Firmly Rooted: Support for Plant-Based Dishes On the Rise

Join us as we look at some of the biggest dining trends of 2020. Today, it’s all about plant-based menus – read on, then download our Year in Review infographic here.

This year, diners caught a glimpse of the 2019 OpenTable 50 Best Restaurants for vegetarians in America, based on an analysis of more than 12 million verified diner reviews of more than 30,000 restaurants across the country. Some comments included: 

  • “Some of the very best food in Nashville.”(Chaatable)
  • “The variety, complexity and harmony of the dishes was quite surprising.” (Dirt Candy)
  • “Fantastic vegan buffet brunch. Everything was superb from the salads thru the entrees to desert. (Equinox)

Plant-based dishes are anything but boring. More diners want plant-based choices on menus and are speaking up: In 2019, plant-based reviews increased by 136% compared to 2017. Less than 100 reviews prior to the year 2016 even mentioned the term vegan. Ever since, those mentions have since increased by nearly 15,000 per month.

In addition to states like California, Pennsylvania, and New York – where plant-based is just part of the restaurant menu – Washington D.C. and Washington state got high marks, followed by Florida, Illinois and Texas, Arizona and numerous others. Here are chefs doing plant-based like bosses and how they figured it out. 

Plant-Based & Profitable

Washington state is no stranger to healthful cuisine. From the mountains to the coast, menus are full of plant-based diner delights and have been long before the trend became mainstream. It’s no surprise that plant-based dishes are among the bestselling items at The Golf Club at Newcastle. Newcastle is known for its views of Lake Washington, Mt. Rainier, the Olympic and Cascade mountains, the city of Seattle, and championship golf courses. And among golfers, it’s also home base for a power salad brimming with lacinato kale, butternut squash, shredded carrots, broccoli, quinoa, and pickled ginger vinaigrette. 

“Ever since the implementation of plant-based items in our restaurant menus, we have seen an incredible amount of sales and the reception has been very positive,” says Charlie Solis, director of food and beverage at Newcastle. “Not only vegans, but also meat eaters have been drawn to items like the forager’s mushroom risotto, which uses coconut cream instead of dairy. Others are adding plant-based patties to salads.” 

Cashew spread and avocado add a flavorful helping of fat to Newcastle’s Beyond Burger, while grilled romaine and fennel-arugula salads also entice diners. Plant-based dishes have been so fruitful that Solis is planning to expand that section of the menu.

“We also plan to utilize the plant ingredients into more dishes across the menu to perhaps integrate the audience’s preferences, and I think there is enough demand to incorporate seasonality in plant-based menus,” says Solis. “The Pacific Northwest is keen on supporting local growers and seasonal produce.”

Plant-based dishes can improve check totals and ingratiate restaurants to diners. Plus, more vegetarian and vegan options in fine dining give diners an excuse to dine out more often. Jaryd Hearn of Brasserie Liberté in Washington D.C. makes a mushroom bourguignon meant to create the same texture and flavor palate as beef bourguignon. 

“I wanted vegetarians to crave this dish and come back more than one time a week, so as a neighborhood restaurant, it is important to have options for our guests,” says Hearn.  

Stay Ahead of the Flavor Curve

Knowing how important it is to have what diners crave for every meal, when Solis interviews young chefs, he makes sure to ask a few pointed questions. 

“I’m always asking about the trends they see in the industry nowadays, and more often than not, I hear them talk about plant-based items. So they are very present in our restaurants, and the culinary world is embracing this demand,” says Solis. 

Chicago’s West Randolph Street staple The Bandit is famed for packing flavor into its contemporary American menu. That’s thanks to executive chef Daniel Pineda, who respects diners’ desire to know the origins of their food and new ways to enjoy it. 

“It’s so important to really be aware of what consumers are looking for, and being able to explain that the food on the table is from a local farm provides a huge advantage,” says Pineda.

“2019 has come with such a demand for more plant-based options, but in order to deliver a dish that people crave, it needs to maintain an equally strong flavor profile as its meat-centric counterparts.” 

And plant-based food fans make out like bandits at The Bandit. This may be home of the cheesy, ooey-gooey “Diplomat” burger, but it’s also where diners get Instagram-gorgeous dishes like roasted beet hummus with farm vegetables, or shaved Brussels sprouts and quinoa salad with butternut squash and avocado. The charred, spiced carrot dish with sunflower seed salsa and creamy feta is another crowd-pleaser. 

“The best plant-based options have various stand-out aspects, like perfectly paired textures with diverse flavors, like Bandit’s Kung Pao cauliflower – an example of how to elevate a plant-based dish with a nutrition-packed vegetable that delivers an intense flavor profile,” says Pineda. “We flavor the cauliflower with soy sauce and Fresno chilis, and give it additional texture topped with roasted almonds.”

Reimagine the Classics

When it comes to adaptable, carnivorous counterparts, for many chefs, cauliflower is a go-to. Example: in reviews, cauliflower crust mentions have increased by 487% since 2017. At Mohawk Bend in Los Angeles, executive chef Caroline Concha applies her holistic approach to plant-based cooking in dishes for omnivores, vegans, and everyone in between, and on her menu, she puts vegan dishes at the forefront. Mohawk Bend is known for the Buffalo cauliflower, which reminds diners of a vegan version of a Big Mac. 

Top Chef alumni Spike Mendelsohn of Vim & Victor in Springfield, Virginia puts his spin on cauliflower nachos. Mendelsohn’s advice is to make plant-based options just the way you would approach other items: using seasonality with classic flavors profile and textures, and just make them delicious.

“Don’t just rely on soy products because there’s so much variety – I encourage taking some risk,” says Mendelsohn. 

In Nashville, too, top chefs have embraced the plant-based phenom. Brian Riggenbach is a former Chopped champion and executive chef of The Mockingbird. On a menu that offers Music City’s answer to global comfort food, Riggenbach makes plant-based dishes an integral part of the menu.

“One of our most popular items is a vegetarian Reuben, for which we make our own seitan, which on its own is rather neutral. But we boil it with mirepoix and fresh herbs, then slice it and marinate it in beet juice for color and ‘corned beef’ spices – heavy on coriander and black peppercorns,” says Riggenbach. “The trick is the marination, which allows desired flavors to flow through. For service, we grill the seitan with sauerkraut, caramelized peppers, and onions, then top it with melted Swiss cheese between two pieces of grilled rye bread.” 

When it comes to plant-based cooking, love is in the details – something Riggenbach does well. The char gives him the great depth of flavor he wants for the dish and, as he says, makes the sandwich as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. 

“This sandwich looks and tastes so familiar and hearty that guests often are dumbfounded that it is not meat, so it’s a win for vegetarians and carnivores alike. This ideology is carried along in a lot of the grains and other items that we prepare,” says Riggenbach. “For instance, our quinoa crunchies, featured in salads and on a crudo dish, are cooked with lemon, garlic, and rosemary for an added boost of flavor before being mixed in with either nuts and seeds or spiced with furikake and sesame.” 

In Washington, D.C., where a power lunch often includes a hearty steak, diners drive demand for executive chef Ethan McKee’s vegetable antipasti board at Urbana. A coastal Italian touch keeps the emphasis on flavor at Urbana, so cheese is part of this colorful platter, but the veggies are the stars. 

“We added this antipasti board to give vegetarians the experience of our cheese and salumi boards without the meat, and it has been well-received by our guests – by both vegetarian diners and those who enjoy meat,” says Mckee. “I like to put as much thought and creativity into our plant-based options as the meat options. I add a touch of edible flowers to our antipasti board.” 

Especially in plant-based dishes, presentation is everything. Just ask Instagram, where thousands of pictures of sprawling antipasti boards like McKee’s make diners want to leap through the screen and grab them. McKee changes his board throughout the year to reflect seasonal ingredients, but his current dish features fresh eggplant, roasted pepper and almond dip, plus Tuscan hummus with white beans, lemon, garlic, and tahini, and house-made giardiniera. Tomato relish, roasted red peppers, and Mediterranean olives add more savory punches. 

Get Creative & Make It Fun

The Mockingbird’s Riggenbach also points to the versatility of using plant-based options. “They provide endless room for creativity and they can be transformed and retrofitted into almost any cuisine,” he says. 

In Los Angeles, District’s executive chef Luis Cuadra offers diners a grilled cauliflower steak marinated in curry spice blend and cooked until it is charred and crispy. The dish can be entirely plant-based, depending on which items the guests choose for a side dish. 

“We also offer a few other items that are also plant-based, like our “Where’s the Beef? Burger,” which has the popular Impossible® patty that can be modified to be a completely plant-based meal with a lettuce wrap instead of the bun,” says Cuadra, who also offers entrée salads and yucca fries. “If a dish is cooked well and seasoned properly, it should be able to satisfy anyone who isn’t used to having a plant-based meal.”

For the best advice for incorporating plant-based items on restaurant menus, Newcastle food and beverage director Charlie Solis nails it. 

“Get your creative caps on and think of special ways to improve what is out there, as the vegan audience is vast and educated. It is the future.”

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