IN 1984, a sweet old lady asked America, “Where’s the beef?” Many might ask that same question when dining at vegetarian restaurants, but that doesn’t need to be the case.
Vegetarian and vegan restaurants, such as these four spread out across the Northeast area, cook up dishes that make you forget you ever enjoyed eating meat.
Restaurants that only serve vegetable offerings are just as good—if not better—than their carnivorous counterparts. You’ve got all of your meat favorites in veggie format like eggplant meatballs, quinoa tacos, carrot sliders and portobello steak.
So stop and take a look around. Who knows? You may just find yourself asking, “Where’s the beet?”
Hold the Meat, Flour and Cheese, Please
At Heart Beet Kitchen in Westmont, New Jersey, the focus isn’t on simply serving vegetables as a replacement for meat, it’s on serving dishes that taste good and make you feel good. “We focus on healthy food,” says owner Ashley Coyne, who comes up with all of the establishment’s dishes. “Everyone has their own idea of healthy, but I take pride in being about as healthy as it gets.” Many vegan restaurants, Coyne points out, deep fry their food or use a heavy amount of oil and mayo in their cooking processes, but that’s not the case at Heart Beet Kitchen, which is plant based, gluten free, dairy free and peanut free. For example, to get a creamy consistency in any of their sauces, they use cashews, very little oil and minimal salt. One of their most popular items is the Heart Beet burger made out of black beans, quinoa, celery, beets, onions, carrots and spices. The coconut BLT is also a favorite among regulars. “Customers are so glad we’re here,” says Coyne. “There aren’t many healthy restaurants that are plant based and gluten free. That seems to be the trick.”
The restaurant has about 34 seats, but can host up to 64 people for private events and dinners. Off-site catering, including items not found on their regular menu, is also available.
Focusing on Food and Family
Dirt Candy in New York isn’t just a vegetarian restaurant. It’s just a restaurant that serves good food and happens to be vegetarian.
“We don’t compete with [other vegetarian restaurants]. Over half of our customers are omnivores, and we don’t have a political or lifestyle agenda,” says Jackie Carson, general manager. “We’re happy to let those other restaurants cater to the health and lifestyle crowd. Dirt Candy is for people who want good food.”
The nine-year-old restaurant on the Lower East Side serves dishes like pumpkin pad thai—a customer favorite—Brussels sprouts tacos and Korean fried broccoli (listed as “crack in broccoli” on its very colorful menu). They even have an eggplant foster—flambéed tableside—as a dessert. Even their cocktails are derived from vegetables, with drinks such as the Celeriac Mule, the Carrot Penicillin or the Beet Rum Punch.
Meals at Dirt Candy are not à la carte. Customers can select from either The Vegetable Patch—made up of five courses—or The Vegetable Garden, which is about nine to 10 courses. The menu changes based on the season. The restaurant can host seated dinners for up to 40 and cocktail receptions for up to 75.
“This is not a vegetarian restaurant where the focus is on politics or health, instead it’s a restaurant focused entirely on making vegetables taste like nothing you’ve ever had before,” says Carson. “Dirt Candy is committed to pushing vegetables further than anyone else.”
“People who are tired of renting anonymous event rooms in massive restaurants that have all the chilly charm of a factory-sized banquet hall love coming here because we give things a personal touch,” says Carson. “Chef Cohen thinks of Dirt Candy as her own dining room, so people always feel at home, and we have a much more laid-back charm than places that have turned event rentals into an industry.”
But they don’t just care about the food they serve. Dirt Candy puts a priority on its employees. In an effort to pay employees a better wage, owner and chef Amanda Cohen raised the prices on her menu by 20 percent and instituted a no-tipping policy.
“This isn’t just a restaurant,” says Carson. “It’s an extension of our lives and our thousands of regular customers will tell you that everything we do comes from the heart and gets a personal touch. We don’t know how to do it any other way.”
Local, Healthy and Meat-Free
21 Oak in Manchester, Conn., may be small, but it’s mighty.
The 750-square-foot restaurant (which includes the kitchen) has nine tables and a small counter, which equates to 29 seats. They’ve had a number of multicourse dinners that typically range from five to nine courses. One day, they plan to expand to accommodate even larger gatherings and off-site catering opportunities.
But its size is part of its charm, and is one of the reasons Shawn Dickensheets (who owns and operates the restaurant alongside his wife Karin) likes the place so much.
“I love the small quaint atmosphere where I can talk to my customers as they come and go,” he says. “I know many of them by name.”
Like Heart Beet Kitchen, 21 Oak is dedicated to serving healthy food, not just serving vegetables that masquerade as healthy food. You won’t find a deep fryer anywhere on the premises. Popular dishes include green eggplant curry and the sweet potato cakes. But the menu constantly changes and customers continue to find new favorites with a large percentage of ingredients coming directly from local farms in the surrounding area. Soon to come is a new line of smoothies and juices from the menu of Vitality, the juice and smoothie bar next door also owned by Shawn and Karin.
“To remain competitive, we are often updating the menu with new items,” says Dickensheets. “We also pride ourselves on serving great food and having a very friendly staff.”
A Peek Inside the Kitchen
No matter where you sit at Avant Garden, you’re in the kitchen.
The layout of the East Village restaurant is such that the chef prepares all of the food at a long counter in the dining room. Guests can watch their food transform into high-quality dishes right before their eyes.
“This setup makes for an intimate experience,” says Drew Brady, general manager. “It feels like home.”
Avant Garden is only open for dinner, which begins service at 5 p.m. Private events are often held during the day, with natural light pouring through the large windows, giving the room a new perspective not seen during normal hours. This, along with the intimate access to the chefs creating their food, is what entices guests to host their private events at the restaurant.
“Guests love being able to have the room to themselves and watching their meal being prepared,” says Brady. “Because these events are private, guests are able to have a dialogue with the kitchen staff that would be less likely during night service.”
The dining room seats a maximum of 28 guests; eight of these are seats along the Chef’s Counter.
At any given time, you’ll only find about 12-14 dishes on the menu. A house favorite is a celery root dish, which spiralizes the vegetable and cooks it in a mushroom gravy sauce.
Dishes such as the celery root pasta are why guests return again and again. And with such a small staff, the restaurant at its busiest still evokes a family feel.
“We have such a great community of regular guests, and I’d have to say that those relationships really make Avant Garden a great place to work,” says Brady. “They know us and our menu, and we value their feedback.”