A tantalizing aroma fills the Main Squeeze Natural Foods Cafe in downtown Columbia, the result of fragrant spices and fresh ingredients, which make up many of the cafe’s entrees. But there is one common ingredient whose distinct scent will never contribute to the restaurant’s appetizing smell: meat.
“There is no meat anywhere in our kitchen,” said Leigh Lockhart, who owns the vegetarian restaurant at 28 N. Ninth St.
Until Lockhart opened Main Squeeze in March of 1998, vegetarians didn’t have many options for eating out.
Since then, a number of restaurants in the area have added meat-free dishes to their menus, making it easier for vegetarians to find meals at a variety of locations. However, Main Squeeze remains the only strictly vegetarian restaurant in town.
A vegetarian and organic food buff herself, Lockhart said when she first moved to Columbia in 1996, she was astounded by the lack of vegetarian restaurants in the area.
“In a college town like this there are tons of vegetarians,” Lockhart said. “I was surprised there were no vegetarian restaurants in such a huge market.”
Since its opening, the restaurant has become a hot spot for consumers looking for vegetarian and organic foods.
“There aren’t many places that serve food like this,” said Katie Brueggemann, an employee at Main Squeeze. “It’s fresh, local and there are no pesticides.”
Nearly all ingredients used in the dishes are organic and locally grown. These ingredients are clearly labeled on the menu, which includes tofu wraps, rice bowls and organic peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
While a good portion of Lockhart’s customers are concerned with organic or locally grown foods, not all of them are vegetarians.
“Most of our customers are not vegetarian,” Lockhart said. “Only about 10 percent are vegetarian, and probably only two to three percent are vegan.”
Kate Getty doesn’t adhere to a meat-free diet, but she said she likes the healthier taste of the vegetarian menu.
“You don’t have to be a vegetarian to enjoy the food, it tastes really remarkable,” Getty said. “You feel good after you eat it because you aren’t bogged down by grease.”
Main Squeeze is only open for lunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, but there are several restaurants in Columbia that serve vegetarian food throughout the day.
Bangkok Gardens, 26 N. Ninth St., serves a number of Asian entrees, nearly all of which can upon request be made with tofu rather than chicken or pork. The restaurant also serves fried rice, spring rolls and a vegetable stir fry that is specifically vegetarian.
The availability of such items has made the restaurant popular with local vegetarians.
“They have the best tofu in town,” said Schyler Behrer, a patron of the restaurant.
Flat Branch Pub and Brewing, 115 S. Fifth St., offers entrees such as a grilled portabella and red pepper wrap, an oven roasted veggie sandwich and vegetarian penne.
Lance Wood, general manager of Flat Branch Pub and Brewing, said there are a number of meatless dishes on the menu.
“People tend to think vegetarian food is healthier, even though often these dishes are dripping with cheese and aren’t necessarily better for you,” Wood said.
The restaurant also guarantees that its veggie burgers and sandwiches are prepared separately from meat dishes.
After undergoing a change in ownership this summer, The Cherry Street Wine Cellar at 700 Cherry St. has a new menu that boasts some unique meatless dishes. An orange mozzarella salad, vegetarian creamy pomodoro fettucini and a baby spinach salad with a white truffle vinaigrette are some of the options that cater to a meat-free diet. The restaurant also uses several organic and locally grown products, all of which are clearly labeled on the menu.
Italian food lovers will enjoy the variety at Bambino’s Italian Cafe, located at Hitt and Locust streets in downtown Columbia. The restaurant has vegetarian subs and salads, and serves pasta dishes such as the mouth-watering pasta alla nonna, a dish of spaghetti and fresh vegetables cooked in creamy alfredo sauce and topped with marinara.
The wealth of coffees and teas at Das Kaffeehaus Cafe, 23 S. Ninth St., may fool you into believing it only serves a quick cup of java, but a look past its extensive beverage menu reveals a number of ethnic vegetarian foods. Dishes such as spinach pie, falafel and hummus are all vegetarian- friendly and relatively inexpensive, with most dishes under five dollars. The International Cafe, 209 Hitt St., serves similar ethnic dishes with several vegetarian options.
India’s Rasoi, 1101 E. Broadway, devotes a section of its menu to vegetable dishes. Lentils, garbanzo beans and okra accompany vegetables in a number of dishes made with traditional sauces and spices. The restaurant also serves vegetarian stuffed naan and paratha breads, and many dishes are vegan-friendly.
While variety and selections at some locations may be limited, many restaurants are accommodating the increasing demand for vegetarian entrees. Lockhart explains that finding a good place to eat essentially comes down to pre-screening the menu for options.
“Look to see if they have anything that is already vegetarian, rather than ordering something without a certain ingredient,” said Lockhart. “I always feel more comfortable eating at a place knowing they’ve taken that extra effort.”