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Right to Choose

Where vegetarians like to go out on the town

By Elisa Camahort

I can't tell you how many times I hear the following when planning dinner out with friends: "You pick the restaurant; you're the one with special requirements."

I don't know about other vegetarians out there, but I hear that and end up wanting to prove that I can get a good meal at Black Angus if I have to! I'm not big on vegetarian evangelism. But I do want everyone to know that it's not a burden. This sometimes leads me to choose restaurants that I know may not be the most veggie-friendly.

Now, a good restaurant is a good restaurant. I often say, and it's true, that one of the best vegetarian platters I ever had was at the Ruth Chris Steak House in Chicago. But I honestly don't know why I continued to agree to go to Chili's for that long stretch of time between when they abandoned their veggie soft tacos and added the black-bean burger and vegetable quesadilla to their menu.

Every now and then, there are occasions when I feel it is my right to really choose what I like and where I want to go. My birthday, Valentine's Day, "I quit my stinkin' job" day.

And when I have the right to choose, there are three places I think of. Two vegetarian; one not, but really veggie-friendly.

The first, most special choice is Greens in San Francisco at the Fort Mason Center. Greens is the mother of all gourmet vegetarian restaurants. It's the kind of place where everything on the menu sounds good. The kind of place where I'm the one agonizing over what to choose, instead of the one who decides in about 30 seconds, which is the amount of time it takes me to find the lone vegetarian dish, usually pasta primavera or steamed vegetables. Greens satisfies more than my taste buds. The setting is lovely, especially if you can grab a window table at sunset. The service is professional. Greens is a fine dining experience, and one where I have the same trouble making my mind up that nonveggies do—and take for granted—every time they go out.

The second choice is a casual choice, also vegetarian, that I've mentioned before: Garden Fresh in Mountain View. I go out to lunch with different friends and colleagues a lot. I have a crowd of buddies who like to go to Clarke's on El Camino, mere blocks away from this favorite vegetarian haven. Clarke's, as you may know, is a major burger place. Yet, in keeping with my "Hey, it's easy being green" attitude, I show up without a peep every time. Clarke's offers a garden burger, but I choose to be in denial that it's probably cooked on the very same grill as the regular burgers. If I really gave myself the right to choose, it would be Garden Fresh. Every now and then, I do suggest it and succeed in introducing everyone to its fine vegetarian Chinese fare.

The final favorite is Pizza Antica at Santana Row. From the day this restaurant opened, it has shown sensitivity to vegetarians. A good portion of its appetizers, pizzas and entrees are always vegetarian, plus, since it makes each dish to order, it has no trouble removing meat from any dish.

Pizza Antica makes my favorite salad of all time: a grilled Brussels sprouts salad, sans bacon of course. You can wrinkle your nose at the idea, but these are not the Brussels sprouts you remember from your youth. One time I showed up at Pizza Antica, craving that salad, and found to my horror it was removed from the menu. The restaurant uses fresh sprouts, and it was springtime, so the salad was out of season. I was crushed (and I was having a low-blood-sugar moment, so I mean really crushed).

The manager saw my distress and brought me the new Spring Salad on the house to convince me that I could come to the restaurant even when Brussels sprouts weren't on the menu! That's the kind of place it is.

Pizza Antica also has one of my favorite desserts: a lemon semifreddo. It's a perfect combination of sweet and tart with the consistency of frozen Cool Whip. I mean that in a really good way.

I've had everything from pear gorgonzola pizza to potato ricotta gnocchi to grilled cheese there, each one a well-considered, flavorful option for vegetarian patrons. The restaurant even makes its vegetable-based soups without chicken stock. Imagine that!

I realized while writing this column that I've been choosing nonveggie places, trying to help people realize you can be a vegetarian and eat anywhere. But what I'm realizing now is that I should be choosing my veggie-friendly favorites and helping people realize how great vegetarian or veggie-friendly restaurants can be! I'm a slow learner, what can I say?

Greens Restaurant
Bldg. A, Fort Mason, San Francisco. 415.771.6222.

Garden Fresh
1245 W. El Camino Real, Mountain View. 650.961.7795.

Pizza Antica
334 Santana Row, Suite 1065, San Jose. 408.557.8373.

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From the October 27-November 2, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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