . . . what? A day? Seriously?

Forget that.

Seriously, I enjoy vegetarian cuisine, and would no doubt order it more often, if it were more available.

Not vegan, though. Nothing tastier than a mushroom-and-spinach omelet. Or eggs and asparagus tips. Mmmm.

But I've gotten to where I prefer veggie sausage.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 4, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Oops. Day=Month in my previous post. Kinda of blew that. But I did want to ask--what happens if Ezra eats 6 meals with meat in a month? Does he turn into a pumpkin? Or a pumpkin-and-barley soup?

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 4, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

"We all know that trading your SUV for a Prius will reduce your carbon footprint"

But trading in your Prius for a Hummer makes for an awesome, basso-profundo drive to the steakhouse to get a richly marbled sirloin brazed with butter. Mmmm.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 4, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry, but Mexican cuisine doesn't traditionally feature a great number of vegetarian offerings. There is chicken broth and/or lard in virtually everything.

Posted by: tsgauh | May 4, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

There is a reason there are far more steakhouse than veggie places. People like meat. It tastes good. In fact it tastes far superior to vegetarian dishes. Enough restaurants fail as it is. Its the hardest business in the country to be consistently successful at. Why make it harder on yourself by serving dishes that only the left edge of the democratic party wants.

Posted by: Natstural | May 4, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Mario Batali is having his restaurants participate in Meatless Mondays but all this means is, they are going to offer two vegetarian options on Mondays. Couldn't they do this everyday? Is it really that difficult?

Posted by: caed | May 4, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse


There is a good sized population out there that doesn't want to eat meat on any particular night. Getting the business of those people (who have only limited options, and suppressed demand for eating out) should more than counterbalance the cost of developing 3-4 veggie dishes. That's especially true given that produce is generally cheaper than meat. The point is not to have more "veggie places," it's to have more restaurants that serve both, even if it's 3-1 in favor of meat for options.

Posted by: etdean1 | May 4, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

It's not just a lack of vegetarian options (and particularly vegan options) at restaurants, it's a lack of veg food presented in gourmet cooking magazines. I don't read American cooking magazines much, but the British ones are heavy on meat and meat dishes. And the one veg magazine is annoyingly about 98% non-vegan (I've done the math, actually).

There's definitely a haute cuisine culture that thinks veg food just isn't worthy of mention.

I was talking to a vegan B&B owner in Paris, and she is desperate to change the perception of vegan food as lowly and tasteless. There'll be a big vegan fayre in Paris this fall; she's hoping to interest top Parisian chefs in contributing to a vegan cookbook.

I wish her luck, especially if it's the Parisian cooking schools' attitude that's influencing the rest of the world's vegetarian fare.

Posted by: KathyF | May 4, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

One thing I've noticed is a lot more (high-end) places offering vegetarian tasting menus around me. Might get to be a bit expensive, but the option is there. If you ever go visit Cambridge, the vegetarian tasting menu at Oleana will solve your problems.

An alternate explanation for many restaurants- vegetarian dishes require a greater proportion of seasonal ingredients and thus more time in menu development. Honestly I find it much easier to plan a meal by picking a meat, a preparation method, spicing then a side to go along with it than I do to start with seasonal produce. I also think on a related note that restaurants with more seasonal change in menu general have better vegetarian food.

Posted by: tmorgan2 | May 4, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

I live in a smaller town with lots of eateries, and in general they do offer vegetarian options and almost invariably they are rather dull, or outright lousy. I personally love meat dishes, but I also love veggies, but it just doesn't pay to order the veggie dishes in places that don't specialize in them. Rule of thumb: order seafood in a seafood restaurant, order steak at a steakhouse, order veggies at a vegetarian restaurant.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | May 4, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

Of course there are always some people who want to eat light and/ or vegetarian. Seafood is also great with this when done responsibly, highly sustainable. The reality is most people want this as a change, not as the norm. Its hard to create a restaurant that is based around being the meal people want once a week.

Posted by: Natstural | May 4, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

"That leaves the cook-what-you-know explanation."

Ezra, I believe one reason for chefs always featuring a pleathora of meat dishes, but few feature vegetarian dishes is the additional work it would take. I can approach cooking meats in very similar manner; grilling, poaching, sauteing, roasting, braising, etc. In each of these cases, as my cooking skills have progressed, I can transfer the understanding of the feel and flavors between red meats, white meats, and shellfish. Unfortunately, the vast flavor and texture palate among vegetables doesn't cross so well. Knowing how to reach various stages of doneness and cooking methods with cabbage doesn't instruct me in similar with broccoli, even though they're both cruciferous vegetables. That's not even getting into the peticularities of cooking and serving the spectrum of grains or legumes, few of which will react to similar cooking techiques in the same way.

Finally, individual tastes react to the broader spectrum of vegetarian fare, which I imagine is daunting for a professional chef thinking about managing the stock and breadth of the menu.

Posted by: Jaycal | May 4, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse


I agree with most of what you say, but your framing is weird to me. Vegetarian food suffers from being poorly defined outside of being "meatless"... what comes to your mind when you think of "vegetarian cuisine"? Tofu? Grilled vegetables? Certainly nothing as iconic and mouth watering as would appear in your mind's eye when "Italian" or "French" or "Chinese" cuisine is mentioned.

Haute cuisine can go a long way towards creating an identity and food culture for vegetarian food... and that's what you ultimately need for it to become ubiquitous... but you seem to associate that with it no longer being "Vegetarian" specifically, which I don't get. Do you mean it just gets absorbed into our (non-existent) American food culture?

Posted by: JWHamner | May 4, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

I'm going to totally agree with Ezra on this one. Let's take another culinary tradition: Indian. Indian food traditionally has little meat in it and even though in the US it has been adapted and you'll get a lot more of the meaty dishes, you'll also find tons of good vegetarian ones. The more authentic the more meatless, too. I'm also going to guess that would transfer over to Indian haute cuisine (if that exists).

Posted by: goinupnup | May 4, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

The problem is not meat, it's factory meat. You want to make a statement through food? Eat locally raised, pastured animal products. It's healthy, good for the environment and local economy, and if done properly is an excellent way to sequester carbon in the soil. And remember, there is nothing intrinsically holy or redeeming or even healthy or environmentally safe about vegetarianism (see Lierre Keith's The Vegetarian Myth for more details).

Posted by: johnsonr1 | May 4, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

"We all know that trading your SUV for a Prius will reduce your carbon footprint"

Not if someone else buys and drives that SUV. now there's an SUV and a Prius on the road.

Posted by: NoVAHockey | May 4, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

There are lots of great places to get vegetarian food in DC! lists the all-vegetarian places and the veg-friendly places.

Posted by: julie251 | May 4, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Ezra -

I'm a recent transplant to Northern VA from Asheville, NC where the President just swamped the roads on his way to his (and my) favorite rib joint.

I've been stunned by the lack of quality meatless fare in and around the capital. Asheville has a strong vegetarian/vegan population and a love of food - the exact thing you're talking about has already occurred there, as market forces pushes restaurants to provide menus that could cater to the country ham eating southerner and his macrobiotic vegan girlfriend. The city as a whole has developed a large menu of meatless staples that any new restaurant can pull from and play with.

Of course, if you're someone who eats non-meat primarily for health reasons, you might be out of luck. Part of the mainstreaming of vegetarian cuisine is it quickly grows as potentially decadent and dangerous as any other cuisine. But that's part of the fun, right?

Posted by: erikharrison | May 4, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Be quiet, Kevin. Adults are trying to have a conversation.

Haute cuisine leans heavily towards French and northern European styles as well as the "wealthiest" dishes of other regions. The sorts of spices and base foods within the recipes don't mix well with a purely vegetable-and-carbohydrates dish. Meanwhile, Mediterranean, middle eastern, and Asian spices and cooking styles lend themselves to making more tasty vegetarian foods.

I just don't see what combination of French or English spices and cooking methods integrate well with vegetarian foods. As long as that is the dominant style, vegetarian options will be sparse.

*I've been stunned by the lack of quality meatless fare in and around the capital. *

Central DC, including Georgetown, is just not that cosmopolitan of a neighborhood. It appeals to corporate workers and tourists who want something familiar. Meatless options improve in the suburbs and in the Ethiopian neighborhoods. There are also a good number of Indian restaurant options if you look for them.

Posted by: constans | May 4, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

johnson is right in one respect -- factory farmed meat is far worse than any other. See for instance.

But "The Vegetarian Myth" is perhaps the most dishonest collection of rationalizations out there today.

Posted by: AZProgressive | May 4, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

My concern is the unethical treatment of farm animals. I will not eat meat at a restaurant that does not state on their menu that they purchase meat from small farmers who raise animals humanely. For the same reason, I eat meat very little as well, even at home, only eating poultry a few times a month, and red meat a few times a year. You don't need to be a vegetarian to care about the treatment of farm animals.

Posted by: CAC2 | May 4, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

It'll never change until culinary institutes stop focusing so heavily on meat preparation.

Posted by: lauraparisi | May 4, 2010 6:40 PM | Report abuse

I went to TGIF recently and was amazed that there was not a single vegetarian entree on the menu. They finally were able to make a fish pasta dish without the fish for me, but it was amazing. At that type of restaurant, they didn't even have a veggie burger? A vegetarian version of the mac'n'cheese? Really? A salad without meat?

Living in New York City, I've gotten a little addicted to the trendy vegetarian/vegan restaurants with great chefs. However, most of these restaurants are entirely vegetarian and/or vegan, not a good mix.

I agree with an earlier commenter that you're starting to see more vegetarian tasting menus at some of the better (and pricier) restaurants. I'm a fan of this tradition, and if you happen to be in the area, Fascino in Montclair, NJ offers an outstanding one (with another tasting menu the meat-lovers will drool at, too).

Still, I'd like to see the in between happen. Why is there just one (usually not very nutritious) option at most good-but-not-extra-fancy restaurants? I don't know, but I'd be happy to see this change.

Posted by: madjoy | May 4, 2010 9:39 PM | Report abuse

It's a shame that laziness and an unwillingness to understand the need for non-meat containing dishes are preventing businesses from expanding their menu options. I personally have no interest in frequenting restaurants that are not creative or flexible. Making good vegetarian food is not difficult and I am amazed that any restaurant would refuse to adapt an existing dish to accommodate a paying customer.

Yet another reason why I refuse to leave my Los Angeles. Plenty of spectacular veg restaurants and lots of veg friendly. I mean, c'mon. If the Yardhouse can offer vegan-friendly food, then some schmuck in whites w 20 years of cooking experience in a fancy restaurant in DC can offer a meat-free entree.

Posted by: alloyjane | May 5, 2010 2:16 AM | Report abuse

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