Calgary’s dining scene embraces a new wave of vegetarian restaurants, dishes and diners.
By SALLY MACKINNON
Seven years ago, Dalia Kohen and Tabitha Archer had a simple idea: to open a casual, globally inspired restaurant catering to the city’s vegetarian population. At the time, the only exclusively vegetarian options were Anapurna (a Southern Indian restaurant) and two Chinese eateries that specialized in creating vegan versions of ginger beef, chicken balls and sweet and sour pork.
The duo saw a niche for a vegetarian restaurant that took a more generalist approach, and included familiar dishes that wouldn’t “scare off” meat eaters. But, in the year it took a business plan to come together, they encountered resistance and doubts about the viability of a veggie restaurant in a city that dubs itself Cowtown.
“Everyone told us it would be a hard sell,” says Kohen. “It was very discouraging. We went through an extra six months because of it.”
But when The Coup opened its doors in 2004, response was overwhelmingly positive. Today, getting a table at their funky, 40-seat space on 17 Ave SW can be tricky, especially with their strict “no reservations” policy. In 2009 Kohen and Archer took over the storefront next door and opened Meet, a lounge serving drinks and a selection of vegetarian appetizers. This year, they released a cookbook, Meet The Coup Cooks, and have started selling take-away dips, sauces and desserts. Not bad for a business plan that was proclaimed dead in the water.
Alberta is known for its beef, and many local restaurants have prospered by riding the AAA wave. But, times are changing. Beleaguered vegetarians, who once had to make due with token dishes such as spaghetti, risotto or store-bought veggie burgers, are benefiting from a new wave of vegetarian-friendly menus and veggie eateries.
Since The Coup came on the scene, four exclusively vegetarian restaurants have opened in Calgary. In the same year, J’s Pizza opened its doors to vegetarian pizza lovers in the northeast, and in 2005 White Oak joined the food court in Chinatown’s Far East Shopping Mall. In 2009, Caribbean restaurant Up the Road expanded the global offerings available in Forest Lawn, and Gratitude Café gave Kensington its first vegetarian refuge.
Popular spots are also offering more inventive options for veggies. At local haunt Higher Ground Café, Wednesday evening is Global Vegetarian Night, with dishes such as spaghetti squash, tempeh salad rolls and vegetable skewers. Downtown’s Koi now offers Vegelicious Mondays, with $2 off vegetarian bowls and entrees and $1 off vegetarian appetizers. And some Indian restaurants are getting into the scene with Raj Palace, a Southern Indian restaurant in the downtown core, offering a vegetarian buffet every Sunday from 10 am to 3 pm, and Maurya, in Kensington, featuring one on Monday nights.
There have been setbacks too: Buddha Veggie and Sunflower Café, two stalwarts on the vegetarian dining scene, both occasionally add meat to their menus these days. But, overall, the options for vegetarians are expanding.
“There are more vegetarians, better training at culinary schools to accommodate varying styles, and better products,” says local food critic John Gilchrist. “I think Calgary is quite progressive and demand is high.”
Like The Coup, Calgary’s newest vegetarian restaurant, Gratitude Café, has prospered by finding a niche. Chef and owner Kristi Reich doesn’t include any imitation meat, cheese or soy products on her menu, and caters to “picky eaters” who have trouble in run-of-the-mill restaurants. Her menu includes creations that are vegan, gluten-free, raw, and Buddhist-friendly, and alterations can be made to just about anything. Her dishes also have imaginative names such as “I Am Clean” (Vietnamese soup), “I Am Creating” (spicy chickpea curry), or “I Am Very Hungry,” a special menu that allows diners to choose their own ingredients for a variety of dishes.
Before opening Gratitude, Reich worked as a corporate recruiter, but left to combine her enthusiasm for vegetarianism with her dream of opening a small business. “Not many people are courageous enough to do it,” she says. “And I definitely chose a hard business to be in. But Calgary is a city that needs Gratitude.”
Reich has the right approach—with the vegetarian restaurant scene coming into its own, businesses can no longer make a name for themselves by simply being meat free. And if she and other vegetarian restaurateurs have anything to do with it, the wave will maintain its momentum.