Discussion: Hobson’s Vegetarian – when the vegetarian option is Hobson’s choice

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Let me set a scenario for you. A person goes out for a meal at a restaurant. When they look at the menu they make a choice of starter and main course. Allowing for personal likes and dislikes, they will usually choose a main that contrasts with their starter in main ingredient, texture or cooking method. So they won’t have salad for both courses, or pasta for both courses, or cheese, or fish. They’ll mix and match.

If you just read that scenario and nodded your head in recognition that, yes, this is how eating out works for you, then the chances are you’re not a vegetarian. With the honourable exception of Italian, Indian and some other ethnic cuisines, a vegetarian at a mainstream restaurant will have a choice of about 2-3 starters and 1-2 mains (and it’s much more likely to be 2 and 1!)

So the choice is limited and remember that contrasting tastes and textures thing? It doesn’t happen so much for vegetarians. There’s a little restaurant not far from me. It’s current menu has two vegetarian starters – arancini with leeks and blue cheese or deep fried bri wedges with cumberland sauce, the one vegetarian main course is macaroni cheese. That’s cheese or cheese followed by cheese. They have actually expanded their vegetarian options. Last year the vegetarian options were garlic mushrooms for starter and wild mushroom casserole for main.

OK, you can laugh at them, and I do. I also haven’t stepped through their door. They’re a small, local restaurant with no apparent ambitions beyond good write-ups on TripAdvisor. Peace to all such!

But that clueless restaurant got me thinking. What is it like for veggies at the higher end of the market, where the restauranteurs court reviews from broad-sheet restaurant critics. What’s it like where Jay Rayner & Giles Coren go to dine?

Well, here’s a real menu I found (name withheld to protect the guilty):

Starters
SautÈed Razor Clams, Kohlrabi, Pineapple, Wasabi and Coriander
Chargrilled Quail, Green Papaya Salad and Peanut Sauce (£1 Supp)
Pressed Skate, Saffron, Dill, Radish and Tomato Emulsion
Globe Artichoke, Dandelion, Parmesan Custard, Truffle and Honey,
Red Pepper Gazpacho, Feta, Toasted Hazelnut, Dried Olives, Capers and Basil
Frogs Legs, Smoked Garlic, Pickled Fennel and Lemon Mascarpone

Mains
Fillet of Beef, Buttered Potato, White Onion, Roasted Bone Marrow and Parsley Butter (£6 Supp)
Roast Monkfish, Spiced Lentils, Beetroot Raita, Shallot Pakora, Tomato and Cardamom Sauce
Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder, Crispy Pigs Trotter, Black Pudding, Sweet Potato and Cider
Duck Breast, Confit Duck Roll, Butternut Squash, Runner Beans, Soy and Blackberries
Open Ravioli, Goats Cheese, Chargrilled Summer Vegetables, Toasted Pine Nuts, Oregano, Confit Tomatoes
Fish of the Day

Look at the ambition in that menu! Individually each course makes your mouth water. But for a vegetarian, that’s a starter with feta followed by goats cheese. I strongly suspect that the restaurant thinks that there are two vegetarian starters, but parmesan hasn’t been vegetarian for years!

Well, that’s one menu. Is it representative? To find out I went and looked. I took as my sample restaurant reviews in The Guardian, The Observer, The Telegraph and The Independent websites for August 2013. I went to the restaurant websites and looked at their menus. Where there was a dinner or a al carte menu I counted the number of vegetarian starters and main courses they offered, noting how many of those included goats’ cheese or other cheese. I did a quick check to see if any set menus had veggie options as well. I also counted whether a ‘V’ next to a menu item was accurate as well.

These are the reviewed restaurants that had a website with a current, or sample, menu:
The Honours, Caisse-Croute, Whyte&Brown, Le Champignon Sauvage, Hutong, Rock Lobsta, Blue Boar Smokehouse, Grain Store, Otto’s, Fleet Street Kitchen, The Green Room, Plum + Spilt Milk, Shoryu Ramen, River Cottage Canteen, Paesan, Picture, La Famiglia, The Olde Bell, 63, Manchester, Rockfish, Hartnett Holder & Co, The Dairy, Taqueria, The Kitchin, Van Zeller.

I have not contacted any of these restaurants for clarification or explanation. I’ve treated this exercise as I would if I was looking for a restaurant I wanted to visit. A restaurant’s website is the face they want to present to the world as much as their restaurant front window. If they choose to present a face that’s unfriendly to vegetarians I’m going to take them at their word.

There were 25 restaurants that I examined. Of the dinner and set menus, there were 475 main courses in total, 75 (16%) of which were vegetarians and 43 (57%) of those that contained cheese. There were 291 starters, 90 (30%) of which were were vegetarian and 39 (43%) involving cheese. Now 16% vegetarian main courses is ahead of the game considering that only about 10% of the population is vegetarian but that vegetarian population does have to like cheese.

Speaking of cheese, 7 restaurants only offered mains that contained cheese and 5 offered only cheese based starters. And, yes, there was 1 that offered only cheese as a starter and a main course.

On another cheese related tack, 13 restaurants marked the vegetarian items on their menus. A scary 5 (that’s nearly 39%) were inaccurate about what constitutes vegetarian – mostly this was to do with parmesan cheese being thought suitable. The only way to deal with this is to be that vegetarian and interrogate the waiter at every meal. You cannot assume anything from the menu. One restaurant offered ‘Sourdough bread with smoked butter’. Sound innocuous enough, but the review of this place nonchalantly praised the smoked bone marrow that gave it such a wonderful flavour!

6 places (that’s nearly 25%) offered no vegetarian main course and a further 5 offered only one choice. Hobson’s vegetarian indeed. A couple of places said that they would do something special if a vegetarian asked before arriving, but gave no indication of an example of what this might be. One place, which offered not a single, solitary vegetarian option either as starter or main, would do a ‘surprise’ vegetarian tasting menu (the surprise being that you have no clue what they think constitutes ‘vegetarian’) as long as the whole table ordered it. So, they expect a bunch of vegetarians to turn up mob-handed and order, sight unseen, a very expensive meal. I can only guess at the take-up rate for that, I wouldn’t risk it.

This makes me sad and angry. Angry because it looks like a substantial minority of the chefs at these restaurants just don’t care about vegetarians. It makes me sad because these are the places we should be going to. These are the independents, the quality places, the individualistic ones, the ones that add difference to the high street. And if they’re not getting it right, the chains are. Nandos has a better vegetarian selection than most of the restaurants I looked at. ASK has a better selection, so does Pizza Express. I don’t know how many trips to restaurants are negotiated around vegetarian options but I know my friends do it with me and so does my office – if there isn’t a decent vegetarian option we don’t go to those places. That means a place with bad vegetarian options doesn’t just lose the custom of the vegetarian, they lose it for everyone in that party that would have spent money with them otherwise. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the chains have figures around how often that happens and have changed their menus accordingly.

Now I get that vegetarians make up, at best, only 10% of the population. I get that, in a non-specialist restaurant, only vegetarians will tend to eat the vegetarian main course. No restaurant can afford to have menu items that very few people pick. But, it shouldn’t take a genius to construct a menu with one main course that’s different to the starters. Now maybe the restaurants I looked at don’t need to worry about what vegetarians want. Maybe they don’t care. But until they do, this vegetarian will be at my local pub. It’s not posh or gourmet, but it has a separate vegetarian menu with two vegan options! That beats every single other restaurant in that list of twenty-five. They get it. What’s stopping the big guys?

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5 responses »

  1. I am head-desking more than a head-desking thing! One of my pet rants is the contempt that far too many professional chefs – particularly the celebrity ones – show for vegetarians. You’d think any decent chef would want a challenge to provide top-quality vegetarian/vegan food. Clearly not. Aside from cheese, I have been somewhere where the starter and main course were sun-dried tomatoes in some form (which I happen to think resemble shoe leather!)

    • Well there was a fashion for sundried tomatoes that hit meat eaters as well. But you really do want better food at this level of cooking!

  2. I envy you having such a lovely-looking and veggie-friendly pub near you. We rarely ever bother going out at all. More likely to order in a curry. Agree about the cheese thing, and is it just me or do vegetarian meals usually end up being half the size of those your meat eating friends order? A mushroom tartlet with with a handful of baby spinach leaves on the side, does not fill me up!

    • Oh hell, yes! My default choice is to go for a curry, as I know there will be a good veggie choice. And don’t even get me started on the portion rip-off! Worst was our work Christmas meal, where the meat eaters had turkey and trimmings. The vegetarians got a miniscule portion of mushroom risotto and two bits of garlic bread. This happened two years running (long story as to how we ended up going back!) Moral: Don’t eat in Cafe Parisien in Portsmouth!

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