The vegetarian option: it's a menu item most restaurants necessarily offer these days. Depending on the chef, it can be a testament to creativity and the bounty vegetables offer, or it can be a throwaway dish. Chefs know that often, vegetarians are just grateful to have something, anything, even if it is a boring pasta or ubiquitous mushroom risotto.
But what if a restaurant offers no vegetarian options at all? In this day and age, when there are more vegetarians than ever, is this a bold and brave stance, or the height of inhospitable pretension? Furthermore, is it economically sensible?
A few years ago, I probably would have come down on the "bold and brave" side of the argument. A proud carnivore and former restaurant kitchen employee, I remember the standard response when waiters delivered a request from a customer for a modification: "This isn't Burger King. You can't have it your way." If a chef wants to serve only meat, then that's his or her prerogative. Right?
And yet, last week I found myself in a situation that made me question all that.
I was in New York with a group of friends, and we decided to check out Maison Premiere, the oyster bar and cocktail den in Williamsburg that also serves a full menu. There were five of us, one a vegan-leaning vegetarian who is flexible on dairy when dining out or in any other situation that calls for compromise in order to be easy going.
Maison Premiere is stunning, a room that more than any other I've been in outside of New Orleans channels the romance and glamor of the 1920's. We sat, and looked over the menu. At the bottom of the page in tiny writing was an option for a salad, or bread and butter. But there were no other meat-free options on the menu.
"It's fine," my friend said. "There's lots of good looking stuff on these other dishes. I'm sure they could put something on a plate for me." And it was true -- the hamachi crudo came with fall vegetable escabeche, the lobster came with sunchoke and chestnut. Chanterelles and cranberry beans came alongside the turbot, and a dish of pigeon was served with "roots and fruits."
Here's where many cooks will get their hackles up. Those elements were chosen specifically by the chef to go with the proteins! They were prepared with those dishes in mind! Exactly enough was made of each to go with the number of portions of lobster, etc. And yet, when the slick-haired, bespoke-suit wearing waiter informed us that no, there was no vegetarian option, and no, the kitchen would not be able to put some of the vegetable elements together to make a plate of food for our non meat-eating companion (he did not check with the kitchen, possibly knowing he'd get some smartass response much as I might have given back in the day), the entire thing came across as pretentious and supremely inhospitable. Five hungry diners being unable to eat at a restaurant because the chef refuses to put some vegetables together on a plate for one person just seems silly.
And so, we left. We had no other choice, except to tell our friend to make do with a salad and some bread while we slurped oysters and ate pigeon. Perhaps she could steal a bite of roots and fruits from our plates and avoid the pigeon juice?
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It wasn't doable. We went elsewhere, and gave another restaurant nearly $600 of our business. Our friend dined happily on a plate of roasted garlic, some beets and some potatoes. And she was happy with that -- she wasn't looking for something amazing or special made just for her, but she did want something slightly more substantial than lettuce and bread.
Vegetarianism is a choice, as is the question of what to put on a menu. There are so many diets out there, and I can understand the argument ... where does it end? Should restaurants be prepared to serve vegan meals, gluten-free meals, raw meals? How far should the accommodation of other people's health and morals go in the restaurant world? I'm not sure of the answer, but I do think that one meat-free option is probably not that much to ask of any restaurant.
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