Denver's vegetarian food scene is getting stronger all the time. All but the most vehemently meat-centric establishments in town have something besides salad to offer veggie-lovers, and ambitious, exclusively vegetarian eateries are opening all the time -- including Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant, which we review this week. When you want to impress a carnivore with the versatility and tastiness of plant-based food, these are the five best places (in no particular order) to take them.
5) Native Foods Cafe 680 South Colorado Boulevard
Yes, it's a chain restaurant -- and an import from California, no less! But when it comes to plant-based food that'll knock the socks off of anyone who tries it, vegan or carnivore alike, Native Foods is as good as it gets in Denver right now. The menu encompasses American, Asian, Mediterranean and more, spanning cuisines with dishes categorized into bowls, hand-helds, salads and "chefs favorite" plates. Native Foods makes its own meat substitutes, all of which are amazing -- the seitan is formed into shaved corned "beef" for Native's Reuben and spicy, juicy "meatballs" for the meatball sandwich above), and they've got the taste and texture to charm even the most hard-core meat-eaters. The dessert menu is just as good, if cupcake-heavy, with light, fluffy cakes paired with sweet, creamy icings. The first Native Foods in Colorado is in Boulder, and there's another opening soon at Colorado and Evans -- but judging from the crowds at the CitySet location, this city could use three or four more.
4) Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant 1015 South Federal Boulevard
Thuy Pham, who opened Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant with her husband last fall in the former home of the award-winning Vietnam Grill, remembers cooking at her mother's side in Vietnam, but it wasn't until she moved to California fifteen years ago and began spending time at a Buddhist temple that she developed a passion for food. "I had a monk, the master, and he was a very good cook," she recalls. "He was very experienced in picking out healthy food, and he taught me." After years of preparing vegetarian food for the monks and nuns there, Pham and her husband decided to move to Denver, and they opened Lotus, which focuses on Vietnamese cuisine -- but all vegetarian versions, prepared with compassion and care.
3) Nectar House 1947 South Broadway
Nectar House opened late last year in the lobby of a yoga studio -- an outside-the-box setting for a raw, vegan restaurant with an extravagant drink menu. But customers are continually wowed by the delicious food created within the constraints of both the setting and the milieu. The superfood salad is among the best salads in the city, and Nectar House also makes a remarkable raw, vegan version of pad Thai as well as Reuben sandwich. There are brunch offerings, too, as well as decadent desserts that will melt in your mouth.
2) Govinda's Garden Cafe 1400 Cherry Street
In some ways, it's a shame that Govinda's Garden Cafe is only open on weekends, because that means devotees of the Ayurvedic vegetarian and vegan selections must wait until Friday night to appease their hunger. But in other ways, it's delightful that the cafe is only open for dinner twice a week, because that gives the chef, Nandini, time to create new menus for every meal. Those meals are served up buffet-style once guests are seated and provided with any requested drink orders; you can also get special appetizers and desserts for an additional price. They're definitely worth it -- but the buffet alone is more than enough to satisfy any appetite, since it always has a delectable salad, several sides and two different main dishes.
1) City, O' City 206 East 13th Avenue
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Welcome to the greenest corner in Denver. City, O City is almost always packed -- with good food, with good cheer and with good arts endeavors in the upstairs Deer Pile. In the mornings, there's a line out the door of cubicle warriors ordering caffeine bombs and pastries at the barista counter; at night, the bar is crowded with hipsters who aren't yet ready to go home. A mainstay of Denver vegetarian cuisine, City, O' City's menu has a little bit of something for everyone: fluffy waffles (available gluten-free), both sweet and savory; plates of housemade pickles and fancy cheeses; a dizzying wine list; a robust beer selection; oven-baked pizza dripping with melted cheese, vegan and vegetarian alike; and some of the best vegan desserts you'll ever taste. There's a small lounge area by the coffee bar, communal seating at a long table underneath a fascinating light sculpture, and rotating art on the walls to captivate your attention while you wait for your meal...or for the show upstairs to start.