Chefs of Halifax, up your veggie game

Voice of the City

Let me begin by saying that no, no, I'm not a vegetarian. But I do love eating at many of the casual, sustainable and local-conscious restaurants and bars that have been popping up like wild, forageable mushrooms around Halifax over the past few years. You know the ones: open concept and lively, innovative cocktails plus a tasteful beer and wine selection, with the trendiest of staff. So for someone who has the luxury of choosing from at least 80 percent of the entrees on offer at these spots to notice an inadequacy, it must be a problem. The inadequacy I'm talking about is the disparity in choice, portion and value between vegetarian and meat entrees.

In a little study I did, three of the seven venues I dined at offered only one vegetarian entree, and yet another, Stillwell, was so bold as to offer none. Often, that vegetarian option doubles as vegan, or even triples as gluten-free, presumably to kill three tofurkies with one stone. This results in the relentless back-and-forth between lentil/legume and risotto dishes. On top of that, frequent dining out for vegetarians becomes even more monotonous as the veggie option rarely changes more than once a month. A meat-eater can be a happily returning customer with new dishes on the horizon at least five times per month, compared to a vegetarian's single visit. Order two appetizers instead, you say?

That brings me to my next point about portion sizes and the prices vegetarians pay. A friend of mine, upon visiting the same restaurant twice in one month, decided to do just that. They chose a salad ($10), followed by something equivalent to a slice of baguette with tomato and a fine piece of mozzarella ($14). The bill for the two items was as large as that of a hearty meat entree, but the contents were not. On a separate occasion, a friend ordered the lone veggie main, a squash gnocchi, while their partner ordered steak. There was a handful-and-a-half of gnocchi, and it cost $23. The steak, complete with vegetables and potatoes, rang in at just $3 more. Even accompanied by a few shavings of a nice cheese and the time it takes to hand-make a gnocchi, its value is not that close to the steak's.

So, why is this happening? I categorize these meat-heavy menus as a prime example of a food trend. Having a pantry full of fine, imported ingredients was popular 15 years ago, but is shunned nowadays, and for good reason. The slow, local food movement is a step in the right direction. But with that comes a focus on rustic, meaty cuisine. Unfortunately, chefs seem to be keeping their menus within those parameters, to the detriment of vegetarians. But trends come and go. Today's pan-seared veal heart will be yesterday's Cajun blackened chicken sooner or later. Vegetarians, however, don't become meat-eaters as soon as meat-eating is popularized. Being a vegetarian isn't a trend, it's a life choice. Putting limited effort into vegetarian options is not acceptable just because a chef doesn't like preparing it. Neither is giving less than substantial portions but charging disproportionately high prices. The move toward rustic, slow food is becoming equally as alienating as the white tablecloth food-snobbery of yesteryear.

On a positive note, the restaurants who brought up the average of vegetarian mains deserve a shout-out: 2 Doors Down, you're leading the pack with three, followed by Field Guide with two. Chefs of Halifax, I think it's about time you upped your game. You're clearly capable. And remember, meat-eaters will choose a vegetarian option if it sounds delicious (I'm the proof). In the spirit of this weekend's VegFest, put a couple veggie specials on the menu.

Natalie Burgoyne is a cook, canner, forager and food swapper with unbridled enthusiasm for all things edible (except steamed carrots, which are gross).

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