WaterCourse Foods: Denver's landmark vegetarian restaurant should plot a more creative course

WaterCourse Foods: Denver's landmark vegetarian restaurant should plot a more creative course
Danielle Lirette
The potstickers at WaterCourse taste fresh and inspired.

I knew the day would come when my dining companions would balk at the food set before them, food I'd asked them to order so that I could kick the kitchen's tires and peer under the hood. I just didn't expect it to happen this particular day. Not with an adventurous friend who's eaten camel hoof and sea cucumber (aka sea slugs), and not at WaterCourse Foods, where there's no sign of the nose-to-tail dishes that give many eaters pause. But his country-fried seitan was too thick to disguise its spongy texture, and the breading was too salty to be picked off and nibbled plain, as you might the crust of otherwise dull fried chicken. The mashed potatoes tasted like they were missing a few ingredients, and the vegan green-bean casserole was a little too slick (as in oily) for its own good. My friend put down his fork in defeat.

See also: Behind the scenes at WaterCourse foods

I know people who go to WaterCourse just for the country-fried seitan. Some even drive down from Boulder to eat it. Unlike my friend, they are vegans, so the meat- and dairy-free versions of such Southern classics hold special appeal. But appeal with caveats — as in, "I guess it's good if you're vegan" — isn't what longtime executive chef Rachel Kesley wants for WaterCourse. "I want to be known across the board as a place that has great food, and that maybe doesn't serve meat," she says.

Location Info


WaterCourse Foods

837 E. 17th Ave.
Denver, CO 80218

Category: Restaurant > Health

Region: Central Denver


WaterCourse Foods
Potstickers $10
Samosas $10
Seitan wings $9
Benedict $13
Beet risotto $14
Enchiladas $13
Polenta Florentine $15
Mesquite tofu $15
Country-fried seitan $13
Grapefruit salad $11
Spinach and fennel salad $11
Banana cream pie $6.50
Ho Ho $5
Carrot cake $7
837 East 17th Avenue
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Sunday

WaterCourse has certainly succeeded at the latter. The sixteen-year-old restaurant is synonymous in Denver with meat-free cooking, and over the years has grown into a community center of sorts — not just for vegetarians and vegans, but for gluten-free diners and others with the kinds of dietary restrictions that make eating out tricky. At other restaurants, servers might ask how you want your steak. Here, servers automatically ask if cheese and nuts are okay and whether you need that salad vegan. The kitchen's willingness to handle special requests — an attitude that's not, how shall I put it, necessarily embraced by all chefs — is legendary, to the point that Kesley quips that she's seen a two-person ticket with 23 lines. "That was a bit of a joke," she adds, "though not too far off the mark." Yet sometimes our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses, and I can't help wondering if this accommodating spirit might be holding WaterCourse back.

As a veteran chef who worked in New York before returning to Colorado to start at WaterCourse in 2008, Kesley is the first to admit that dishes like the country-fried seitan exemplify the old-school approach to vegetarian cooking. But every time she looks at the 52-item menu and tries to pare it down, she realizes that everything — even that seitan — sells. Another chef might take it off anyway to make room for more inventive fare, but not Kesley. And until she does, how great your food will be depends on what you order.

Dishes most likely to further Kesley's goal of greatness can be found on the chef's page, a short list of appetizers and entrees served from 11 a.m. until close every day. Unlike the rest of the lengthy menu, which doesn't change as much as it evolves, these dishes switch seasonally and feel fresh and inspired. The potstickers, for example, were plump with shiitakes and tamari-poached tofu, with wheels of crispy lotus root for texture and peppery mizuna for contrast. Benedict, available with poached eggs or scrambled tofu good enough to make even the tofu-averse reconsider, turned out better than any other version of this dish I've had recently, with fried green tomatoes standing in for English muffins and a vegan corn-chipotle Hollandaise with far more flavor than the often disappointingly bland sauce ladled over so many poached eggs.

Such creativity appears elsewhere on the menu, though you have to look harder. Skip the seitan wings, deep-fried spongy strips soaked in both buffalo sauce and oil. Instead, try the whole-wheat samosas, which are good enough to make a meal around, with carrot-currant slaw, bok choy and a dollop of chimichurri offering the sweetness normally found in tamarind chutney. And while mesquite tofu won't win any awards for presentation, it might for home-style satisfaction, since chewy smoked tofu tossed in barbecue sauce is served over creamed corn and mashed sweet potatoes. Both the samosas and the tofu showed the good that can result when vegetarian cooking is allowed to follow its own path, without trying to be a meatless version of something you already know.

Other dishes were disappointing in execution, not design. Grapefruit salad showcased the creativity Kesley is known for, with ingredients you wouldn't normally put together — grapefruit, pretzels in the form of croutons, and beer-mustard vinaigrette — on a crisp bed of arugula and frisée. But I felt like I was playing a game of dodgeball, trying (and failing) to avoid a barrage of onions at every turn. The enchiladas would have been good had they been stuffed with more than a scant tablespoon of filling, and the spinach-fennel salad was light on everything (fennel, currants, candied walnuts, goat cheese and apples) but spinach. Beet risotto was gummy, coating my tongue like peanut butter. And so much saffron had been added to the roasted cherry-tomato sauce in my polenta Florentine that it tasted metallic, making it hard to appreciate the thick, coarse polenta cakes layered with wilted spinach, seared artichoke hearts and caperberries the size of Bing cherries.

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Mantonat topcommenter

I think Gretchen hit the nail on the head with her assessment - it's hard for a vegetarian restaurant to truly shine when it has to be all things to all people with dietary restrictions. The best thing a vegetarian restaurant could probably do is to drop all the fake products - fake cheese, fake meat, fake butter, etc. - and just prepare and cook fresh, seasonal vegetables, grains, high-quality fats, and fruits. 


This review captures my feelings about WC.  There's so much potential there if they could just concentrate on making amazing food that happens to be vegetarian (or vegan).  Whether or not meat's involved, you still have to get the seasoning right, make sure the textures are complementary, the proportions of ingredients are right, the food tastes fresh, etc., and that's where WC has fallen down on my visits.  Case in point: I had an artichoke soup there that had nice flavor, but there were bits of the fuzzy "choke" floating in the soup - some prep chef hadn't taken the time to be sure all of the choke had been removed before pureeing the artichokes, and that completely killed the dish (the choke sticks in your throat and is generally unpleasant to eat).  It's not a vegetarian thing, it's a food thing.  


Overcooked veggies, and overall un-creative gross items that try to mimic meat. Ttypical vegitarian restaurunts. When Chef MacKissock was at the Bean he put out unbelievable creative veg dishes. I still dream bout his BBQ Celery Root and I am not a vegetarian. In my opinion vegetarians are better of at Old Major, Squeaky Bean, Root Down, Euclid Hall, and a hand full of restaurants that put at least as much if not more thought into the vegetarian side of their menu. As far as Vegans go I guess Water Course is as good as it gets.


@skibabyski I didn't see it on their menu but that's good to know. Is it something you have to ask for? I'm not a vegetarian but I have several friends who prefer to eat meat free.