While vegetarian options have existed ever since Eve served Adam the apple, restaurants from independents to large casual-dining chains are fleshing out their offerings as operators see a growing audience for meatless menu items.
Vegetarian options, in fact, are getting more prominence on springtime menus, ranging from those at fast-casual Moe’s Southwest Grill to casual-dining Hard Rock Café.
Paul Damico, president of the 428-unit Atlanta-based Moe’s Southwest Grill, said such programs as “Meatless Mondays” and increased attention to gluten-free diets have led to the growing popularity of rice bowls, introduced this past October and often ordered with tofu as the protein. They now generate about 5 percent of sales, he said.
“We are seeing people choose one day a week to be a ‘flexitarian,’ or to try options other than a meat protein,” Damico said. Moe’s recently changed its menu boards to highlight the vegetarian, low-calorie and gluten-free options available in its burritos and rice bowls, he said.
The new spring menu at the casual-dining Hard Rock Café includes an expanded variety of vegetable options. “The brand is offering a lighter-fare alternative to guests who may not be enticed by our classic ‘Legendary’ burger options,” said Kristen Hauser, a Hard Rock representative.
Among Hard Rock’s meatless or meatless-adaptable items are:
• Balsamic Tomato Bruschetta: Diced Roma tomatoes marinated with chopped garlic, fresh basil and aged balsamic vinegar on olive oil-toasted ciabatta bread. Topped with parsley, grated Romano and shaved Parmesan cheese.
• Greek Salad: Mixed greens with sweet onion, julienne red bell peppers, pepperoncini peppers, cucumber slices and topped with kalamata olives, grape tomatoes and crumbled feta cheese. Those wanting a meat protein can add grilled shrimp, salmon or chicken.
• Grilled Veggie Sandwich: Toasted ciabatta bread with roasted garlic, leaf lettuce, seasoned grilled zucchini and yellow squash, served with a marinated portobello mushroom, roasted red bell pepper, grilled red onion rings and sliced tomato. It is served with salad and choice of dressing.
• Veggie Leggie: A grilled veggie patty is topped with grilled portobello mushroom, zucchini, yellow squash and roasted red pepper with lemon mayo, leaf lettuce, sliced tomato and grilled sweet onions, and served with a side salad.
Some independent operators, such as chef Walter Staib at City Tavern in Philadelphia, go beyond the obvious options. Staib and a research team found Benjamin Franklin’s letters to Philadelphia's John Bartram that explained the benefits of tofu, so that has been added to the menu at City Tavern. Staib also was inspired by Thomas Jefferson's letters to create meatless dishes, such as a classic French mushroom toast.
On the West Coast, Stonefire Grill of Westlake Village, Calif., which has seven locations in Southern California, recently introduced a “Healthy Alternatives Menu” that included several meatless items such as Cheeseless Grilled Veggie Pizza and Grilled Vegetables with Feta cheese.
“We created the Healthy Alternatives Menu in response to the growing number of guests who request specific nutritional information to accommodate their dietary needs,” said Mary Harrigan, who launched Stonefire Grill with her sister, Maureen, in 2000. “Our goal was to reinterpret some of our popular menu items with an eye toward making them more nutritionally sound without sacrificing the bold flavor and overall satisfaction that comes with dining at Stonefire Grill.”
Rosa Mexicano, a 10-unit chain based in New York City, recently has added vegetarian tacos to its menu. http://www.nrn.com/article/rosa-mexicano-introduces-combination-menu-deal
And onsite feeder Sodexo has started implementing Meatless Mondays at some of its contract outlets, including college campuses.
Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co. consultancy in Atlanta, said, “The great majority of dedicated vegetarians, as I’m sure you know, continue to reside on college campuses, which is where most of the innovation around vegetarian dishes resides.”
While Kruse said she has not seen chains offer much flexibility — such as dishes that can be ordered without meat — she cited the Miso Shrimp Salad at California Pizza Kitchen that can be ordered without the shrimp.
“They appeal to flexitarians, occasional vegetable seekers who want virtue without sacrifice,” Kruse said.
Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].