But making do isn't what most people want to do when they go out. Vegetarians are no different: they want some choice, something new and intriguing; something they can't make at home. And even meat eaters don't always want to eat meat in every dish.
While vegetarian choices are still in the minority, there are so many more than there used to be in Greater Cincinnati. There are still few strictly vegetarian restaurants in Greater Cincinnati, but there is a growing and good list of places that go out of their way to be vegetarian-friendly. Instead of a veggie burger or a portabella sandwich, they've put some thought into offering a whole list of sandwiches, a couple of entrees, several appetizers.
Though I've chosen some of the most veggie-friendly restaurants here, many others at all points on the dining scale offer meatless dishes – particularly the very popular "small plates" part of the menu, such as Abigail Street or Metropole.
And, of course, ethnic restaurants are a good place to look – I find Middle Eastern especially satisfying, but Indian, Chinese and Mexican are also good places to hunt.
When people ask me where to take a vegetarian for a special dinner, I have no problem with a recommendation. The better the restaurant, the easier it is to ask for a vegetarian variation.
No vegetarian should hesitate to eat at a fine-dining restaurant like The Palace or Jean-Robert's Table, where the many vegetarian components of their various dishes can be put together in new ways. Orchids, with the full-blown fine-dining treatment, offers a vegetarian tasting menu, paired with wine, alongside their regular tasting menu.
It is a sumptuous, mind-opening experience, something any vegetarian foodie ought to try at some point. My daughter and I indulged in it ourselves, and we had such a lovely evening together, seated at a banquette and being attended to while pieces of art on plates came and went.
We loved the green bean tied in a knot, with green tomato confit with a tapioca crisp, goat cheese and togarashi paired with a blanc de blancs - and that was just the amuse bouche.
Then came a squash blossom, lightly crusted and fried, filled with mozzarella, placed on creamy grits, and drizzled with 15-year-old balsamic. That was succeeded by a supernaturally creamy corn soup with pickled chanterelles, matched with a Riesling Kabinett that perfectly matched its sweetness.
Then came a crispy papillote filled with fennel and onions, with the green apple tzatziki sauce I've had on other dishes of chef Todd Kelly's. Part of the appeal of this vegetarian experience for me was that most of the dishes were paired with white wines, which I particularly like; so we tried several white Burgundies, a Greco di Tufo, as well as the Riesling and blanc de blancs. It showed how much more subtle the matching of wines to dishes is than the old white-with-fish, pinot-with-duck rules.
A mushroom dish with lots of truffles and truffle oil came with a glass of red Burgundy, and the experience was about as soulful and deep as any beef dish.
There were essentially three desserts. The one dish that sticks with me most, a month later, was the small verrine filled with pastry chef Megan Ketover's Riesling gelee, pureed peach and lemon verbena foam. Then arrived an extravaganza of rhubarb and chocolate, and finally a few little macarons and other gourmandise.
Well, not finally, because we got a little granola bar made with the honey from their roof to take home for later, or breakfast.
The bites were small, but enough to feel pleasantly satisfied by the end. Especially because we had two baskets of their perfect, perfect bread. And it was almost as much fun reliving the experience as we drove home, trying to remember every element and why we liked each dish so much.
The Loving Hut in Pleasant Ridge is one of many restaurants by that name across the country. They're independently owned, all a little different, but always vegan.
According to their international website, "Loving Hut is created with the vision that all beings can live in peace, love and harmony with each other." The restaurants take their inspiration from Supreme Master Ching Hai, the spiritual leader of Quan Yin meditation.
This plate of food looks awfully beige, but was much more flavorful than it looked. The sandwich is a somewhat standard meat-substitute panini. But the cauliflower-almond soup was wonderful. It tasted almost buttery.
Also on the menu are various raw dishes, spring rolls, vegan macaroni and cheese, soups and vegan desserts. The herbal tea is free. They used to be open only for lunch, but now have somewhat later hours into the evening.
Kosher and vegetarian diets intersect nicely. Kosher laws dictate that meat and dairy cannot be mixed, so a kosher restaurant serves either dairy or meat.
Fish is pareve, or neutral, falling in neither the meat nor dairy category. So a dairy restaurant will have a lot of vegetarian items to choose from, along with fish.
Kinneret Cafe is a tiny, easily overlooked dairy kosher restaurant in Sycamore Township that serves Israeli and Mediterranean dishes. They also have pizza, pasta and sushi on their menu to provide a little of everything to people keeping kosher.
The sweet potato-filled tempura-fried sushi roll is one of their inventions from an eight-item list of vegetarian sushi, and I was frankly surprised at how delicious it was - the sweet potato was still raw and crunchy and the tempura-fried crust was not greasy at all (though the restaurant's dining room is full of the smell of frying).
Kinneret's Mediterranean plate includes baba ganoush, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, a crunchy chopped salad and falafel. Any Lebanese or Turkish restaurant will serve the same things - though falafel is a particularly Israeli thing, and many people swear by Kinneret's version.
I don't often see this dish in other Middle Eastern restaurants. It's shakshuka, a dish of eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce, served with pita. You'll also find shawarma made with seitan on the menu.
Indian restaurants are another great place for vegetarians, since several Indian religious traditions call for avoiding meat (though not necessarily dairy and eggs). Any Indian restaurant in town will have vegetarian dishes; some make it a specialty, including Brij Mohan and Curries - The Flavor of India.
Amma's is completely vegetarian and has the distinction of also being kosher. A good way to start here is with one of their dinner specials.
For $32, two people get nine dishes, including the signature oversized dosa pancake, some of the curries that will seem familiar from other Indian restaurants, plus soup, a rice dish, and a crunchy fried appetizer. Or go for the buffet at lunch, which is vegan on Wednesdays.
This busy restaurant isn't 100% vegetarian, but it caters to people with particular health concerns, and keeps the environment in mind. Vegans, vegetarian, gluten-avoiders and locavores can all eat here happily.
There are several rice bowls on the menu, including a simple combination of brown rice (perfectly cooked, pleasantly chewy and plump), sauteed diced sweet potato, squeaky fresh spinach, and raisins and pine nuts. It's served with a side of socca, a traditional pancake of garbanzo bean flour (which makes it gluten-free) from the south of France.
Other items on the menu with a V for vegetarian next to them: a veggie burger, quesadilla, a couple of wraps, salads and appetizers, plus their delicious fries with or without beans and salsa and sour cream on top. They also serve a hot dog, a BLT, wine and Jeni's ice cream.
This small spot in Loveland caters to vegetarians, though it also serves chicken (cooked on a different grill than the vegetarian food).
The tiny space - with just a few tables and a collection of antiques and knick-knacks - means that much of their business is carry-out. The menu is quite small so they don't have a wider offering of vegetarian meals than some regular restaurants. Primarily, there is a house-made black bean burger and a veggie wrap.
They also have a full recycling program, using composting and recyclable products; they say they only throw away three to five bags of garbage a week that goes to landfills. They are also one of the few kitchens designated with the Hamilton County Clean Kitchen Award.
My vegetarian friends just love this place. I think they feel like it belongs to them in a way, even though it's not completely vegetarian; there are a couple of chicken, tuna, and even roast beef sandwiches on the menu.
But a vegetarian can order just about anything on the menu; since even those meat sandwiches can be made with substitutes. A vegan can ask for vegan cheese and there are gluten-free breads to sub in. It could take 10 visits to try all the melted sandwiches and settle on a favorite, and a few more to sample wraps and salads.
Plus the place is hip and friendly, with a grassroots feel. It has spread organically from a tiny front room to another farther back in its Northside shotgun, and into a small, pretty backyard.
I admit, I usually get the Joan of Arc with roast beef, but I tried the Kirby Melt with baked tofu, grilled onions and peppers, cashew-garlic spread, tomato and spring mix. It had a substantial bite while still leaving me feeling clean and healthy. I also like the artichoke melt with artichoke-spinach spread and cheddar. (It did take awhile to get it after ordering at the counter. Don't try to rush lunch here.)
The huge Yard House menu has a corner particularly dedicated to vegetarian dishes, most of them meatless versions of dishes elsewhere on the menu. They're made with Gardein, a meat substitute made with soy, wheat, grains and vegetables. They use it to make boneless wings, beef sliders, bbq chicken pizza, a spicy chicken sandwich, etc.
The Gardein Thai "chicken" noodle salad looks pretty much like an actual chicken Thai salad, and the gardein chunks have the heft and protein of a chicken salad (though I don't think a meat-eater would be fooled).
But the spicy, flavorful vegetables and dressing make up for any lack of flavor in the "chicken."
Once upon a time there was a Downtown restaurant called Mullane's Parkside Cafe that served a lot of vegetarian dishes, displayed local art, often had a palm reader and inspired a lot of loyalty. It closed years ago and has been missed since.
Ruth's Parkside Cafe in Northside, which opened in the American Can condo building, is Mullane's direct offspring, with some of the original people involved, offering much of the old menu. The spinach saute was a favorite dish; it's nothing but a vegetable stir-fry on rice with wilted spinach and feta cheese, but it's fresh, savory and filling. Vegetarians can also order a tempeh ruben, a veggie burger, meatless pasta, stir-fries, red beans and rice. And, the raspberry pie is vegetarian, of course.
Written by Polly Campbell, Food & Dining writer at Cincinnati Enquirer.