Where Are All The Vegetarian Options?
Let’s do a little thought experiment.
Imagine that aliens came down to earth tomorrow, and for one reason or another, wanted to estimate the number of vegetarian restaurants there were in London. You can easily imagine how they might go about it – they would probably start with the total number of London restaurants (17,000, give or take according to the Mayor’s Office). Then, they would take the proportion of the population that were vegetarian (12%, give or take) and proudly, confidently declare that there are around 2,400 purely veggie restaurants in the capital.
And they would be very, very wrong.
We can’t exactly blame them, of course. They’re aliens, they don’t understand the complexities of human society, the restaurant industry, and your friend Rob who ‘just doesn’t do vegetables’. But just how wrong they are is astounding. If you go on TripAdvisor right now (and trust us, we would never ordinarily recommend this) and search for vegetarian-friendly eateries, you’ll be handed a top ten that includes two crepe cafés and a wine bar. In fact, the number of vegetarian restaurants in London hovers at around the 117 mark. Less than 1% of the total.
And to be clear, this is a problem – it’s a problem for the million or so Londoners who have decided to go meat-free, and feel sidelined by token, afterthought menu options. And it’s a problem for the industry as a whole, which has been glacially slow to adapt to the ever-growing trend of meat-free eating. Because according to pretty much every trend predictor everywhere, 2017 is set to be the year of the flexitarian. Whether it’s due to the rise of the celebrity vegan (words we never thought we’d say), the pursuit of better health, the environment, moral reasons, or just your common or garden meat scandal, a lot more people are saying neigh to meat, and they’re not being properly catered for.
So our question is: why not?
And the answer is, well, quite a few reasons.
THE DINING EXPERIENCE
This is a good place to start. Because eating out is a treat that meat-eating lends itself to nicely – there’s something primally satisfying about feasting on an entire suckling pig, a sense of occasion about gathering for a Sunday roast or steak night that has no real veggie equivalent in (at least British) foodie culture – no matter how majestically adorned the asparagus. Which is ingrained in us thanks to –
OUR FOOD CULTURE
Obviously most – if not all – restaurants in London have vegetarian options. Only most of the time, that means you’re staring a portobello mushroom burger in the face. Our native obsession with the ‘meat and two veg’ school of cooking has left little scope for experimentation with vegetables beyond sticking them in the roasting tray as a side. It’s also a ramification of the rigid starter, main, dessert structure of traditional English dining, where vegetables aren’t considered substantial enough to merit a whole course. Compare this to countries like India or the Middle East, where multiple dishes are served simultaneously, and vegetables are considered interesting enough in their own right, thanks to the bolder spices and flavours.
Then, there are the operational restrictions: restaurants are loathe to buy in sophisticated ingredients solely for vegetarian dishes when demand can fluctuate. The problem is, however, that demand is almost masked – when a menu has little to offer vegetarians, they (and often their omnivorous companions) go elsewhere, and restaurants have no idea how many customers they’ve just lost.
GOOD OL’ CHARLES DARWIN
Finally, there’s evolution. You see, as humanity’s early ancestors migrated out of Africa, we evolved with the changing (and considerably colder) climate. Back then calorie-dense food like fat & protein were a lot rarer and more valuable than they are now – and our brains developed an opioid system to reward each bite of juicy, fatty, salty, meat. Now, however, those foods are available everywhere, but sadly, our DNA hasn’t caught up. It still thinks that each hamburger is a calorie windfall that you need to be handsomely rewarded for having acquired. And each vegetable is just another vegetable, available basically everywhere. Ultimately vegetarian eating has fewer opportunities to gratify this opioid system, making it less attractive to the average diner’s primal, evolutionary appetite. So even on an unconscious level, meat wins. And this is reflected in our restaurant culture.
SO… WHERE TO GO & EAT?
So what kind of places are most likely to start swapping beef for leaf? Well, here’s a list of some of the best vegetarian spots in the city. Beyond those, global food is a solid place to get going. London is gloriously spoilt for different cuisines; Southern Indian restaurants like Rasa in Stoke Newington and Mayfair stay true to their roots with vegetable-laden traditional Keralan dishes, while Martin Morales caters specifically for vegans with the menus at Ceviche, asserting that they’re not just there as “an afterthought”, but part and parcel of the meal.
London’s also uniquely furnished with ways to eat out besides traditional restaurant dining. Supperclubs offer unusual, experiential ways to discover new dishes, helping to develop organically the occasion dining culture that has so far been lacking for vegetarian cuisine. Similarly, the rapidly growing street food and pop up scene is starting to create an indulgence culture around plant-based eating. Far from overly healthy rabbit food, food trucks like Killer Tomato and Club Mexicana offer up messy fast food so delicious you almost forget it’s secretly vegan and damn healthy. Traders can also evolve more quickly than permanent setups, taking notice of changing trends and tastes on the streets and adapting more easily to demand – and being front-facing, they can literally see potential custom walk away if their menus are found lacking.
That’s not to say that the big names aren’t changing their ways too – renowned restaurants are starting to offer vegan and vegetarian tasting menus, including The Clove Club and The Ledbury. And the rising trend for small plates and a growing emphasis on seasonality and provenance means that not only are vegetarian plates being introduced to menus in decent proportions compared to the meat and seafood offerings, they’re also given a proper platform, prepared with more care and attention than a lacklustre ‘afterthought’ main at a standard restaurant. These restaurateurs recognise that not only do groups want different things from their meal, individuals do too.
One thing’s for sure…
…they certainly know their onions.
Main image: The Gate
Hankering after some sweet sweet veg? Check out our guide to London’s best vegetarian restaurants