Vegan St. Louis

vegetarianWhile you, like me, might feel that the only life scarier than an ovo-lacto vegetarian is the life of the dairy-less vegan, I am also not a diehard red-meat-loving Midwesterner and have always been interested in tasting what the best vegetarian-oriented spots in St. Louis have to offer. The problem, of course, is that in St. Louis, good food and vegetarian food rarely go hand in hand, and vegetarian cuisine of any sort, let alone the upscale sort, represents a large void in need of options.

With St. Louis seemingly unable to support a full scale vegetarian restaurant in the way that other large cities can, the vegans of our city are left to navigate the meated-menus of restaurants with a token vegetarian option or two–fingers crossed the whole time that the kitchen is being truthful about the omission of stock, or butter, or whatever items their flavor of vegetarianism prohibits.

Worst of all, many of those items are often dishes from which the meat was simply plucked away and replaced by either nothing, or worse still, with something ridiculous like portabella mushrooms because that whole “steak of mushrooms” thing is absolute baloney.

The exception of course was the food Dave Owens put on his menus at both Cardwell’s and Terrene. Although neither was a vegetarian restaurant outright, being a vegetarian himself, Owens always included options which every variety of vegetarian could enjoy. Best of all the choices actually sounded good even if you weren’t a vegetarian.

But sadly Owens and his wife Margaret Kelly have left the restaurant life behind, and while many say that Terrene continues to impress, I couldn’t help but lament the loss over the weekend as I had the opportunity to once again experience their food at Lambstravaganza. While it did contain meat (which you will see in a later post), the obvious affection for vegetables was clear the minute you laid eyes on it.

So my question is this: Where can vegetarians turn in St. Louis? With few strictly vegetarian restaurants, where can the truly great vegetarian food in our city be found?

It’s something I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately, and especially so after running across a website I’d not see before: Show Me Vegan.

16 Responses to “Vegan St. Louis”

  1. Sara Says:

    Bill, I think you’re more worried about it than vegetarians are! Vegetarians (and even vegans) can eat almost anywhere in town. Swear.

  2. Bill Burge Says:

    Well I guess I’m curious where the places are that you can get good stuff without having to make special requests. I know you’ve said that Gerard has cooked you some stellar meals, but I got the impression that it was stuff that wasn’t part of his on-menu vegetarian options.

    Mostly though I was just thrown by how beautiful the vegetables components were of Dave and Margaret’s dish and it made me miss the kinds of things they used to do when they were in restaurants proper.

  3. April Seager Says:

    Scottish Arms, Modesto, Niche, India’s Rasoi, Cafe Natasha, McLozzi Deli, Aya Sofia, OR Juice & Smoothies, Pi, Companion, Sen Thai, Bar Italia, The Royale, La Dolce Via, Rooster, Everest, Winslow’s Home …

    Just to name a few of the places I’ve eaten recently. My guess is this list looks a lot like anyone’s because I eat out with non-vegetarians all the time!

  4. jeff Says:

    This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart so I will apologize for the long answer.

    This is a tough town… When I do dinner, I have a dining partner that doesn’t do the meat thing.

    We have, however, found restaurants that serve meat that do an admirable job with vegetarian food. Top of mind are Atlas and Niche… both do amazing vegetarian soups and have at least 1 entree (and often two) that present vegetarian cuisine, not vegetables. We have also had great vegetarian food at An American Place and Erato. The food at Terrene has been good in the past, but more recent experiences have been less satisfying especially on weekend nights when the Veggie burger is not available.

    Besides the more upscale options above, Pizza places, especially Pi, are always in the steady rotation and there are Indian and Ethiopian options that do an excellent job (Meskeram, India Palace and Ruchi are top of mind).

    Sadly, too often we struggle with the idea of vegetarianism with both restaurant owners and staff. When we first moved to St. Louis there was an article about local versions of Hot & Sour soup. One of the best was touted as vegetarian. We frequented this establishment numerous times after confirming that the soup was vegetarian. As we found out recently, this owner considers chicken stock vegetarian. My dining companion does not.

    We are also additionally surprised when we find gaps in menus that don’t need to exist (these dished all use existing ingredients). I can’t count the number of times where we have gone to a local sushi joint and the basic avocado roll and even something more complex like a veggie-tempura roll are nowhere to-be-seen and we have to special order them.
    The single worst situation happened last year when we went to a recently opened hot spot. There was NO veggie option on the menu so we asked what could be done. Our server asked the chef what could be done and here’s what we were told:

    “He can make you a dish but we are not going to tell you what it is. It will be a surprise.”

    Past experiences have told us that this can be a good thing. Unfortunately, at this particular spot, it wasn’t. The dish that came out included box pasta, some chunks of vegetables and a heavy drenching on mediocre olive oil. It was virtually inedible. We haven’t been back.

    As for new openings, the options at Shaved Duck have been limited but quite tasty and we are looking forward to seeing what else they can come up with.

  5. Becky And The Beanstock Says:

    Oooh, Scottish Arms, April? I have a really hard time there (or maybe it’s the fact that haggis exists in the same building that gets me :). But otherwise I have to agree with Sara — there are lots of options in St. Louis. But no truly vegetarian restaurants, at least not that offer food worth the trip. I miss Sunshine Inn in the West End (this tells everyone how old I am…), but it was a wee bit before its time. I bet they’d do well now. I appreciate your opening the topic, Bill, and I am very interested to hear what other readers have to say.

  6. Sara Says:

    Terrene has a gorgeous tofu dish on the menu right now that’s vegan.

    I ate vegan off the menu at Basil Spice Thai last night and at Meskerem Ethiopian the night before.

    I can think of very few places in town that don’t have vegetarian options. And it doesn’t bother me to ask questions or call ahead. Having Gerard Craft and crew make food just for you is pretty friggin’ awesome, frankly!

  7. Katie Says:

    There are tons of ethnic cuisines that are vegetarian/vegan friendly. And I think that the menu at Terrene is basically the same as when Dave and Maggie left, so ….

    I’ve no doubt that there are places that just don’t get it, i.e. thinking chicken stock is vegetarian. (And by no means is this cluelessness confined to STL.) But I think that many places do get it, and most are more aware of the need to have vegetarian cuisine (not just vegetables, great distinction!) on the menu than they were five years ago. Case in point: When a buzzed-about place opened in January with zero vegetarian dishes on the menu, I was shocked — and I’m an omnivore. It’s an indication of how unusual it is to see a menu without such options anymore.

    That said, I think it’d be great to have even more vegetarian options – I’m as apt to order a veg. dish as I am steak, so bring ‘em on!

  8. Katie Says:

    Becky, I don’t think the Sunshine Inn was before its time — it was a great place and held a beloved status among STL diners, carnivore and vegetarian alike. Remember, there are a million reasons a restaurant could close, not just that diners didn’t like it. If I recall correctly, Sunshine Inn closed because of a landlord-tenant issue (grossly hiked rent, I remember hearing), not because of a lack of business.

  9. April Seager Says:

    No, The Scottish Arms isn’t a place vegetarians might expect to leave satisfied, but that’s the beauty of it.

  10. jeff Says:

    Scottish Arms is great. Did not mean to neglect. We have also had good veggie food at Araka.

  11. Adam Says:

    Check us out at The U. for some great vegetarian sandwiches. Of the 13 on the menu there are 2 strictly vegetarian and both can be done vegan. The sesame tofu sandwich is great! We can also do any of the other sandwiches with tofu substituting the meat. I have some regulars that order a Tofu Cheesesteak.

  12. Lisa (Show Me Vegan) Says:

    Thanks for raising the issue Bill. You’re in good company with Bittman’s article on reducing meat consumption this week.
    Vegan dining in STL has proven to be more challenging than vegetarian, but not impossible. A couple of weeks ago we had a 5 course vegan meal at Savor. This was off menu, but anyone could call ahead and get a delicious vegan meal (and there’s one vegan dish on the menu already). Could St. Louis do better? Definitely. We have a long way to go compared to LA, NYC, and Portland. And I still think offal is scarier than seitan.

  13. Becky and the Beanstock Says:

    Another place: Off the Vine. Though not vegetarian, and though they don’t sport many non-meat options on the menu, the chef is a creative and gracious genius. When two vegetarian friends ordered vegetarian off the menu, and said they’d trust the chef’s taste, he sent out two different entrees, both superb.

  14. Julie Says:

    Vegan options/meals have been requested alot in 2008. Corn risotto is on the long range planned menu scheduled in July…..ugh…hopefully local corn will be available. Pair vegan with glutin free and it makes for interesting menu planning.

    I’m with you on missing Maggy and Dave’s food. Hot Locust was a gem….
    Dave served a multicourse Raw meal for Julia Butterfly Hill that blew my sox off. Didn’t think it was possible for vegetables to have THAT much flavor.

  15. Sara Says:

    I’ll second Jeff’s suggestion of The Shaved Duck for tasty vegetarian options.

    The current tofu dish is vegan and really good — smoky, highly seasoned and served with a house-pickled version of my favorite vegetable:


    alder smoked bean curd with a pepper crust, baked beans & pickled okra

  16. sean Says:

    it takes some effort to find veg places here. i too lament the loss of such a mainstay as the sunshine inn. i ate there for years-in many ways, they taught me how to eat as a vegetarian. there are veg foods to be had here-in some cases, one has to travel for them. vega deli is in chesterfield-way too far for me to go, but at least it is there. and the ubiquitous thai, vietnamese and italian places are worth looking into.

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