For vegetarians, going out to eat poses serious challenges. You can't just live on salads, dismal steamed vegetable plates, and the same overpriced Boca patties from sit-down chain restaurants — usually the ones keen on hiding bacon in damn near everything! Luckily, there's vegetarian food with heart, soul and flair out there, restaurants that keep you coming back with quirks, panache and atmosphere you just can't get eating boring pasta and a pathetic salad at some failed sports bar. So here's a list of places that are anything but forgettable, with food ranging from the familiar to the exotic, which just might keep your omnivorous friends (kids, boyfriend, co-workers, mom) from asking, "Well, what do you eat?"
The Blue Nile 221 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor, 734-998-4746; 545 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale, 248-547-6699; 2156 W. Jefferson Ave., Trenton, 734-362-8560; $$: A big part of the draw of this kind of dining is that you get to eat with your hands. You get only two all-you-can-eat choices: four meats and seven vegetables for $18.90, or all-veg for $16.90 (kids 12 and under eat for half price, and kids five and under eat free). Diners use small pieces of bread to scoop up the food, and the juices soak in. Closed Mondays.
Earthen Jar 311 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor, 734-327-9464; $: Earthen Jar's buffet-style eat-by-the-pound cuisine is cheap; most of it's vegan. They have everything from Indian specialties to vegan lasagna to mac 'n' "cheese" to scrambled tofu. And, in the spirit of keeping it local, the dairy they use comes from legendary Calder's. You get a pound of food (literally — it's weighed by the pound) for less than five bucks, which is great for these times, with the 'R' word always looming over us.
Fly Trap 22950 Woodward Ave., Ferndale, 248-399-5150; $: You can get a burger and fries or just plain eggs at this "finer diner," but don't expect the menu to be cliché side-of-the-highway fare. Vegetarians can find plenty to nosh on, from the tempeh burger to the lemongrass pho bowl (or perhaps some "three-cheese and mac," with its caramelized onions and herbs, or something called a "fettuccine bomb"), and their omnivore friends will delight in the copious-and-never-boring meaty options.
Inn Season Café 500 E. Fourth St., Royal Oak, 248-547-7916; $$: Inn Season Café — a longtime provider of vegetarian cuisine in metro Detroit — has gotten better as it has gotten older. Fine, organic ingredients have always been its hallmark, but the health food nature of the cooking has been eclipsed; now you are eating vegetarian haute cuisine.
Margarita's Mexican Restaurant 27861 Woodward Ave., Berkley, 248-547-5050; $: Located right smack in the middle of the Woodward corridor suburbs is a Mexican restaurant that would never even dream of pandering to the Chi-Chi's crowd. This authentic Mexican cuisine is heavy on the veggies and true to its roots. This place is right under your nose — don't miss it a second time.
Om Café and Gallery 23136 Woodward, Ferndale, 248-548-1941; $: They may have a few fish dishes, but deep down Om Café is vegetarian, vegan, macrobiotic, and so healthy it'll bring a spring to your step. You can eat their tofu roll — perfect for veggies who miss their sushi—and sesame-ginger noodles for days. Who says you need meat to be happy? You don't, not when you've got Seitan (yep, it's pronounced say-tan, and it's a wheat product) Sandwiches and the signature Om Salad to appease your hunger-demons.
Palm Palace 2370 Carpenter Rd., Ann Arbor, 734-971-5700; 2065 N. Squirrel Rd., Auburn Hills, 248-371-9000; 15750 Hall Rd., Clinton Township, 586-416-4800; $$: If you're in an emotional crisis that only the stuffed grape leaves of your youth will solve, but now you're vegetarian? Palm Palace can be your food therapist. They have some of the best hummus, grape leaves and falafel around; and the lemony crushed lentil soup alone is worth the visit. All vegetarian items on the menu are clearly marked, and there's a generous selection for veggies and omnivores alike. Vegetarian moussaka! Pita creations! Spinach pie! It's an adventure for your mouth. And go with the house salad dressing; it's divine.
Rangoli Indian Cuisine 3055 E. Walton Blvd., Auburn Hills, 248-377-3800; $$: Entrées at Rangoli come in small copper bowls. They've got mattar paneer (cheese cubes cooked with peas in a tomato and cream sauce); bindi masala (okra sautéed with onions and dee-licious spices); spicy-hot chettinadu pepper chicken (fiery peppers in a coconut curry); and select entrées can even be made vegan.
Russell Street Deli 2465 Russell St., Detroit, 313-567-2900; $: A meatless Reuben would, for all omnivorous appearances, seem to be missing the most important bit — you know: the meat. But at Russell Street, it holds its own without. The "vegetarian favorite," with a medley of vegetables, Swiss, sprouts, and a smear of hummus on whole wheat, will send anybody's taste buds into back-flips. The large, open space is chatty and crowded on Saturdays when everybody and their mother turns up for the great breakfast menu — now available during the week too. And of course there are sandwiches of the meat-laden persuasion, but why do you need them if you have sammies that include roasted red pepper, zucchini and sun-dried tomato pesto? Closed Sundays.
Sprout House 15233 Kercheval, Grosse Pointe Park, 313-331-3200; $: The Sprout House is serious about their health and finds nutrition to be key in a long life. A sort of organic grocery, with produce, vitamins and health and beauty products, this place does a thriving carryout business in sandwiches and refrigerated prepared dishes. Offering vegan, organic dairy, organic chicken, soy cheese and vegetarian options, the store has preservative-, growth hormone- and antibiotic-free foods. Live healthy.
Taste of Ethiopia 29702F Southfield Rd., Southfield, 248-905-5560; 2453 Russell St., Detroit, 313-567-6000; $: The temptation is not to dwell on the Ethiopian bread, good as it is, but to see it as the vehicle for delivering the various we'ts (stews) and t'ibs (sautes) to your mouth. The flavors cooked up are so deep and so true, you may suspect you've never really experienced a lentil or a collard so intimately, and at unbeatable prices.
Toast 23144 Woodward Ave., Ferndale, 248-398-0444; $: Toast took over Delia's space in Ferndale about seven years ago, bringing a new decor and layout, and that hasn't changed since. The specials change weekly, but perennial favorites like the French toast and omelets are always there. They offer their own spin on old classics and are sure not to disappoint.
Seva 314 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor, 734-662-1111; $$: Ever had a TLT? Tempeh, lettuce and tomato? Tempeh is a soy and grain patty with "a nut-like flavor and texture." It's a great substitute for meat and goes well on hamburger buns too. Seva is an all-vegetarian and vegan restaurant offering food that has people talking.
Special thanks to editorial intern Julia Fitzgerald for her help with this column.See any inaccuracies? Let us know. Call 313-202-8043 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org