The New Stealth Vegetarian Restaurant

Peas and shoots in shell consommé at Ubuntu The New Stealth Vegetarian Restaurant(cont.)

The stealth vegetarian movement has even crept into the fast-food world. Restaurant chain Veggie Grill, out of Orange County, California, may give a little away with its name, but when you look at the menu, you see wings, Chinese chicken salad, and chipotle barbecue steak sandwiches listed. It’s only after staring very, very hard that you realize it’s not chicken, but “chillin’ chickin’,” a meat substitute. Likewise the steak. In fact, Veggie Grill is vegan.

“As soon as you tell people you’re vegetarian, or particularly vegan, you get a huge percentage of the population whose eyes glaze over and they think you’re nutty,” says cofounder Kevin Boylan. So Veggie Grill doesn’t. “This is normal food. Normal, delicious food. That’s all it is. No Birkenstocks. No crystals.”

The first of Veggie Grill’s soon-to-be-three locations was voted one of 2007’s best new restaurants by the Orange County Register in the general interest, not vegetarian, category. Boylan hopes to open up hundreds more around the country, and compares his business model to that of California Pizza Kitchen.

Veggie Grill Courtesy of Veggie Grill Grillin’ Chickin’ sandwich at Veggie Grill

It will have some competition from Zen Burger, a spin-off of the New York vegetarian restaurant Zen Palate. With one outlet in Manhattan and another on the way in West Hollywood, Zen Burger serves fake-meat burgers, fries, and salads with what Director of Marketing Chad Carpenter sees as McDonald’s magic formula: low prices, fast service, and comfortable familiarity. On the back of its menu Zen Burger says it is “meat free” but avoids categorizing itself as vegetarian.

You Don’t Have to Join PETA

Zen Burger’s target audience is people who have “seen on Oprah” that they should be living healthier and eating healthier, says Carpenter, but who wouldn’t feel comfortable “walking into a vegetarian crusade.”

And that audience is on the rise. According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, which conducts a poll every three years, 2.3 percent of U.S. adults are vegetarians, double the number who were in 1994. But larger still is the number of nonvegetarians who sometimes swing that way. Packaged meatless food companies like Yves and Amy’s Kitchen report that the majority of their sales of veggie enchiladas and tofu dogs are to omnivores, who, as Yves brand manager Michael Goose puts it, “eat a steak once a month, but they know they shouldn’t, so they’ll mostly eat soy products and meat alternatives.”

In fact, vegetarian food, which may have seemed weird and scary to many meat-eaters just a few years ago, now seems positively warm and cuddly in the face of mad cow disease, tainted beef, and animal cloning. “With all the meat recalls, people are understandably mistrustful of what’s in their food, especially when they don’t know what’s in their food,” says Michelle Erbs, marketing manager for Amy’s Kitchen. That’s helpful to a company that lists organic vegetables as its main ingredients, “even though we don’t scream ‘vegetarian’ when you look at our box.”

But the new openness to vegetarian food is not only about health fears. Chez Panisse and the slow food movement helped make beets and peaches sexy, producing a class of diners who feel the way LA meat-eater Meaghan Rady does: “I love a nice vegetarian pizza with intriguing flavor combinations—fruit and a nice cheese perhaps.”

Stealth vegetarian restaurants are looking to seduce the fearful, the curious, the vegetable thrill-seekers. But ultimately, their objectives are benign.

“For me, it’s not really about the animal rights or being vegan specifically,” Pure Food and Wine’s Melngailis says. “It’s about steering people away from unnaturally processed, shitty food.”