Restaurants dish up more veggie-based options

“Plant-based foods go mainstream” was the top item on Baum + Whiteman’s hot food trends forecast for 2018, which predicted that consumers would clamor for veggie-based items on restaurant menus and grocery shelves.

The report, which includes data from Mintel and NPD Group, found that, while only 6% of consumers in North America say they’re vegetarian, 83% are adding more plant-based dishes into their diets. Food manufacturers have led in creating new plant-based products, but restaurants are expected to expand their vegetable-based menu options and vegan ingredients this year.

More mainstream restaurants are expected to put plant-based meats and vegan cheeses on their menus, steakhouses will get more creative with veggie dishes to win over the vegetarians in the crowd and plant-based chains like Veggie Grill will draw investors and consumers alike, the report predicts.  

Vegan, vegetarian and veggie-centric restaurant concepts are on the rise in a growing number of US cities, expanding from major markets including New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia to less-likely spots from Omaha, Neb., to the Jersey shore.

Mainstream restaurants are shifting away from offering to customize existing menu items to creating interesting plant-based dishes that stand on their own, according to Baum + Whiteman. “So look for some first-rate vegetarian (if not vegan) dishes that don't sound like deprivation,” the report says.

The trend has restaurants and chefs innovating and creating new dishes to keep their veggie-centric menus interesting. And even eateries that haven’t always catered to the plant-based crowd are adding more options.

New York City fine-dining eatery Contra created a five-course vegetarian alternative to its tasting menu, in response to numerous email requests and visits by guests on plant-based diets, owner Jeremiah Stone told Bon Appetit.  

"Our cooking is mostly vegetables anyway. We didn't want to change the direction of what we were doing; we just wanted to be in control of creating a quality menu for people interested in eating without fish and meat,” Stone told the magazine.

As mainstream eateries explore their plant-based sides, vegan restaurants and chefs continue to innovate.

Chloe Coscarelli who parted ways with By Chloe, the vegan restaurant brand she founded, has opened a new concept in Miami’s new St. Roch food hall. The restaurant, dubbed Chef Chloe and the Vegan Café, will serve a menu  of brand-new recipes including butternut nachos with cashew queso, Coscarelli told Miami New Times.

Hot vegan menu trends

At sister vegan eateries Vedge and V Street in Philadelphia, small plates, shareable dishes and seasonal ingredients are still the stars of the menu, even as the industry trend may be starting to shift back to fine dining, said Chef Kate Jacoby.

“It hasn't quite hit for us yet, but I could see our menus leaning a bit heavier in the near future.  So while I still very much think diners want variety and enjoy sharing, I think they're willing to invest more in the overall dining experience,” she said.

People have also come to expect seasonal menus but they’re not complaining if some out-of-season produce makes its way onto the plate, Jacoby said.

“They don't seem to be critical if a restaurant isn't super strictly following the seasons.  For example, we would never serve asparagus outside the May-ish window, but plenty of places have it on their menus all winter long.  I think enough people are continuing to order it,” she said.

Cauliflower is catching on with customers at Vedge, which has cauliflower steak on the menu and teamed with Whole Foods Market to offer whole heads of roasted cauliflower as centerpiece items during the holidays.

“We've been really into rutabaga at Vedge in our fondue and at Wiz Kid as part of the Wiz on our seitan/mushroom cheesesteaks.  I haven't yet seen that pick up elsewhere, but it does offer a fantastic cheesy flavor and a really cool texture when it's roasted.”

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