Detroit kitchens welcome vegetarians and vegans with open arms and full plates

Green day

There was a time, not so long ago, when most restaurants' vegetarian options consisted of a cheese pizza or maybe some kind of frozen veggie burger. For vegans? Enjoy the side salad.

Times have changed, though, and restaurant owners and chefs have become more accommodating to those with alternative diets, which means meatless fare is becoming more and more prominent.

While Ann Arbor, a bastion of progressive intellectualism, seems to have led the charge when it comes to menus that appeal to those with restrictive diets, Detroit and its surrounding suburbs are doing more than ever to appeal to appetites across the dietary spectrum.

"Quite frankly, it's incredibly short-sighted to just ignore vegetarians and vegans," says Christopher Franz, the executive chef at the Rattlesnake Club in Detroit. "That sounds like it should be common sense, but there are still a lot of places that offer one or two [vegetarian or vegan] dishes. And normally, they aren't great options, just something that doesn't have meat. That's not a great way to get people to come back to your restaurant."

Franz says the Rattlesnake Club has been working hard for a long time to make a creative menu for all diets.

"It's got to be frustrating to look at a menu and have to basically decide between a salad or a nut platter or something," he says. "So we try to make sure we're creating clever and creative dishes that make people want to eat them, not settle for them."

Franz says getting local produce has been integral to creating a menu that will please all customers.

"I, myself, value getting stuff locally. Fresh vegetables taste the way they should taste, so people enjoy eating it more," he says.

One dish Franz says worked extremely well at the Rattlesnake was an acorn squash filled with quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and arugula, served with a roasted beet vinaigrette.

"It just works," he said of the dish. "We got a lot of great feedback from customers."

But you can screw it up too.

"There are places I've seen that try to do too much when it comes to restrictive diets," Franz said. "You never want to alienate customers, no matter what their preference is when it comes to what they want to eat. There has to be a balance."

Another area eatery that has been ahead of the curve when it comes to accommodating those with strict eating habits is Local Kitchen and Bar in Ferndale.

It's not really a surprise that Ferndale would be one of the leaders in this area; similar to Ann Arbor, Ferndale boasts a progressive population that leans more on the side of health consciousness. Ferndale also boasts Om Café, one of the area's most popular vegan eateries.

"Ferndale's a special place," says Jared Bobkin, the executive chef at Local Kitchen and Bar. "It always has been. A lot of restaurants were a little behind with vegetarian and vegan menu items because they could be. We couldn't. There were too many customers who wanted them. And when you do it, you have to do it right. You can't just put a hummus platter on the menu and call it a day."

Bobkin says he's worked hard to find menu items that don't just fit into a vegetarian or vegan diet, but that are appetizing to everyone.

"You know you're doing a good job with the vegetarian dishes when you get people who aren't vegetarian to order them and enjoy them," he says. "That's how you know you are doing it right. You don't want people coming into your restaurant, scanning the menu, and having to say, 'Well, there are only two things on here I can eat. I guess it's cheese pizza again.' You want them to be excited. You want them to come back."

Bobkin said that even though he strives to accommodate, he won't allow cooking for restrictive diets to restrict or stifle his creativity.

"Sure, it's a challenge sometimes, but that's why people become chefs," he said. "We love a challenge. We love trying to take things we weren't thinking about before and make them into something delicious."

The quest to create interesting dishes without meat as the star protein has forced chefs like Bobkin and Franz to look at other types of substitutes.

"We do tofu and tempeh and others," Bobkin says. "It forces you to look for substitutes you may have overlooked."

There are normally five or six meatless choices on his menu at any time; one of his favorites is a mushroom ravioli carrot ragout (instead of ground beef in the sauce, he adds more mushrooms).

For Bobkin, catering to the meatless crowd wasn't just an aspiration; it was also a necessity.

"We have a huge vegetarian and vegan crowd here," he says. "They just live that lifestyle around here. So we want to be a destination for them."

Vegetarian and vegan dishes aren't just inclusive, Bobkin says, they're also cost effective. "I don't know why more restaurants aren't making this kind of food," he says. "As a restaurant, we make of ton of money. Vegetables cost next to nothing."

In the end though, for Bobkin, making a menu that can please all diners is about culinary creativity.

"A steak is always going to be a steak. You can grill it a certain way, maybe put a nice sauce with it, but it's still a steak. And that will please a lot of people. But to come up with great dishes that don't have any meat that will please the masses? That's a challenge in a good way," he says.

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