Tired of menus that treat vegetarian options as an afterthought? Here are some places where meatless reigns supreme, or at least gets equal play.
Meat gets a lot of attention, as evidenced by the latest foodie trends, from nose-to-tail cooking to complicated charcuterie. But there’s also good news for the herbivores among us. It turns out that area chefs are just as deft at expressing remarkable flavor from fruits, veggies and vegetarian proteins. We bring you a sampling of restaurants ranging from vegetarian-friendly to vegetarian-forward that are worth a try, followed by a second visit.
Clare and Don’s Beach Shack
130 North Washington St., Falls Church, 703-532-9283; www.clareanddons.com
The only thing outnumbering vegetarian dishes at Clare and Don’s Beach Shack are flip-flops. Customer-decorated sandals line the walls at this little taste of Florida in Falls Church. The brother and sister owners are, in fact, Floridian, but their names aren’t Clare and Don. Rather, the name pays homage to a former director of the Clarendon Alliance, Tom Fairchild, who had two fish named Clare and Don. (Clarendon was the original location of the beach shack before it moved to its current location, explain owners Rebecca and David Tax.)
Rebecca is a vegetarian and so are her children, so she knows the value of meatless variety. The kitchen serves up more than 20 vegetarian options, including fried coconut tofu, a tangy buffalo tofu sandwich and even an “uncrabcake” flavored with Old Bay seasoning.
Any dish that incorporates beans is a can’t-miss, according to Tax, who wears the “cook” hat in addition to being an owner (“chef is too pretentious for what we’re trying to do here,” she says). The beans are addictive, thanks to Tax’s trick of incorporating burnt onions along with the charred oil in which they were cooked. Try them in the “Beach a Rito,” a brown-rice-and-bean burrito with cheddar, pepper jack, tomato and your choice of sautéed veggies or tofu.
The atmosphere here swings from family-friendly by day to lively at night, when the margaritas start to flow. Whatever the hour, Clare and Don’s gives vegetarians the chance to kick back and have some true bar food that doesn’t involve stealing the carrot and celery sticks from someone else’s order of buffalo wings.
Busboys and Poets
4251 South Campbell Ave., Arlington, 703-379-9756; www.busboysandpoets.com
Busboys and Poets gained national recognition on the popular MTV series True Life, when a young girl discovered it as a spot where she could safely enjoy a meal. The episode, “I’m Allergic to Everything,” aired in 2011 and serves as an on-screen example of the inclusive style at this laid-back café, which makes a point of going the extra mile to accommodate all diners. It’s all part of a “tribal statement” focused on cultivating a community where everyone is welcome.
“I wanted to create a space that was multiracial and multiethnic, just like our city, and it’s working,” says owner Anas “Andy” Shallal, who set this intention in motion in 2005 when the first Busboys opened in Northwest D.C. Two years later, he launched the Shirlington outpost, which, like its sister locations, hosts regular events such as film screenings and poetry slams (hold the ham!).
For those who prefer meatless, the Busboys menu offers many options: Nachos piled high with vegan cheese and sour cream; vegan pizza that could fool Papa John; a vegan Cobb salad with tempeh bacon; and even a vegan tuna sandwich made with chickpeas, relish, nori, carrot, celery, red onion and vegan mayo. Vegetarians can twirl their fork in pasta dishes (try the nest of angel hair bursting with Mediterranean flavors, thanks to black olives, capers and roasted tomatoes) or chomp on veggie burgers. The menu is also stacked with burgers of the beef variety, creating a place where large groups of both meat- and non-meat-eaters can easily dine together.
5880 North Washington Blvd., Arlington, 703-534-7474; www.thainoy.com
When Kot Symoukda opened Thai Noy 16 years ago, he served as both owner and chef. Two years later, he relinquished control of the kitchen to a trusty team, freeing him up to do what he loves most—peruse local markets for fresh ingredients. “It’s better than having a box dropped off at your door, plus I enjoy it,” says Symoukda, who shops at Asian markets like H Mart and Grand Mart year round, but looks forward to selecting fresh fruits, veggies and herbs at the Falls Church Farmers Market in summer and fall.
Symoukda’s focus on quality produce is one of the reasons Thai Noy is a prime spot for herbivores. While the menu includes a dedicated vegetarian section with entrées such as a creamy red curry, the kitchen will make any dish vegetarian upon request. Take the off-menu larb gai, made with crispy, sugar-cube-sized tofu squares that are bursting with tangy lime flavor. You can use them as filler for lettuce wraps, or just flick them into your mouth like popcorn (while strategizing how to sneak a box into the movies). Still can’t find something that catches your eye? Just tell the staff what you like and they’ll whip up something to suit your tastes.
This accommodating attitude is all part of the Thai Noy experience, which is like getting a big hug of Southeast Asian hospitality. Symoukda says most of his customers are regulars, including those who’ve moved away. “We find that when people come back into town for business or to see family, they make time to come in for a meal,” he says. “It’s the greatest compliment.”
Saran Indian Restaurant
5157 Lee Highway, Arlington, 703-533-3600; saranindiancuisine.com
Menus at Indian restaurants in America can be misleading. Pictures of tandoori chicken and lamb curry often take center stage, while the vegetarian fare is relegated to the back cover. This isn’t an accurate reflection of the typical Indian diet.
“Half of the Indian population eats strictly vegetarian, and the other half eats vegetarian at home. Meat is something consumed at restaurants on special occasions,” explains Saran chef/owner Ravinder Hazrah. That’s why his restaurant has been inviting people to try home-style vegetarian cuisine since 1997.
Saran is also a bit unusual in that it serves both Northern and Southern Indian cuisine, including unique Punjabi specialties like saag and makki ki roti. (This “farmer’s meal” consists of mustard-leaf-and-spinach curry served with corn bread.) Most dishes feature legumes, such as lentils, as well as eggplant, paneer cheese, potatoes and okra, a vegetable known in India as “lady fingers.”
Perhaps the best way to experience Saran is to order a thali—an ornate, tapas-style platter that allows you to taste your way around the menu on the cheap.
Saran also takes its show on the road. Hazrah’s sons, Tej and Karan, man the Saran Vegetarian food truck that parks in various downtown D.C. locations by day, and they may add an Arlington truck in the future.
2940 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington, 703-276-9090; cavamezze.com
Drama and diversity are dining luxuries that vegetarians typically don’t have when picking their way through a meat-centric menu. Too often, the fanfare is reserved for carnivores and pescetarians—whether the spectacle is Dover sole, fileted tableside, or grill-your-own Korean barbeque.
Cava Mezze has one dish that changes that: saganaki. It’s a Greek cheese called kefalograviera that arrives ablaze, thanks to a little help from lemon and brandy, giving diners a show for $10. And it tastes as good as it looks, staying warm and melty long enough to defy science.
There’s also plenty else to choose from at this Mediterranean bistro, where the vegetarian mezze options include salads, spreads, cheeses, fritters and expertly fried and roasted veggies. Though the menu changes seasonally, there are more than 20 vegetarian small plates, including crispy Brussels sprouts that are both exuberant green and golden brown, served with a drizzle of Greek yogurt.
Another standout dish? The stuffed grape leaves, or “dolmades.” They demonstrate just how much heart goes into the burgeoning Cava empire, headed up by Ike Grigoropoulos, Ted Xenohristos and Dimitri Moshovitis, which also includes the fast-casual concept Cava Mezze Grill (which has locations in Tysons Corner Center and Merrifield’s Mosaic District) and Cava Foods, their vegetarian-friendly line of dips and spreads sold at local grocery stores.
“In Greece, people wake up with the sun to start prepping food for the day,” Xenohristos explains. “Our ‘grape leaf lady’ is no different—she’s been rolling and stuffing dolmades in the wee hours of the morning since we opened in 2006. She used to work with my mom at her restaurant in Burtonsville, Md., and now helps bring Cave Mezze patrons authentic hand-rolled grape leaves.”
2842 Rogers Drive, Falls Church, 703-942-5622; www.lovinghut.us/fallschurch_01
What do President Bill Clinton, Pamela Anderson and Benjamin Franklin have in common? This is not a bad joke. Rather, their portraits—along with those of other celebs and historical figures—line the walls of Loving Hut in homage to those who have embraced a diet free of animal products.
The photos are part of a larger purpose at the Falls Church café, which specializes in vegan cuisine. “Our restaurant is about informing people and making them aware of their options,” says owner Vincent Nguyen. Loving Hut has 41 independently owned restaurants in the U.S., with even more locations abroad. All share a mission of educating the public about how veganism contributes to a more sustainable, humane planet.
Fortunately, this side dish of activism accompanies an array of delicious menu choices that draw on Vietnamese, Chinese and American culinary traditions. The Hawaiian “burger” delights with the obligatory slice of pineapple perched atop a teriyaki-glazed soy patty. And the golden vermicelli entrée is like a festival of colors and flavors: Thin rice noodles are ornamented with golden rolls of soy protein, marinated in lemongrass, and accompanied by lettuce, cucumber, pickles, roasted peanuts and imitation fish sauce. The price for this party bowl? A slim $7.50.
Save room for dessert. In addition to some in-house options and bubble tea, Loving Hut serves treats from Sticky Fingers, a local vegan bakery.
Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant
6304 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, 703-237-3888; www.sunflowervegetarian.com
Institution. Authority. Award-winning. These are some of the words that come to mind when free-associating about Sunflower Vegetarian, which has occupied the same spot in Seven Corners since 2007, although its sister location in Vienna has been open close to 20 years. The restaurant has a menu so thick it could prop open a dungeon door. On it, you’ll find interpretations of Chinese and Japanese cuisine, along with a few continental classics. Sometimes the choices lead to what celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay calls “fusion confusion,” but other times they work.
The Eggplant Lover dish, which starts with deep-fried eggplant rounds stuffed with organic cheese, soy protein and sundried-tomato-pumpkin-seed pesto, is a winner. These golden morsels then artfully adorn the rim of a bowl of vegetables soaked in sweet-and-sour sauce, which is garnished with mango, red pepper, edamame, organic king oyster mushrooms and carrots.
Not all dishes are this intricate (there are simple sandwiches, veggie sushi, dim sum and noodles too), but for those who want elaborate combinations that you wouldn’t necessarily prepare at home, this is the place.
Be sure to hold on to your menu throughout the meal, as the gourmet glossary is a good read. Exotic ingredients are not only defined, they’re described using principles of Chinese medicine. Fermented black soybeans, for example, are purported to be “carminative, sedative, antipyretic, and help with colds, fevers and insomnia.”
Nosh @ Willow
4301 North Fairfax Drive, Arlington, 703-465-8800; www.willowva.com
Craving Willow’s European-style cuisine but want something more casual? Grab a seat in the warm, wood-appointed bar area, or at one of the marble-top alfresco tables, and take advantage of the Nosh @ Willow menu.
Nosh was born in 2011 as an alternative to the restaurant’s white-tablecloth dining room. The bistro-style spin-off (which features upscale, fun-to-share bar food) is now a Ballston go-to, and not just because of the trendy @ in its name. Willow has always been ahead of the times. The restaurant boasts not one but two female chef/owners (a rarity in these parts) in Tracy O’Grady and Kate Jansen. And they’ve long been adapting their menus to accommodate diners with varying dietary preferences.
The vegetarian options at Nosh are thoughtful and complex, including gooey lentil-and-feta–stuffed shiitake mushroom caps; a bright and citrusy baby kale salad; and crispy eggplant-and-smoked-mozzarella sticks, served with creamy tomato-basil sauce, to satisfy the cravings of your inner-child. Other not-to-miss options include “The Willow” flatbread with wild mushrooms, and the quinoa-goat-cheese sliders with oven-roasted tomatoes and feta-labneh sauce.
“The goal is for vegetarians to feel as though they’re eating composed dishes, not making a meal out of sides,” says O’Grady. Vegetarian options are also plentiful on the main dining room’s dinner and lunch menus.
Sweet Leaf Community Café
2200 Wilson Blvd. (Courthouse) and 650 North Quincy St. (Ballston), Arlington, 703-525-5100; www.eatsweetleaf.com
“People want fresh food fast,” says bright-eyed business owner Arita Matini, who opened the first Sweet Leaf Community Cafe in McLean in 2009 with her mother, Sherry.
At the time, Matini was a senior at Marymount University. Their goal: to bring nutritionally dense fast food to Northern Virginia.
A few years later, the young entrepreneur opened additional locations in Vienna and Clarendon, where long lines of hungry diners, eager to customize their own salads and sandwiches, are now commonplace.
Matini says she wants customers to walk into Sweet Leaf and feel like a full pantry of fresh produce is at their fingertips. “We’re a place to create something special, or transform one of our salads to suit your tastes, and of course that means tons of options for vegetarians,” says the 27-year-old.
For a pop of color (and vitamins), forgo the bread and try one of the vegetarian sandwiches, like the “Fresh Stack” wrapped in raw collard greens. The wrap contains the whole garden, plus Swiss cheese and guacamole.
And don’t overlook the selection of small packaged salads, which are named only for their ingredients—like a slightly sweet mixture of quinoa, cranberries and almonds. They’re great for on-the-go vegetarians.
But if you’re not in a hurry, stay a while. While most of Matini’s time is tied up in managing the restaurant’s daily operations, she’s also responsible for the kitschy-cool feel of each café, with cleverly designed fixtures such as a chicken coop converted into a potato chip rack.
Laura Hayes is a freelance food writer and photographer and founder of Best Thing on the Menu. Follow her adventures @BTMenu.
Try These Too!
Cheesetique ›› 4056 Campbell Ave., Arlington, 703-933-8787; cheesetique.com ›› Non-meat-eaters can enjoy close to 20 cheese-loaded menu options—including six gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches—at this charming wine-and-cheese shop with a café in the back.
Galaxy Hut ›› 2711 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-525-8646; www.galaxyhut.com ›› You’ll find hipster types chowing on vegetarian and vegan bar food, such as vegan frankfurters, cheesesteaks made with seitan and addictive tater tots, at this Clarendon hot spot for live music.
Härth ›› 7920 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, 703-847-5000; www.hiltonmclean.com/Harth ›› Tasty vegetarian options at this upscale restaurant inside the McLean Hilton include a top-notch panzanella salad and a vegan curry.
Lost Dog Café ›› 2920 Columbia Pike, Arlington, 703-553-7770; 5876 Washington Blvd., Arlington, 703-237-1552; 1690A Anderson Road, McLean, 703-356-5678; 2729A Merrilee Drive, Merrifield, 703-205-9001; lostdogcafe.com ›› A vegetarian could eat a different sandwich for 10 days straight at this hometown favorite. (Try the addictive Emory’s Portabella.) There are meatless appetizers, salads, pizzas and pastas too.
Mike’s Deli at Lazy Sundae ›› 112 North West St., Falls Church, 703-532-5299; www.mikesdeliatlazysundae.com ›› Vegetarians and vegans can get their sandwich fix at Mike’s Deli, which offers meatless reubens, cheesesteaks and burgers, as well as all-day breakfast.
Seasons 52 ›› 7863L Tysons Corner Center, McLean, 703-288-3852; www.seasons52.com ›› The casual yet sophisticated fare at this national chain includes a special vegetarian menu with 16 savory choices. The restaurant is famous for its flatbreads.
South Block Café ›› 3011 11th St. North, Arlington, 703-741-0266; www.southblockcafe.com ›› Best known for its fresh-squeezed juices and packaged cleanses, South Block also serves breakfast all day, meatless wraps and bowls, toasted sandwiches, acai berry bowls and smoothies.
sweetgreen ›› 4075 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-522-2016; 2905 District Ave., Merrifield, 703-992-7892; 6707 Old Dominion Drive, McLean, 703-942-8888; 1743 International Drive (Tysons Galleria), Tysons Corner, 703-639-0355; sweetgreen.com ›› Super-customizable salads are the name of the game at this locally grown chain that’s starting to expand nationally. Choose your toppings, including falafel and tofu.
Thanh Son Tofu ›› 6793 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church, 703-534-1202 ›› People line up for piping-hot deep-fried tofu and refreshing bubble tea at this Eden Center shop that doubles as a tofu factory.