Most restaurant owners have been glad to host and showcase their vegetarian options.
Madison is known for being progressive, but when it comes to vegetarian restaurants, the city has long missed the mark. Vegetarians have often been forced to settle when it comes to food options in the city, with many having to make a meal out of appetizers or selecting from the children's menu.
There have been vegetarian-only restaurants in town over the years, but in the years before the opening of the Green Owl Café in Schenk's Corners in late 2009, there was a long dry spell for exclusively vegetarian options in Madison..
In October 2007, Dave Friedman decided that he could make a difference. Friedman joined the social networking site , which would get together monthly to sample the vegetarian selections available at city restaurants.
Twelve people responded they were interested; the first official meeting took place at the now-closed India Darbar on Odana Road.
The group grew slowly at first. At early events, Friedman reserved space for 35 participants, only to have many fewer actually show. Today, though, demand to attend meetups is more than most restaurants can seat, forcing Friedman to turn some people away, or to have two events, with two nights per restaurant. Friedman figures that if restaurants could fit 100 people at a time, the event would still be sold out.
Friedman had two goals for the group. First and foremost, it was intended to be a social experience, where vegetarians could come together and eat with those who share a similar view on food. The group has ended up being quite diverse, with many ethnicities and age groups represented, and a mix of families, couples, and singles.
The group is inclusive of vegans as well. In fact, calling the group "vegetarian" is a misnomer, as all meals served are actually vegan. Friedman chose to label the group "vegetarian" instead to attract a broader range of potentially interested people. It's currently approximately a 50/50 split between vegetarians and vegans, with an occasional carnivore in attendance.
To augment the social aspect, Friedman also organizes monthly outings to bowling alleys and parks, where group members can get to know each other better, as well as experience more vegetarian cooking. The largest of these outings is the annual one-day, one-night camping trip, where Trina Reid, an early group member makes three vegan meals from scratch. Most members agree that Reid's cooking is the highlight of the trip.
Additionally, Friedman also hoped the group could show restaurant owners that the demand for vegetarian cuisine is strong and growing, and in that way encourage owners to adjust the permanent menu accordingly. Most restaurant owners have been glad to host and showcase their vegetarian options, says Friedman.
This month's meeting was held at Roman Candle Pizza in Middleton, and was sold out for both days -- May 10 and 11 -- with approximately 50 people attending on each day.
First-timers might be surprised by two things: The informality of the meetings and the large amount of food that is served. Group members slowly trickled in around 6 p.m., to find Friedman sitting near the entrance to greet them and check them in. The members found their own seats and began to serve themselves salad and bread sticks as they looked around for old friends and for new group members to introduce themselves to.
An efficient group of Roman Candle staff brought out bruschetta for appetizers and took drink orders. Next, the soup course, a potato, leek, and spring pea soup, garnished with a roasted carrot puree and a hint of ginger.
The main course consisted of two different vegan pizzas. From Roman Candle's regular menu, the "Animal Lovers" pizza was served, topped with broccoli, spinach, onion, red pepper, and fresh basil. An off-the-menu special "Vegan Destroyer" variety came next, with spinach, artichoke hearts, red onion, pine nuts, Kalamata olives, and basil, topped with a roasted red pepper puree.
Both pizzas were available with or without a vegan cheese known as is Sunday, June 6 at Spice N Curry on Madison's west side.