First of all, let’s clear up a few misconceptions about Al Gore. As best as we can tell, he never claimed to have “invented the Internet.” His ex-wife, Tipper, was never trying to kill rock and roll like some anti-dance parent from Elmore City, Oklahoma. In fact, in high school she played drums in an all-girl rock band called the Wildcats. Finally, Florida didn’t necessarily cost him the 2000 presidential election. If he’d won his home state of Tennessee’s 11 electoral votes, we’d be calling him President Gore.
So here in Tennessee, where I live, we’re more likely to just call him Al. And a recent New York Times profile raised a few eyebrows when the author commented on Gore’s new lean look:
At age 66, he is also trimmer than he was during his bearish, bearded period after the 2000 election, thanks in part to a vegan diet he has maintained for two years. In this city? Home of heavenly meat-and-three platters?
He smiles and says proudly, “There are ten vegan restaurants in Nashville now.”
No disrespect to the former vice president or the esteemed New York Times, but as a proud Nashvillager and dedicated journalist, it is my duty to set the record straight about my hometown and its supposed newfound vegan-friendliness.
Nashville is indeed the birthplace of the “meat-and-three” — where diners can select a protein and three vegetables from a steam table for some delicious soulful Southern cooking. But in Music City, mac ‘n’ cheese counts as a vegetable and those turnip greens were most probably steeped with a ham hock with a mirepoix sautéed in bacon grease.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but nobody would call that vegan. I’m guessing that there is probably some personal chefery going on in Gore’s mansion to keep up his vegan lifestyle. However, Nashville is a town known for glorifying the vegetable at esteemed eateries like Husk and Arnold’s Country Kitchen. (Again: lard alert!) Vegans can survive in Tennessee’s capital city, but they have to be willing to patronize a small number of restaurants or cook at home a lot. Vegetarians have it a lot easier, and many of the city’s best restaurants are more than willing to accommodate non-carnivore diners.
Let’s be blunt here: Does Nashville really have ten vegan restaurants? Hardly. At least not strictly vegan. But if you stretch the definition to restaurants that do an admirable job of catering to the vegan crowd, then you might just reach double digits. Barely. Here are my ten picks for meatless eating in meat-centric Music City.
Juice and dessert lovers have it easier than folks seeking a full menu of vegan specialties. Many of Nashville’s juice bars offer healthy vegan options to accompany their offerings of whirled peas, cycloned kale and tornadoed turnips. Juice Bar whips up smoothies and novel juice combinations as well as offering small side salads and fruit cups for carryout. At Coco Greens in Midtown, the juice bar extends to a full deli menu of sandwiches, wraps and stir-fry dishes, plus a Mac n’ Squash that aims to replace your craving for shells and Velveeta with a creamy squash sauce. In tony Green Hills, near Gore’s home, Fit Food Revolution is more than just a juice store. The place also offers nutrition coaching and gourmet grab-and-go meals created by a team of chefs to hopefully make it easier to be good to your body.
Nashville seems to be going a bit muffin-mad as several new bakeries are specializing in vegan versions of traditional desserts. Khan’s Desserts has quickly earned a reputation for its dairy-free cakes, pies, cookies and brownies that are sold in the Sylvan Park bakery and at retail locations across town. Khan’s also offers a breakfast and lunch menu that seeks to pacify Nashville carnivores’traditional preferences through the copious use of quotation marks and homonyms in the description of dishes with references to “cheez,” “egg” and “sausage.” You’d think the word “sausage” signifies something whose ingredients are vague enough to not need quotes, but Khan’s Cactus Burrito is a pretty novel idea.
Vegan Vee is another vegan and gluten-free specialty bakery, primarily focusing on takeout baked goods made using European techniques. In addition to using organic and local ingredients whenever possible, Vegan Vee also offers a selection of raw desserts for the truly hard-core. Additionally, the Wild Muffin bakes up a few vegan treats as part of its gluten-free portfolio.
As far as full-service primarily-vegan restaurants go, I tried to count up Gore’s ten spots but had to stop before I got to the fingers on my left hand. The Wild Cow in East Nashville bills itself as a vegetarian restaurant, but there are plenty of vegan items on the menu to offer some variety for diners. With the simple request to sub out dairy cheese, the entire menu can be made vegan, and the operators have even partnered with nearby hot-chicken specialist Pepperfire Hot Chicken to create a seitan-based facsimile of Nashville’s most famous contribution to the culinary canon. It’s quite respectable for a chickenless hot-chicken sandwich.
Vanderbilt University wanted to offer its students a kosher dining area in the Ben Shulman Center for Jewish Life, so the administration reached out to local restaurateur and coffee king Bob Bernstein of the Bongo Java empire to create a new venture. The result is Grins (pronounced “greens,” get it?), named after the Yiddish word for vegetables. Since it’s easier to maintain a kosher kitchen when you don’t introduce meat or a lot of dairy to the party, all of the dishes at Grins are vegetarian, and many of them are vegan. Vandy students can even charge their meals to their dining card, so that “freshman 15” is now strictly optional. Bernstein’s Fido restaurant, located on the former site of a Hillsboro Village pet store, usually features some nice vegan options as part of their daily specials as well.
Probably the closest thing to a traditional meat-and-three that specializes in just the “and three” part is the Sunflower Café. Known for several varieties of veggie burgers and a novel vegan BBQ sandwich (I can’t believe I just typed that), Sunflower Café presents a dizzying array of salads and sides on a long buffet. While it is sometimes regarded as a bit pricey compared to old-school steam-table buffets, the quality of the ingredients and breadth of selection makes the Sunflower Café among the very best choices in town for vegetarians and vegans. If it’s not in Gore’s top ten, I’d love to know what is — and, for that matter, what other “vegan” restaurants he’s talking about.
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