Vegetarianism, once seen as a lifestyle choice synonymous with animal rights activists fresh off the bus from Lilith Fair, is now attracting new disciples, with plant-based diets being touted by celebrities like President Clinton and Beyoncé, and high-end grocery stores Whole Foods and Earthfare carrying more organic specialty items than ever.
"Ten years ago when I went to restaurants in Cleveland, no one had any idea what I was talking about," says vegan restaurant owner Austin Ruesch, whose Helio Terra Vegan Café has attracted notable customers like Awolnation and Lauryn Hill. "Now, every server, bartender, manager, and cook knows what vegan means."
Shelley Underwood of Johnny Mango World Café also has noticed a sea change during her 19 years in business. "People know about juices and tofu now," she says. "When we first opened, people didn't know what these things were. When we put 'juice bar' up on our window people thought that we were going to be a strip club because you couldn't serve alcohol in those establishments back then so they would call them juice bars."
How vegan terminology wound up in the Cleveland vernacular, a city that seems to cling to tailgating staples like burgers and brats or ethnic meals built around pork is anyone's guess, yet it could have something to do with that meat-and-potatoes diet we're known for contributing to many a natives' demise.
"I don't have any health issues but my father did," notes Joseph Joseph, vegan co-owner of the plant-based cafe Beet Jar. "People say it's family history, but I think that's reversible."
Along those same lines, chef Anna Harouvis of Good To Go Café seeks to improve the health and wellbeing of her customers by providing access to wholesome choices. "I lost my father really young. He had diabetes, leukemia, cancer, and heart disease. My legacy is to leave a healthy one for him. I'm just trying to change the way that we see fast food and add a healthy option."
In addition to selling a full lineup of her Anna in the Raw cold-pressed juices to professional athletes, Harouvis offers up an equal amount at no charge to Cleveland Clinic cancer patients. After all, she's witnessed first-hand the benefits. "You start meeting these athletes and they tell you how much better they are performing or that they cut out dairy and they don't get sick as much and have longer seasons."
No matter what the impetus is for choosing a healthier diet, veganism has evolved in recent years and increased accessibility to plant-based foods has made it easier than ever to sample the lifestyle. The creative cuisine served at the above restaurants as well as staples like Pura Vida, Tommy's Restaurant and The Root Café are living testaments that vegan and vegetarian offerings need not (and should not) be limited to bland tofu.
"The issue is that you can't just take out meat, dairy, and cheese and then expect it to taste good," explains Laura Ross of Cleveland Vegan. "There has to be some thought process into flavoring the food. Sometimes I'll go out and see a vegan offering and the idea of it sounds really great, but it's not always executed well."
Jodi Rae Santosuosso of Daily Press could not agree more. Santosuosso, who grew up working in a family restaurant known for its meat dishes, now manages to please picky diners – including her father – without using any. "Yes, you can make a burger vegan by taking the patty out, but it takes a creative person to recreate the flavor of the patty with nuts or beans. My dad is obsessed with the chili and the seitan pulled pork. He's amazed that there's no meat in it and it's so cool to see him share it with his friends, but it wasn't always that way. "
One of the newer health food trends is "raw food," or unprocessed foods that have not been heated above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Raw food is said to retain all of its natural enzymes and nutrients, and that's why Ruesch has made it a staple of his menu at Helio Terra. Good To Go Café boasts a menu that is roughly 60-percent and strives to be 100-percent non-GMO. Cleveland Vegan tempts their customers with a variety of raw treats including a pumpkin pie tart, date chocolate bar, and lemon lavender cheesecake. Daily Press swaps out raw specials like zucchini pesto pasta for cauliflower risotto. In addition to raw and oil-free foods, many of these businesses provide a large if not entirely, gluten-free menu.
Take it one step further and consider all of the ingredients that adventurous high-end chefs are now feeling comfortable using in their own kitchens: weeds like dandelion, foraged mushrooms and truffles, nut milks and the possibilities are endless for dehydrated raw foods.
"No one was really taking it seriously, but as national chefs were recognizing it the more people were getting excited," says Harouvis, who staged at Grace, a Michelin three-star restaurant in Chicago, with renowned chef Curtis Duffy. "If you see it going to that level where people paying up to $700 for a [vegan] tasting it's not going away." Harouvis recently presented a sold-out raw-vegan, gluten-free dinner at the Culinary Vegetable Institute of America with Farmer Lee Jones priced at $130 a seat.
Now, restaurants all over the city are cashing in, offering vegan nights on statistically slow weekdays. TownHall (1909 W 25th St), Deagan's Kitchen & Bar (14810 Detroit Rd., Lakewood), and even dives like Now That's Class (11213 Detroit Rd.) have dedicated vegan menus one evening of the week. It has left longtime vegetarians scratching their heads after feeling like black sheep for so long at family gatherings.
With more options to choose from, each specializing in something a little different and many opening their doors within the last year, is there enough business to go around for all of these vegan-friendly eateries? "The vegan places seem to be the ones that are doing alright," says Harouvis. "It's funny how it's switched. The vegans are the bread-winners and everybody else is trying to figure it out."