Consumers seeking better-for-you menu options are increasingly turning to plant-based dishes to satisfy their hunger for alternatives. According to Technomic’s 2017 Center of the Plate: Seafood & Vegetarian report, 41% of consumers say they are eating more vegetables now than they did a year ago, and 16% say they are eating more vegetarian/vegan options. Although most of the population isn’t vegetarian or vegan, many diners eat a “flexitarian” diet and opt to add more plant-based proteins to their diets, too.
But it’s not enough that dishes are simply vegetarian; they have to taste good, too, and there has to be good variety. According to Technomic’s report, 40% say that the No. 1 thing deterring them from ordering vegetarian or vegan options is that they don’t like the taste, while 32% say they don’t order those dishes because they don’t like the options offered. As a result, more operators are expanding their vegetarian, vegan and plant-based protein options and offering delicious, unique dishes.
And it’s paying off—86% of restaurant operators say that offering vegetarian dishes has a large impact on increasing sales and traffic, and 85% said the same of vegan dishes, according to Technomic’s recent Healthy Eating report.
Operators are taking various approaches to adding more plant-based dishes to their menus. Some are swapping vegetables directly for animal proteins in dishes such as cauliflower steaks, veggie burgers or jackfruit tacos, and others are crafting creative new dishes centered on unusual vegetables such as exotic varieties of squash. And many trending ethnic cuisines, such as Indian and South Asian, readily lend themselves to plant-based cooking.
Following are some examples of plant-forward dishes appearing on menus around the country.
1. Dirt Candy — Sautéed Artichoke and Black Hummus Sandwich
Veggie burgers have become mainstream at restaurants around the country, and some chefs are creating their own interesting takes on the trend. Likewise, vegan and vegetarian sandwiches are also getting special treatment. Check out these examples.
Dirt Candy, a New York City icon for plant-based cuisine, added a sautéed Artichoke and Black Hummus Sandwich to its brunch menu this spring. It’s topped with pickled turnips, zhoug and mint. The restaurant, founded by chef-owner Amanda Cohen, a James Beard Award finalist, is consistently ranked as one of the best vegetarian restaurants in New York.
Recipe: Griddled Spicy Red Bean Smashed Albondiga Torta
Recipe ready MorningStar Farms® Signature Protein Blend™ in Spicy Red Bean flavor provides speed scratch solutions. Griddled and smashed albondiga sandwich with mushrooms, poblano and onion rajas, melted Mexican cheese, cilantro pesto and sliced avocado.
3. Chilis – Black Bean & Veggie Fajitas
At this popular chain, diners can order the Black Bean & Veggie Fajitas, which feature a black bean patty, asparagus, garlic-roasted tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, corn & black bean salsa, queso fresco and avocado, drizzled with spice chile-lime sauce.
4. Pret A Manger — Avocado Smash
Multinational quick-serve cafe chain Pret A Manger has been adding more plant-based items to its grab-and-go menu. The Avocado Smash includes smashed avocado drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice and seasoned with crushed red pepper flakes on a freshly baked artisan baguette. What’s more, in London, the chain has begun opening Veggie Pret Shops to cater specifically to those customers seeking more plant-based options.
5. Red Robin — Veggie Burger
Red Robin recently introduced a new, custom-blended ancient-grain-and-quinoa veggie burger, which comes with Swiss cheese, Parmesan-sprinkled mushrooms, tomato bruschetta salsa, avocado slices, sun-dried tomato spread and shredded romaine. The burger is served on a whole-grain bun but can also be ordered as a vegan option wrapped in a lettuce bun with fresh tomato bruschetta salsa, avocado slices and shredded romaine. It also comes with bottomless broccoli.
6. Twin Creeks Steakhouse — Cauliflower Steak
Cauliflower, jackfruit and beets have all been appearing on menus as direct substitutes for meat proteins. Often, these veggies are marinated and seasoned to enhance their appeal. Here are a few dishes that innovate with these ingredients.
At the Silverton Casino in Las Vegas, Twin Creeks Steakhouse recently expanded its plant-based options with several new menu items, including the pan-seared cauliflower steak served on a bed of toasted farro with pine nuts, apricots and Swiss chard. In an interview, Executive Chef Jaimee Pepe said he wanted the vegan and vegetarian diners to “have the same ‘wow’ experience as the steak-eaters.”
7. Firebirds — Cauliflower “Steak” Frites
Charlotte, N.C.-based casual dining chain Firebirds Wood Fired Grill rolled out a Cauliflower “Steak” Frites as part of its fall menu. The wood-grilled cauliflower is served with roasted chili hummus, chimichurri sauce, Parmesan fries and cucumber salad.
8. Boston’s Pizza — Buffalo Cauliflower
Dallas-based Boston’s Pizza Restaurant & Sports Bar introduced a plant-based version of Buffalo wings as part of its new Appy Hour menu of appetizers. The Buffalo Cauliflower florets are lightly battered and fried, tossed in buffalo sauce, served on a bed of blue cheese dressing and cabbage, and topped with crumbled blue cheese and sliced scallions.
Recipe: Lebanese Falafel Salad Bowl with Tabbouleh Rice
MorningStar Farms® Signature Protein Blend™ Spicy Red Bean. Baharat spiced red bean and charred eggplant falafel with tabbouleh rice salad, spicy lemon yogurt sauce, cucumbers, red onion and a warm pita.
12. Ermanos — Jackfruit Asada Torta
Ermanos Craft Beer and Wine Bar in Tucson offers a vegan Jackfruit Asada Torta, featuring fresh marinated jackfruit. The sandwich is topped with pickled shallots, jalapenos, Merchant Garden lettuce and cashew aioli, and is served on a vegan bun.
13. NIX — Roasted Baby Eggplants
Some of the nation’s leading chefs are incorporating unusual fruits and vegetables into unique culinary creations, often featuring global influences. Take a peek at these trending dishes.
Michelin-starred NIX in New York City is known for its plant-forward menu that changes seasonally. New to the dinner menu this year is a vegan dish of whole roasted baby eggplants on a bed of lentils with apricots, cipollini onion and red curry sauce, with lemongrass and ginger. The restaurant proclaims that “eating vegetarian or vegan should feel more celebration than sacrifice.”
14. Oleana — Honeynut Squash
At Cambridge, Mass.-based Oleana, Executive Chef Ana Sortun offers a seasonal, plant-centric menu featuring flavors of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Among her most recent creations is a Honeynut Squash dish with leeks, little noodles, apricot, almond and goat’s milk labneh.
Recipe: Tomato Basil & Mushroom Benedict with Zucchini, Mint & Pea Sauté & Basil Hollandaise
MorningStar Farms® Signature Protein Blend™ Tomato Basil Mozzarella. A blended patty studded with mushrooms, pine nuts, roasted garlic and feta. Topped with a poached egg and basil hollandaise served with zucchini ribbon, mint and pea.
15. China Poblano — Twenty Vegetable Fried Rice
Chef José Andrés’ acclaimed Mexican/Asian restaurant China Poblano, at The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas, recently introduced a new vegan tasting menu called The Vegan Chef’s Experience. The main dish is the restaurant’s acclaimed Twenty Vegetable Fried Rice, which features a variety of fresh produce to give this classic dish a new twist.
17. Zaytina — Bamya
Many operators are emphasizing protein-rich grains and legumes in their soup and salad menu items to cater to consumers seeking plant-based choices across the menu.
Under the direction of celebrated chef José Andrés, Zaytina in Washington, D.C., offers a selection of small tasting plates drawing upon Turkish, Greek and Lebanese cuisines. Many of the dishes are plant-forward, such as the Bamya, a stew of tomato, okra and green chickpeas scented with cardamom.
18. Panera Bread — Soba Noodle Broth Bowl
Among the plant-centric offerings at cafe/sandwich chain Panera Bread are two new bowls introduced earlier this year—a Soba Noodle Broth Bowl and a Vegan Lentil Quinoa Broth Bowl. Both feature protein-rich ingredients and join a growing list of vegan/vegetarian options offered at the chain.
19. Fogo de Chao — Butternut Kale Salad
Brazilian steakhouse chain Fogo de Chao recently rolled out a new fall menu that includes several vegetable-forward dishes with an emphasis on protein, including a new Butternut Kale Salad with roasted butternut squash, fresh kale, chickpeas and feta, topped with protein-rich pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. The salad is tossed in a honey-citrus vinaigrette.