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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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Comments

Posted by Amy, a resident of University South,
on Apr 3, 2022 at 6:48 am

Amy is a registered user.

A couple of years ago, I tried to get the City Council to adopt "Green Mondays." If restaurants added veg options to their menus on Mondays, or preferably throughout the week, the City would give them a special decal and perhaps some free publicity. The Council didn't go for it, but perhaps we could try again.


Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Apr 3, 2022 at 12:09 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

Personally, I would like to see more soups which can be veggie and things like ratatoille as options. I think food nowadays is all about plating and how they look or are presented. Yes it is nice for food to look good, but the important aspect has to be taste and nutritional value.


Posted by eileen , a resident of another community,
on Apr 3, 2022 at 2:00 pm

eileen is a registered user.

Most Chinese and Thai (and Burmese) restaurants have a lot of vegetarian options, but then they also often have a lot of salt. As for Tofu, it is not way up on my list of favorite foods, but it's pretty good when cooked on the BarbQ or marinated.


Posted by Eeyore (formerly StarSpring), a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Apr 3, 2022 at 9:00 pm

Eeyore (formerly StarSpring) is a registered user.

There are vegetarian restaurants, like Greens in San Francisco. Restaurants run on thin margins so I wouldn't expect them to offer a cousine that only appeals to a few, When going out with vegetarian friends we tend to lean Vietnamese. There is a reason why meat consumption goes up as per capital income goes up in countries around the world. There really aren't many appealing vegetarian options when you reach (as a society) a place whe the choice becomes optional.


Posted by sjd, a resident of Livermore,
on Apr 3, 2022 at 10:06 pm

sjd is a registered user.

You can use many apps these days to find good vegetarian or vegan options. HappyCow, vanilla bean, abillion. Make sure to add when you see good stuff and eventually that demand will become apparent.


Posted by David Coale, a resident of Barron Park,
on Apr 4, 2022 at 10:13 am

David Coale is a registered user.

While eating less beef is good for reducing GHG emissions, it is also better for almost everything! Reducing meat consumption is also heart healthy (Web Link ) and cancer reducing (Web Link ). Eating less meat also saves water. 47% of the water use in California (Web Link ) goes to producing meat and dairy products. It takes 1800 gallons of water (Web Link ) to produce one pound of beef. For me, that is showers for 6 months! For vegetables it is more like 39 gallons to the pound of product. If people had to make the choice between showers for a year or 4 big steaks, we would all be better off -- on many fronts.

Changing one's diet does not happen overnight so yes, we need a lot more options when it comes to eating out for a heart healthy, Planet friendly, water happy future.


Posted by Citizen, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Apr 4, 2022 at 2:22 pm

Citizen is a registered user.

I've been a vegetarian (who is sometimes a pescatarian because I can't eat soy and find it difficult to get a balanced diet otherwise) for ~15 years now. Before that I preferred eating a mostly plant-based diet.

I have never felt at a loss for fantastic culinary options in the Bay Area. In fact, when a sibling was visiting with their family from another international city, they were impressed by the many options we had for very diverse dietary needs (like GF) and preferences in our groups.

Lyfe Kitchen downtown used to be a fantastic place to get vegetarian dishes. They were always packed and then ended up having serious quality problems that were SO severe, I wondered if they had been hit by commercial sabotage. I tried writing the corporate office but they never replied. They closed.

Luckily, there are still many great options. After what I witnessed at Lyfe Kitchen, I'm just a little afraid to crow about them in case their chefs get poached. Keep exploring -- our local restaurants can use the business and there are many, many great options!



Posted by Rebecca Barfknecht, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Apr 5, 2022 at 1:40 pm

Rebecca Barfknecht is a registered user.

Vegan is even more difficult to find (Thank goodness for Son of Wolf & Wildseed!!!!!). Many restaurants can make something vegan ("Impossible" burgers do NOT count!) but when searching menus online most are ruled out.


Posted by MES, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Apr 5, 2022 at 3:41 pm

MES is a registered user.

Yes, and yes, yes to more veggie options at local restaurants! We have so many delicious local sources of fruits and vegetables. As a plant eater I am always searching for veggie options that aren't covered in cheese. I know my dining companions would appreciate more options too. It is easy for me to eat out in LA or Misdoula than here in Palo Alto.


Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 5, 2022 at 5:18 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@sjd, thanks for sharing those apps and @David, thanks for sharing those links and some of the other benefits of eating less meat.

@Amy: It’s an interesting idea. What did council members say last time? FWIW, I’m not sure it’s politically workable. The city already leans on restaurants in terms of food waste and composting, plasticware, and more. It may be pretty challenging for the city to even gently direct the type of food that restaurants should serve. Maybe it could be done in exchange for something like (say) parklet space, but is that appropriate? I don’t know. At minimum, it does seem like when the city hosts an event like a street fair or chili cook-off, it should ask for veggie options and then make sure people know about those choices. I think people would be surprised to find how many are appealing and delicious.

@eileen: The tofu dish I had last night was deep-fried (!), with a really nice texture, and had a delicious sauce and salad with it. Two of us had it and thought it was great, though pretty indulgent.


"Crispy tofu" dish from Scratch in Mountain View

The latest IPCC report says that people’s choices will need to play a big role in reducing diet emissions, from eating less meat to reducing food waste to avoiding over-consumption, and it emphasizes the importance of nudges and green defaults. Let’s support the restaurants who are moving in that direction and speak up to encourage those who aren’t! We need help to make these changes, and our local restaurants can provide that!

Thanks for all the comments...


Posted by Marie, a resident of Downtown,
on Apr 6, 2022 at 2:02 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Thanks for this article! My husband and I eat out downtown quite a bit however, our restaurant options are very limited due to the fact that my husband eats only plant based food with NO dairy or eggs. Pure vegan options in this area are very difficult to find for sure! Plant based soups often include cream, salads almost always include cheese, beans in Mexican restaurants are often cooked in meat stock. Even at Strizzi's where you would think we could get marinara sauce on spaghetti, we have been told by servers the Marinara includes meat and when we have been able to confirm there is no meat in the sauce and state clearly that we don't want cheese on top... we more often than not find either meatballs and/or cheese on the top. We've given up.
You are right, there are so many delicious possibilities, lots of cookbooks and online recipes available - it would be GREAT for restaurants to try some out and advertise them!


Posted by justme2, a resident of Barron Park,
on Apr 6, 2022 at 3:38 pm

justme2 is a registered user.

In searching menus for vegetarian entrees did you notice that you always had to look farther down the menu, often at the bottom? If restaurants would place vegetarian and vegan options at the top of the menu, more folks might be intrigued to try it before their eyes hit the same old meat choices. It's like the hook at the beginning of a great story, use it to capture their interest!


Posted by Vickie, a resident of Barron Park,
on Apr 6, 2022 at 5:08 pm

Vickie is a registered user.

Thank you for raising this issue. Yes, I would like more/better veggie options at local restaurants!
Especially during the last couple of years, I've been doing more cooking/baking at home--only very simple recipes for my level of culinary skills. ;-) [Portion removed.]
Shout-out to Fambrini's for their amazing warm quinoa bowl, plus a host of other plant-based options.


Posted by Anneke, a resident of Professorville,
on Apr 6, 2022 at 6:15 pm

Anneke is a registered user.

When I was still working and traveling, I would often order a plate of steamed vegetables for dinner. I nearly always could get it, even though the waiters must have thought.... that poor woman, she doesn't know what she is missing.


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