Dining: Cafe Gratitude in L.A., for the vegan Stuart Smalleys of the world
Written on the mirror of the women’s bathroom at Café Gratitude, a new raw and vegan restaurant, are the words, “I adore myself and everyone else.” The sentiment is part of the positivity campaign that the restaurant has been waging since opening on Larchmont Boulevard and Melrose Avenue five months ago. Even the toilet seat covers are called “awesome covers.”
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.
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.
The best dishes will fill you up but not weigh you down, and every meal is started with a carafe of water without ice. For an appetizer be sure to try I Am Pure — a lush salad made with seaweed, kale, carrots, cilantro, cucumbers and teriyaki almonds. The crunchy seaweed has a stalwart relationship with kale, and in a pile — with a coating of spicy, ginger-sesame dressing — it’s hard to understand why the two are ever served apart.
If you are hankering for something decadent, try the I Am Grounded red-skin potatoes, which are roasted in garlic and olive oil and topped with pink sea salt and a spicy cashew nacho cheese sauce that you’ll want to dip everything in — even your kale.
Under the raw specialties section of the menu, you’ll do well to try the I Am Hearty pizza, but don’t expect something savory. The crust, which is made from onions and nuts, is almost sweet, and the Brazil nut parmesan and pesto sauce only adds to the softness of the flavor. The BLT sandwich — a cooked specialty — is especially creative, with the “bacon” made out of sautéed maple coconut and piled onto a fresh panini slathered with chipotle aioli and shored up with crisp romaine lettuce, plump tomatoes and ripe avocado. The homemade veggie burger patty is mushy and messy, more like a sloppy Joe than a burger, but tasty all the same.
Don’t miss out on the I Am Warm-Hearted grilled organic polenta with tangy puttanesca sauce and cashew ricotta. It’s a lovely slurry of spicy tomato and warm corn dough in a bowl, and it goes well with a liberally poured glass of the Philo Ridge Pinot Noir. Another dish that is sure to please is the I Am Whole bowl, which piles salty sea vegetables, kale, housemade kimchi and sprouts atop a mound of brown rice or quinoa and soaks it all in an earthy garlic-tahini sauce as creamy as any ranch dressing.
The dessert list is long and the items on it fully realized. The Key lime pie is as fluffy as a little green cloud and just as delicious; and the chocolate-mint cheesecake will take your sweet tooth to a very sweet spot, as will the whipped chocolate mousse.
Eat as much as you like, because you won’t leave feeling ready to unhitch your belt and lie on the couch in front of your latest Netflix conquest. And for that you can be grateful.
Café Gratitude: Location, prices and more
Location: 639 N. Larchmont Blvd., L.A. (323) 580-6383; https://www.cafegratitude.com
Prices: Starters, smoothies, juices and desserts, $3 to $10; raw and cooked entrees, $7 to $13; beer and wine, $5 to $10.
Details: Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. All major cards. Street and lot parking.
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