Vegan nacho platter

G-Zen's sublime vegan nacho platter. (Courtesy G-Zen / January 9, 2013)

It is the mother of all New Year's resolutions: eat healthy, get fit and lose weight. Exercise is important, but time-wise, it is a lot easier to make different choices about what we eat than it is to shoehorn workouts into our schedules. People presently saddled with holiday bulges may be mulling a full-on plunge into vegetarianism, while others may feel challenged to get through a single meal without meat. Either way, vegetarian restaurants can offer salvation, because they make that choice possible.

"There's so much documentation that people who have a plant-based diet are much less likely to get cancer or heart disease, diabetes, all those things," says Selma Miriam, owner of Bloodroot, a 36-year-old vegetarian/feminist restaurant in Bridgeport. "But that's not our purpose...our purpose is not health food. Our purpose is to serve really delicious ethnic food that tastes like comfort food."

Gone are the days when vegetarian diners had to sacrifice flavor for health, thanks to Connecticut's thriving vegetarian restaurant scene, which boasts three of the nation's oldest non-meat establishments. The enduring success of Bloodroot in Bridgeport, Claire's Corner Copia in New Haven, and It's Only Natural in Middletown has spawned a strange copycat phenomenon: restaurants bragging about their vegetarian fare when they also serve meat. This makes for a confusing web search and a hazard for those diners who are looking to escape the temptation of being able to order the chicken. Notable examples include Norwalk's The Lime Restaurant, Tawa, an Indian place in Stamford listed as vegetarian on Zagat's site, and the Shoreline Diner in Guilford, which subtitles itself a "Vegetarian Enclave," but serves pork chops.

Even with the best online directory, which is probably HappyCow.net, it can be tough to actually find some of these places. For example, in Middletown, you can't see It's Only Natural from the street (confusingly, you can see the unaffiliated food store of the same name); the restaurant is located at the rear parking lot of the Main Street Market. Most directories completely miss The Lion's Den in Hartford's North End. The no-brainer advice is to call first, but at the Lion's Den, they don't always pick up, and the Fuel Coffee Shop in New Haven lists not one, but two non-working phone numbers in spite of a live Facebook presence. (Howard Bryman wrote on Fuel's Facebook wall, "Still in da biz. I ga-ron-T it".) If you're looking for Kate's Cafe in Mystic, don't type KatesCafe.com; it's KatesCafe.net. "We're not easy to find," says Bloodroot's Miriam, who points out that a low-visibility location has been a boon by keeping the rent affordable, and since vegetarian diners go to greater lengths to seek out their destinations, this kind of business defies the "location, location, location" mantra.

Claire's Corner Copia is a major exception, with its perfect location — across Chapel Street from Yale's Old Campus and the New Haven Green — keeping the place visible since 1975. "I love New Haven. We've never wanted to open anywhere else," said owner Claire Criscuolo, who very much enjoys her restaurant's landmark status, but says location alone is not a recipe for success. "It's the breadth of the menu, the quality of the ingredients. People know that even if you order something as mundane as egg salad, you can't beat organic eggs, organic carrots, and Hellmann's mayonnaise."

Obviously, having a sizable menu contributes to an establishment's success. "We have a pretty big menu for the size of our kitchen," said Renana Magee of It's Only Natural, "and we can't take anything off it because people would freak out."

Despite the carnivore's assumption that a vegetable-based diet is limiting, big menus are common at Connecticut's vegetarian restaurants.

"We have a nine-page menu with everything from comfort food to raw food, including a raw pasta made from no pasta whatsoever and a New York-style cheesecake with all vegan ingredients," boasted Ami Beach of G-Zen in Branford. However, successful business practices have not squeezed out the save-the-planet impetus that led many of these entrepreneurs into their trade. "We are 100% vegan organic," Beach continued. "We have our own farm, and we're moving toward supplying more of our own ingredients. We're a zero-waste restaurant. We compost, recycle or reuse everything from the restaurant."

We can't afford to eat at a restaurant with a philosophy, Marge Simpson might growl. However, she would be wrong if she were speaking about Rastafarian cuisine (known as "ital" cooking). The Lion's Den on Main Street off Route 91 has portions and prices to serve its neighborhood clientele and compete against the many other Jamaican establishments in the area. At Fire & Spice in the hip West End, $10.95 gets a full plate with five different selections, including a spicy jerk soy protein that gives the restaurant its name. Rastafarians are against cruelty to animals, so a vegan diet fits right in. "No meat, no animal products, just vegan," said Matthew Donaldson of Shandal's, Bridgeport's own West Indian option.

It's a cinch to keep kosher or halal while not eating meat, as vegetarianism sidesteps those picky rules on how exactly your dinner may be slaughtered. Woodbridge has Mike's Center Cafe and Bakery, and in the kosher spirit, don't expect this place to be open Friday night or Saturday. For a brief, shining moment, West Hartford had kosher vegetarian Indian food in the location now occupied by Backstage Pizza (listed by HappyCow.net as vegetarian-friendly) until the credit crunch K.O.'d its beloved parent, Ambassador of India. The long tradition of vegetarianism in India has made Indian food an old standby for American vegetarians, and Connecticut's vegetarian-only Indian establishments include Navaratna in Stamford, Thali Too in New Haven, and Udupi Bhavan in Middletown.

Two up-and-coming trends in Connecticut are vegan (dairy and egg-free) chocolate and raw diets. Divine Treasures (www.divinetreasureschocolates.com) has turned Manchester into the state's destination for reduced-guilt chocolaty decadence, while raw vegan chocolate can be had at JUSTFOOD, a juice bar located inside The Local Beet Coop in Chester. Raw cuisine is popping up in many establishments that also use ovens, but its natural habitat seems to be the kind of juice bar that specializes in "cleansing," such as the Fairfield and Norwalk locations of The Stand. Although popular in California since the 1990s, any mention of raw diets in the Northeast inevitably leads to the question of what raw foodies do in wintertime. Quite simple, really. They fly south, like Lisa Sobolewski of JUSTFOOD, who is inviting participants on a spiritual journey to Costa Rica from January 30th to February 6th. Or they hibernate, like what is happening at Hartford's Alchemy Juice Bar Cafe, which in its heyday was the most fabulously family-friendly vegetarian restaurant anywhere. Proprietor Imani "Mamalution" Zito said optimistically, "We are hoping for a rebirth sometime this spring."

 

Vegetarian Restaurants

Bloodroot

85 Ferris St., Bridgeport
(203) 576-9168
bloodroot.com

Click here to view Bloodroot's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

Catch a Healthy Habit Cafe

39 Unquowa Road, Fairfield
(203) 292-8190
catchahealthyhabit.com

Click here to view Catch a Healthy Habit Cafe's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

Claire's Corner Copia

1000 Chapel St., New Haven
(203) 562-3888
clairescornercopia.com

Click here to view Claire's Corner Copia's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

Fire-N-Spice Vegan Restaurant

248 Sisson Ave., Hartford
(888) 367-7970
firenspiceveganrestaurant.com

Click here to view Fire-N-Spice's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

Fuel Coffee Shop

516 Chapel St., New Haven
facebook.com/pages/Fuel-Coffee-Shop

Click here to view Fuel Coffee Shop's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

G Monkey Mobile Food Truck

Check website for location
(860) 759-8880
gmonkeymobile.com

Click here to view G Monkey's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

G-Zen

2 E Main St., Branford
(203) 208-0443
g-zen.com

Click here to view G-Zen's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

Green and Tonic

7 Strickland Road, Cos Cob
(203) 869-1376

1098 Boston Post Road, Darien
(203) 656-1036

greenandtonic.com

Click here to view Green and Tonic's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

Green Well

44 Crown St., New Haven
(203) 773-0590
greenwellnewhaven.com

Click here to view Green Well's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

It's Only Natural

386 Main St, Middletown
(860) 346-9210
ionrestaurant.com

Click here to view It's Only Natural's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

JUSTFOOD

1 Main St., Chester
(203) 218-3701
facebook.com/JUSTFOODbylisasobolewski

Click here to view JUSTFOOD's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

Kaia Cafe

1200 Post Road E. Westport
(Behind Crate & Barrel)
(203) 532-0660
kaiayoga.com/juice

Click here to view Kaia Cafe's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

Kate's Cafe

27 Broadway Ave., Mystic
(860) 245-5832
katescafe.net

Click here to view Kate's Cafe's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

Lion's Den

3347 Main St., Hartford
(860) 241-0220

Click here to view Lion's Den's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

Mike's Center Cafe and Bakery

360 Amity Road, Woodbridge
(203) 401-1277
mikescentercafe.com

Click here to view Mike's Center Cafe and Bakery's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

Musical Forest Cafe

473 Washington Ave., North Haven
(203) 234-8865x4
musiccenternorth.com/Stagetime-Cafe.html

Click here to view Musical Forest Cafe's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

Navaratna

133 Atlantic St., Stamford
(203) 348-1070
navaratnact.com

Click here to view Navaratna's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

Shandal's Vegetarian Cafe

520 Capitol Ave., Bridgeport
(203) 345-8903

Click here to view Shandal's Vegetarian Cafe's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

Six Main

6 Main St., Chester
(860) 322-4212
sixmain.com

Click here to view Six Main's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

The Stand

87 Mill Plain Road, Fairfield
(203) 873-0414

31 Wall St., Norwalk
(203) 956 5670

thestandjuice.com

Click here to view The Stand's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

Thali Too Vegetarian Cuisine

65 Broadway, New Haven
(203) 776-1600
thali.com/t21.html

Click here to view Thali Too's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

Udupi Bhavan

749 Saybrook Road, Middletown
(860) 346-3355
ctudupi.com

Click here to view Udupi Bhavan's Restaurant Page on CT.com Places

 

Catering

G Monkey Mobile Food Truck

Check website for location
(860) 759-8880
gmonkeymobile.com

Green Gourmet To Go

2984 Fairfield Ave., Bridgeport
(203) 837-0057
greengourmettogo.com

Raw Food Central

446 Broad St., Windsor
(860) 925-6869
rawfoodcentral.com

Well on Wheels

34 Hubinger St., New Haven
(860) 985-1645
wellonwheels.com