Meatless restaurants carve out niche menu

Three of Bellingham's newest restaurants cater to those who don't eat meat, be they vegetarian, vegan or raw foodist.

By Isaac Bonnell

On a sunny Saturday evening last month, a group of about 12 people, many of whom had never met before, gathered for dinner at a downtown restaurant. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the event, but the circumstances were unique: Almost all of the attendees were vegans and they met at Bellingham’s first restaurant devoted to an entirely vegan menu.

It was a meet-and-greet without the meat.

“We had a great time and we talked about food most of the time,” said local blogger Clarissa Mansfield, who runs the blog Vegan in Bellingham and organized the event. “We’re going to make it a regular thing every other month or so.”

Vegans in Bellingham now have more options for dining out than ever before. In the last several months, three restaurants with meatless menus have opened offering a mix of vegan, vegetarian and raw food entrees: Bloom, Veg Express and Nama Living Foods & Wellness cafe.

And these aren’t the only restaurants catering to a growing population of vegan diners, said Mansfield, who has been a vegan for 10 years. An increasing number of restaurants here and around the region now have vegan entrees on their regular menus.

“Bellingham has become a lot more vegan friendly,” she said. “More people are talking about food sources and restaurants are noticing.”

Not just for vegans

There are varying levels of vegetarianism, depending on whether you exclude red meat, poultry, fish or all of the above, but a vegan diet is perhaps the simplest to describe. Vegans eschew all animal products, whether it be dairy, eggs or meat. Some vegans take it further and also avoid animal-derived products found in clothing and cosmetics.
For many vegans, the health benefits of the diet are as much a factor as the ethical reasons and environmental impact.

“I really stand by the diet,” said Justin Bilancieri, owner of Bloom. “I believe that it’s the most healthy diet, not only for humans, but for the environment as a whole.”

Since opening Bloom in October 2009, Bilancieri said he has received positive feedback from the local vegan community. He has expanded the menu in recent months to include items that non-vegans might be more willing to try, such as vegan burgers and burritos.

“I’m trying to cater to vegans and non-vegans alike,” he said. “Even people who aren’t vegetarian or vegan have taken a liking to the food. They don’t miss the meat when they come.”

Marlene Riviere, owner of Nama Living Foods, has a similar outlook with her raw food menu. She opened the restaurant in April of this year with a small menu of lunch items and desserts, but there is nothing on there that the average person wouldn’t recognize.

“I have a small, select menu because I want everything to taste good and I try to make food that tastes similar to foods that people are familiar with,” Riviere said.

A raw food diet, also called a living food diet, is slightly different from a vegan diet, though the two can be quite similar. Raw foodism is not anti-animal products — it is anti-cooking. Cooking sucks nutrients and natural enzymes out of food and makes it harder to digest food, Riviere said.

Though it may sound like a rather restrictive diet, Riviere wants people to know that eating raw food doesn’t have to be boring. Her first experience with raw food three years ago wasn’t exciting — she had green smoothies for a month — and she eventually dropped the diet. But after attending a raw food potluck a year ago and seeing and tasting the variety of dishes there, she decided to give raw food another chance. Preparing raw food is time consuming, though.

“There’s a lot of prep work. It’s not easy and it can take a lot of time,” she said. “It can be simple, you just have to have lots of room in your fridge to store stuff.”

So what does a raw foodist eat? Mostly sprouted nuts, grains, veggies and fruits. One of the more popular items on the menu at Nama Living Foods is the Thai noodles made with zucchini and kelp, topped with a spicy almond sauce and lots of veggies.

More vegan options

When Mansfield started her blog in 2008, Bellingham didn’t have restaurants dedicated to vegan or raw food. So she started the blog to be a resource for fellow vegan diners.

“I used to feel really uncomfortable when I first became vegan. I felt like the center of attention when I would go out in a group and it came around to my turn to order and I had my list of usual questions,” she said. “Now I feel like I can order like a regular person. Most restaurants know what vegan is and you don’t have to explain it.”

Even after two years of reviewing vegan fare in Bellingham, Mansfield still has a lot of restaurants left to visit. And she still questions the servers when ordering just to make sure the entree is vegan.

Some common mistakes she finds while dining out include serving a creamy salad dressing (made with dairy) with a side salad or cooking a vegan entree on the same grill where meat is cooked.

“It’s like giving a gluten-free person a basket of bread after they order,” she said.

While she really enjoys the new restaurants with meatless menus, Mansfield said she wants to encourage mainstream establishments to add to their vegan options.

“It’d be kind of neat if businesses realized that offering vegan items is in their best interest, because vegans come with people,” she said. “They will bring more people to the restaurant.”

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