Although Nashville has an abundance of barbecue pits and chop houses, many local restaurant owners are savvy to the fact that non meat-eaters want more variety in their dining options. And though Nashville’s a far cry from the South’s vegetarian Meccas like Asheville or Atlanta, local restaurateurs are wising up to it.
As a vegetarian, I’ve come to be a discriminating diner — the type who does research on a restaurant before going to eat there. I don’t like sitting down, looking at a menu and having to leave because there’s nothing for me to eat. But local restaurants like Jamaica Way, The Wild Hare, Sloco, Tayst, mÄmbu, the Wild Cow, Porta Via, Gojo Ethiopian Cafe, PM, Rosepepper Cantina, Woodlands or Anatolia are ready and able to accommodate me, my vegetarian fiancé, my vegetarian mother and my vegetarian friends.
Chef Jeremy Barlow, owner of Tayst and Sloco, said he has embraced the growing demand for vegetarian cuisine in Nashville.
“[We] saw the increased need and desire for vegetarian and vegan food at Tayst over the last eight years, and we just kind of embraced it,” Barlow says. “You can make some awesome vegan food. We always kind of prided ourselves on the fact that we knew that vegetarians could come in and eat just as well as everybody else.”
According to Barlow, who has lived in Nashville since 1997, Tayst offers a variety of vegetarian options: The menu offers at least one vegetarian item for each dinning course, chefs will prepare special orders and they offer three-, five- and seven-course vegetarian tastings.
Barlow’s a meat-eater, but his wife is vegan, so he has a heightened awareness of the need for vegetarian — and vegan — friendly fare.
Barlow took what he has learned from Tayst and applied it to his latest culinary endeavor: Sloco, a lunchtime sandwich shop with meat and meatless options like the shaved seitan or the vegan meatball sub.
“It’s hitting a good segment of the population that doesn’t always have a great amount of options,” Barlow says. “To eat vegetarian every once in a while is good for your body, it’s good for your health, it’s good for the environment; it’s good all around.”
Barlow isn't alone in his sentiments. Elizabeth Bills, who opened The Wild Hare with her husband, Brian Bills, this summer, says they quickly realized that they need to have more vegetarian items on their menu.
“Questions about vegetarian and even vegan menu items are the most requests we get,” Elizabeth says. “It became pretty clear — quickly — that that’s what people wanted, and we try to really tailor the restaurant not just to what we want and think people want, but what they tell us they want.”
The Bills are Nashville natives. Before opening The Wild Hare, Brian formerly owned the original Blue Moon Cafe, and Elizabeth was a math teacher.
“There definitely seems to be a strong presence of people who are pretty vocal about it,” Elizabeth says. “The main place I see it is in communication with people online.”
Elizabeth said there are a number of vegetarians on staff at The Wild Hare who help create vegetarian menu items, like line cook Jennifer “Girl” Sanchez’s namesake, the Girl Salad. It features deep-fried avocado, quinoa, goat cheese, capers, asparagus, grilled carrots, garlic and a citrus vinaigrette. It’s not on the menu yet, but guests can request it.
Jamaica Way’s Kamal Kalokoh, manager of his family’s Jamaican eatery in the Nashville Farmer’s Market, said that the majority of the restaurant’s sales come from its vegetarian items.
“That’s the bulk of our business,” Kalokoh says. “It’s like more than 50 percent of our sales.”
Kalokoh, who has lived in Nashville for 10 years, comes from a Seventh-day Adventist background, which influenced the decision to feature vegetarian counterparts, like curry tofu or jerk gluten, to traditional meat-based Jamaican dishes.
For Kalokoh, the spreading awareness of vegetarian food’s health benefits — and satisfying flavors — is a part of what’s moving Nashville in a more vegetarian-friendly direction.
“The reason why our sales are so high in vegetarian [meals] is because of people who are not vegetarian,” Kalokoh said. “They taste it, and they enjoy it. They feel like they can eat this meal and enjoy it.”
In addition to restaurants where omnivores and herbivores can dine in harmony, Nashville has two 100 percent vegetarian restaurants, Woodlands Indian Cuisine and The Wild Cow, the latter serving as an East Side oasis for vegans who have few options when dining out.
Wild Cow owners Melanie and John Cochran are vegan. When they opened the restaurant two years ago, they decided to make the Wild Cow’s menu “by default” vegan, with the exception of the gluten-free bread and an option to add dairy cheese to a meal.
“That’s the reason we opened it, because we really didn’t have anywhere to eat,” Mrs. Cochran said. “It was more of a selfish motivation than anything else."
Melanie has lived in Nashville since 1995. She said that when she and her husband were still vegetarians — that is, still eating food made with either eggs, dairy or both — there were plenty of dining option available to them in Nashville, but that being vegan is still a challenge.
“My husband and I were vegetarians for a long time, and we had plenty of places to eat,” Mrs. Cochran said. “But once we made the steps to become vegan, there was nothing. But I think [Nashville] has gotten better as far as vegetarians, definitely.”
Other Nashville restaurateurs like Barlow and Bills are aware of vegan diners’ stricter dietary habits than egg-and/or-cheese-eating vegetarians. According to Bills, The Wild Hare is trying to come up with not only more vegetarian meals, but more vegan meals, too.
“We want to come up with more options, including at least one vegan thing,” Mrs. Bills said. “It’s the most restrictive [diet]… so it’s trickier. But, we’re up to it."
As Nashville continues to grow in vegetarian awareness, perhaps vegan awareness will come along with this naturally.
Overall, Nashville’s vegetarians can dine out with ease and variety — from ethnic cuisines like Ethiopian, Indian, Jamaican or Turkish, to fine dining, to casual American fare — knowing that local restaurateurs are paying attention to our dietary needs in creative palette-pleasing ways.