Dining: Cafe Gratitude in L.A., for the vegan Stuart Smalleys of the world
The vegan and raw Café Gratitude in L.A. has a positive, flower-child atmosphere. Even if that's not your thing, the food is inventive, delicious and wholesome.
Singer Adey Bell and clown-nosed actor Alexander Polinsky are among the happy customers at Café Gratitude. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Café Gratitude is the first Los Angeles outpost of a chain that claims seven Bay Area locations. And true to its flower-child roots, the items on its menu are given self-affirming names that swim in saccharine seas. Among them are I Am Thriving (butternut squash chipotle soup), I Am Elated (enchiladas), I Am Transformed (corn tacos) and I Am Extraordinary ("BLT" sandwich).
After several weeks of dining at Café Gratitude, one might find oneself Vibrant, Grounded, Whole, Loved, Magical, Precious and Cozy, but never Hung Over, Angry, Jealous, Hurt or Sorry. In fact, the restaurant is so uniformly bright and cheery that it borders on pathological. Think Disneyland gone vegan, sans the heartland tourists wearing fanny packs.
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Look around you: Skin glows tan and smooth, hair is not brittle, men wear silver hoop earrings and have fluffy, golden locks. Women with teardrop-shaped diamonds in the middle of their foreheads and electric-colored feathers around their necks munch forkfuls of farm-fresh greens. The air smells like Tom's of Maine bathroom products and crushed nuts.
Café Gratitude could well be compared to a 21st century version of the Source Restaurant, a vegetarian hang managed by a 1970s cult called the Source Family. Led by the charismatic, psychedelic-song-spinning Father Yod, the Source was frequented by celebrities such as Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.
Its sleeker, modern soul mate, which was founded by the healthful power couple of Matthew and Terces Engelhart, is also honey to celebrity bees. On any given day you might find yourself feeling Complete as you are sandwiched — like cashew cheese in an organic wheat bun — between Jake Gyllenhaal and James Cromwell, or Moby and diminutive "Mad Men" star Kiernan Shipka.
But if Vietnam-era hippie cults have taught us anything, it's that there is a dark side to every daisy. Café Gratitude's noir stylings come from the sheer weight of its up-titude. Nothing that happy can be true.
For example, you get the sense that not every server is drinking the positivity punch and that some days — even most days — like the rest of us, they are far from Comforted. But they will still bravely ask you the question of the day, which is written on a white board by the entrance.
"What is your gift?" they will ask, or "What do you like to share?" and you and your friends will answer. You might even have some fun with it.
"We like to share this Eternally Youthful vanilla bean milkshake," you might say, giggling.
"That's nice," your server will say.
Later, after you've consumed a glass or two of organic wine and candles placed on tables have ushered in the evening hours, your food will come.
"You Are Thriving?" the food runner will ask, handing you the soup. "No, I Am Exhausted," you will say, and you both will laugh knowingly.
And with this little human exchange you are suddenly primed to eat a type of cuisine that you may not have considered cuisine before but that many people in this city — and beyond — have been embracing in increasing numbers. After your first few bites you'll realize that tasty food doesn't have to be cooked to count, and that thought may surprise and please you. What Café Gratitude serves is clean, and good. It feels healthful. You feel healthy. Perhaps that's because the wine and beer are the only things on the menu called by their proper names.
"I'll have the Samuel Smith Hard Cider," doesn't trip easily off the tongue in a place that specializes in a quinoa-and-kale bowl called I Am Grateful, which retails for a suggested donation of $7 but is given away free to those in need.
You might not see a homeless person at Café Gratitude, which is simply decorated with a broad front patio, colorful tile floors, a long coffee bar with a dessert case and floor-to-ceiling glass windows, but in this economy anything is possible.
Still, eating at Café Gratitude isn't exactly low cost. A meal for three, with wine, appetizers and dessert can top $100. But you really should sample a bit of each, especially if you're not familiar with raw or vegan food. The restaurant doesn't dally with fake meats dressed up as the real thing. Instead it creates a whole new vocabulary around its cuisine.
Cheeses and sauces are made out of nuts; and grains, greens, black beans and corn abound. The staff works in shifts around the clock — with a special crew that preps all night long. This kind of food, especially the raw stuff, which requires dehydrating, is labor intensive. The clientele are often very strict with their diets, so a three-ring binder labeled "the Book of Knowledge" is kept on hand that lists every ingredient in every dish — even the homemade hot sauce, which sings with a spicy, vinegar-y heat.