Lifestyle: A look at the state of vegetarian dining in Columbus
Portia Yiamouyiannis has what might seem to be a (plant-based) pie-in-the-sky goal: to make Columbus the vegan capital of the nation.
When vegetarian stalwart Whole World closed in April after a 39-year run, Yiamouyiannis' vision might have seemed dim. But with upstart vegetarian restaurants opening by the moment—and even non-veg eateries offering hearty fare for those who eschew animal protein—there has never been a better time to be a vegetarian (or someone who loves vegetarian food) in Columbus. To wit, the city has a 3,400-member Vegan Columbus Facebook group, and the nonprofit Columbus Veg Community has created tools for area vegans, including an online guide of local eateries and cards for diners to leave behind at restaurants that read, “I ate here because you serve vegan food.”
The big guys of dining have started to take note, including nods from chains not often associated with the term “healthy.” White Castle introduced a veggie slider in 2014, and Donatos has begun broadly distributing pizza topped with Daiya, a vegan cheese substitute. Meanwhile, Yiamouyiannis' Portia's Café, a gluten-free, plant-based eatery that opened in Beechwold in 2013, has been joined by a number of other small, local restaurants expanding the scope of vegetarian eats.
One July Saturday alone saw the grand opening of Eden Burger, a University District restaurant serving up high-quality, organic burgers, fries and shakes (all of which happen to be vegan) and a vegan street food pop-up market at specialty grocery store It's All Natural in Gahanna. Not more than two weeks before that, Brook Maikut and Joe Galati announced they would be opening Comune, a plant-based restaurant in a Parsons Avenue redevelopment project on Columbus' South Side.
Maikut and Galati, who formerly ran the plant-based pop-up Eat Rau, decided to create Comune, expected to open in early 2018, because they wanted to offer a full-fledged dining experience. The vegetarian food scene in Columbus, says Maikut, “is getting better, but it's definitely on the young side of things, even compared to cities that are slightly smaller.”
Maikut and Galati are still finalizing their menu (vegetarian, with egg and dairy products), but Maikut promises it will be nutrient-dense and flavorful. “It will be food that you won't eat and think, ‘Oh, I really wish there were some steak in here,'” he says.
“There are so many things you can do with vegetables when you cook them properly,” Galati says. “You'll still get all these different flavors that people associate with animal protein, just without the animal protein.”
Farther to the south on Parsons is another veggie-friendly project started by Eric Obenauf and Eliza Wood-Obenauf, the Columbus husband-and-wife team who bucked conventional thinking in the book publishing business by creating Two Dollar Radio in 2005. They announced plans for a Parsons Avenue headquarters that will include a bookstore, café and bar, expected to open this month.
Two Dollar Radio's café will dish up locally roasted coffee and plant-based food, such as house-made sandwiches, salads, dips and even an “artisanal nut-cheese board” intended to delight eaters of all stripes—while poking a bit of fun at gastropubs' cheese board trend.
“We're vegan ourselves, and the prospect of serving meat or dairy would be disingenuous (and it would gross me out at this point),” writes co-owner and director Eric Obenauf via email. “I honestly believe the future is vegan. Which isn't to say that it's suddenly hip, but rather that it's a lifestyle choice that is catching on.”
Another reflection of Columbus' vegan momentum is Willowbeez Soulveg, which Carnell Willoughby opened four years ago at the Franklinton farmers market. He went on to host a pop-up at Upper Cup Coffee Co. and opened a twice-weekly pop-up at the Hills Market Downtown. More recently, Willoughby shared plans to open a more permanent home for Willowbeez in the King-Lincoln District. “I'll have an actual address where people can come to, and where I'll be pretty much five days a week—and I can carve out some time for events as well,” he says.
Willowbeez's most popular dish is its Soul Power Rolls: quinoa, lentils, garlic, green pepper, onions and portabello mushrooms encased in a spring roll shell and served with an Asian-inspired dipping sauce. Columbus eateries once served limited vegetarian options: hummus, mushroom caps, tofu or just vegetables and pasta. “But now you have quinoa, you have options with beans … restaurants have stretched the boundaries,” Willoughby says. And diners are scarfing it up.
“I think now, someone can open a vegetarian spot, whether it's high-end or someone has, like, four items on their menu ... and they can thrive and be successful in the food market,” he says.
The omnivore's delight
While restaurants that are dedicated to vegetarian and vegan food are only growing in number, it's worth noting that many vegetarians' and vegans' favorite places to eat in town offer menus to please omnivores, too. Such places include eateries serving up ethnic fare from Ethiopia, India, Italy, Greece and Thailand—places that have long traditions of meat-free dishes.
This umbrella also includes restaurants such as Northstar Café, whose parent company, Organic Trails Cafés LLC, opened up Mediterranean-inspired Brassica in the Short North and will soon open a second location in Upper Arlington.
Another restaurant group seeing success serving up veggie-friendly fare is A&R Creative, which recently opened Trism, a fast-casual restaurant, bar and event space in the University District. A&R also plans to open a second location of its Alchemy Juice Bar + Café in an as-yet-undisclosed location.
Alchemy opened in 2014 near Nationwide Children's Hospital with a goal of providing “foods that not only taste awesome, but make you feel great,” says co-founder and nutritionist Alexis Joseph. A majority of the menu at the juice bar and café is vegetarian, and gluten-free options are available as well. “We're big on having something for everyone. It's nice when someone comes in with ‘X' diet and they can have a meal with someone who has ‘Y' diet,” she says. Alchemy's menu, which includes barbecued jackfruit topped with a cashew-cream sauce and a hearty chickpea sandwich, means that diners “don't feel like they're missing anything,” she says. “We're not shoving it in anyone's face that it's healthy or vegan; it just tastes friggin' awesome, and it's an added benefit that it's good for you and good for the environment.”
The Angry Baker, which has been open in Olde Towne East since 2011 and in the University District since 2016, offers breakfast, lunch and pastries. Nearly every item on the menu is vegetarian or vegan (and many dishes are gluten-free), with available additions such as bacon, sausage, salmon, chicken and turkey. The goal, says Victoria Hink, Angry Baker's owner and operator, is that “whether you are vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, a meat-eater, have children with you, need a wedding cake or birthday cake or an event catered, we can do it all and offer something so everyone is happy.”
Hink, herself a vegan, has lived in Columbus for a dozen years. “I have seen a huge increase in vegan offerings in restaurants, and restaurants actually advertising it,” she says. “Restaurants have gone from offering the standard vegetable plate to appease veg people to now actually getting creative and making composed dishes. The Angry Baker has been lucky to grow and evolve with that over the years.”
Dan Otanicar, the co-founder of Whole World, concurs. “Almost every single restaurant that opens now has multiple vegetarian options on their menus,” he says. “I don't think 20, 25 years ago, back when I first opened, if somebody was opening a restaurant, having vegetarian options on their menu ever even entered their mind.” And, he notes, groceries such as Lucky's Market, Fresh Thyme, Whole Foods and Giant Eagle Market District are offering vegetarian- and vegan-friendly prepared foods, too. While that might be good news for diners seeking veg foods, it can be a challenge for strictly vegetarian restaurants to compete, as Otanicar knows all too well. “It's hard. It just is,” he says. Since closing Whole World, he's now focused on his family's fair and festival concessions business.
Amina Cochran and Aaron Cottrell created and ran Freaks + Leeks, a vegan pop-up brunch spot, out of Platform Beer Co. Downtown from March through June of this year.
During its run, the pop-up (on break while Cochran and Cottrell refine their product and brand) offered a range of dishes including biscuits and gravy with scrambled tofu and fried oyster mushroom sliders with gravy. Crowd favorites included such bites as almond feta-stuffed dates and an orange-cardamom French toast.
“I don't think that we would have been so eager to do something like this—though working with food is very much a passion of mine—but we had gone to New York City in September and there was so much available for vegans there. I mean, that's obvious because New York is enormous, but it wasn't just that there were black bean burgers on every menu. There was vegan sushi, vegan coffee spots, vegan pizza! It was wild compared to what we had in Columbus at that time,” Cochran says.
But Cochran remains optimistic about Columbus. In the decade since she first hit town, the staples like Whole World, Dragonfly Neo-V (which later became Till), Hal & Al's and several of the Columbus Food League restaurants that catered to vegans and vegetarians have closed their doors. On the other hand, places such as Alchemy, Trism, Portia's, Pattycake Bakery, Sobremesa Street Kitchen and the Woodhouse Vegan Pop-Up at Oddfellows Liquor Bar represent progress, offering “different and interesting things with food,” she says.
Still, “it's a bummer that the pop-ups are only one day a week, and for a window of just a few hours,” Cochran adds. “Also, while the vegan spots I've mentioned do offer a lot of house-made options—and obviously it costs time and money to prepare the food and run the business—I wish that there were some more fully realized vegan concepts with a little more involved menu options.”
Four years after opening Portia's Café (and two years after opening the nearby Clintonville Natural Foods) Yiamouyiannis has her sights set on expanding vegan restaurant offerings in town—both by helping others and by opening more of her own eateries. “With more and more awareness, people's increased health-based thinking and Columbus being such a foodie town, having more plant-based restaurants that have a variety of tasty options that make people feel great totally can work,” she says.
Columbus is coming along, Yiamouyiannis says. “I see lots more vegan options in mainstream restaurants and vegan pop-ups in popular spots around town. Seeing the positive response makes me believe it's not just a trend, but something people want.”
And though its doors have been shuttered, Whole World's legacy will carry on: Yiamouyiannis has begun work to take over the restaurant's Clintonville space with a new concept—a vegan diner, a concept Otanicar says he's “super happy” to see developed at his old stomping grounds.
Columbus needs a healthy, tasty breakfast place, says Yiamouyiannis. “I love the idea of not letting the veg vibe die in the Whole World space and providing something needed in town at the same time,” she says.
While the options for those who observe Meatless Monday—or meatless dining every day of the week—are expanding, Columbus still has room to grow. Here are some suggestions we heard from restaurateurs and vegan/vegetarian diners about what Columbus needs—and what it could dial back:
- Processed products and junk food
- Menus with hummus as the only vegetarian option
- Playing it safe (no more Boca burgers!)
- Sad iceberg salads
- Pasta primavera and mushy stuffed veggies
- House-made and whole-food-based ingredients
- Hearty appetizers
- Inventive thinking when it comes to menu design
- Salads that include proteins as well as vegetables
- Dishes incorporating legumes and satisfying ingredients