Each week the Orient spotlights different aspects of the arts and entertainment scene in Portland. This week's installment focuses on venues for vegetarian food.
For vegetarians, having a wide array of culinary options is key. While Bowdoin provides its herbivores their fair share of delicious meat-free choices, when in need of dining out, Portland offers some exciting vegetarian hot spots.
Two restaurants in particular have garnered attention for their vegetarian-friendly menus: Silly's in Portland's East End and The Green Elephant Vegetarian Bistro downtown.
Although Silly's is far from a vegetarian-only restaurant—loved for its burgers and meat-topped pizzas among other carnivorous entrees—it strives whole-heartedly to provide something for everyone.
"The motivation for Silly's is...to be a destination dining location for all," wrote owner Colleen Kelly on the restaurant's website. "To provide wonderful service catered by unique people in an atmosphere of positive energy, whimsy and relaxed intensity coupled with food that is fresh, simple and delicious."
And this intent is clear in the funky décor of the small, 12-table restaurant: the brightly painted walls are covered with an assortment of photographs, license plates, decorative lights and other intriguing paraphernalia. Silly's is certainly a restaurant for people who not only want to have good food, but who also want to have a fun eating experience.
"One of my main goals was to make sure that it was fun to go out with a group of people. And you realize that if you don't have choices of what to eat, it's not fun to go out," said Kelly, who took over the restaurant in 2002. "It became my goal to make sure that every single person had something to eat."
Kelly remembered serving a customer who was a vegetarian shortly after the restaurant opened. At the time, all there was for her to eat off the menu was a salad. "Maybe she was vegan, or gluten free," Kelly said, "but I just remember her settling on this salad and I remember thinking 'That's not good enough for me.' I don't remember when that was exactly, but I definitely remember going full boat after that."
After this formative experience, Kelly said that she worked with a lot of her staff—many of whom were vegetarian or vegan—and began to dream up ways to make Silly's menu more accessible for people with any number of dietary restrictions.
"What was especially fun for me during that stage, was that, you know, I'm not a vegetarian—so it was really a test, a chance for me to look at food differently. It was fun because I know these flavor profiles, I know what it tastes likes and so it was so great to try to make these vegetarian options and try to get things made that are incredibly tasty," said Kelly.
From those early attempts, Silly's menu has come to specialize in many vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free choices. Some of the favorites are the spicy vegan dip, the tempeh thru the tulip wrap which is a vegan wrap of spinach, tomato, fried tempeh and sautéed veggies du jour in a creamy basil sauce, and their falafel and sweet potato fries appetizers.
For Kelly, the choice to expand her menu in this way wasn't necessarily a desire to join a larger food movement.
"Really," said Kelly, "I was more focused on the people having choices...I wanted to perfect those subtle changes so that more people could be happy eating here. "
"One separate frialator is completely for gluten-free frying," she added. "I always hear how gluten-free eaters can never have fries when they go out, but here they can and that's the kind of place I wanted Silly's to be."
Further into the heart of Portland's downtown lies The Green Elephant, offering an "Asian-influenced" menu that is completely vegetarian and heavily vegan.
While Silly's decoration is an exciting mish-mash, The Green Elephant provides more of an airy, casual and relaxing ambience: natural light streams through the tall plate glass windows, and the walls of whitewashed brick and painted grass green complement the light bamboo floors and the pale wooden tabletops.
Opening in the fall of 2007, manager Corin Gintner explained that The Green Elephant arrived to fill a void in the Portland culinary scene.
"Basically, that slot of the vegetarian/vegan restaurant wasn't filled. There was—there continues to be—no other full service vegetarian restaurant and we felt that that was a space that could be taken," said Gintner.
Yet, while The Green Elephant may have come to Portland to provide the vegetarian community with a much needed edible outlet, Gintner explained that the clientele has expanded since 2007.
"It's wonderful...50 percent of our clientele is carnivore—they just really love our food," said Gintner.
While that may be surprising to the dedicated meat-eater, even with a cursory look at The Green Elephant's menu, one can understand why the all-vegetarian menu would be tasty to any palette.
From the crispy wonton, to the tofu & vegetable teriyaki to the peanut curry, the menu offers an incredible vegetarian variety. Moreover, although advertised as "Asian-influenced" the menu also serves a variety of dishes that extend beyond what is typically thought of as vegetarian Asian cuisine.
What sets The Green Elephant apart in terms of its creation of vegetarian dishes is that it is not your typical meat to vegetarian substitute transformation.
"Our owner, chef and interior designer is a genius and basically just dreams and creates these things. He's never thinking meat to vegetarian sort of thing, really he's just thinking about what would make a good—a delicious—vegetarian dish," said Gintner.
With its all-vegetarian menu, Gintner explained that the restaurant provides a dining experience that is simultaneously calm and exciting. "What I hear from most people who eat here—most vegetarians—is that it's a very relaxing thing to be able to look at this very extensive menu and be able to order anything off of it that they please."
40 Washington Avenue
Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
The Green Elephant
608 Congress St.
11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Sunday 5 p.m. - 9p.m.