It might be difficult to imagine, but there was once a time when vegetarian eating in restaurants was a pain.
Vegetarians sometimes called ahead at certain restaurants to ensure there would be something for them to eat. Otherwise, the chef might sautee some veggies in oil and call it good. Vegans were doubly S.O.L. Many chefs just didn’t take vegetarian eating all that seriously.
Now we all take vegetarian eating for granted in restaurants and elsewhere, but vegans still have reason to be wary. Pro kitchens very often make all of that food so tasty with ladles of cream and finishing knobs of butter.
When I interviewed Tamara Brown of Sassy Spoon, the Twin Cities’ only all gluten-free restaurant, she told me that parents of children who suffer from Celiac disease sometimes weep tears of joy when they realize nothing in her restaurant is off limits. Judging by the lines at J. Selby’s all plant-based restaurant, a few tears of joy have likely been shed here as well.
You may recall that the restaurant’s initial grand opening was quickly followed by a swift shuttering. J. Selby’s was unable to keep up with initial crowds, which they reported were about four to five times larger than they were prepared to serve. And they’re still shuttering between daytime service and night to regroup, not all that unusual for popular spots.
J. Selby’s isn’t long on comfort. The layout feels a lot like a workaday cafeteria, not as glamorous as one in an art museum, and not as stark as one in a hospital, but something in between. The school lunchroom comes to mind.
Order at the counter, and take delivery of your lunch a few minutes later in the crowded dining room. If you don’t happen to be vegan but are eating at J. Selby’s anyway, it can be an amusing experience.
For instance, when a stack of pancakes hits the table with a pat of melting “butter,” it’s easy to forget where you are. When my dining companion mentioned offhandedly that he prefers a fluffier pancake, I reminded him that no eggs or milk were used in the making of these.
“They’re vegan, remember?”
“Well, where’d that butter come from, then?”
The butter substitute was a bit more bitter than unctuous old-fashioned butter, but I was on the lookout. Any way you butter it, these are very good pancakes.
When my spicy breakfast hash arrived, I remembered it would be sans the eggs I’m so emotionally attached to on my breakfast plate. But I didn’t wind up missing them at all, thanks to the Herbivorous Butcher’s excellent breakfast sausage and a generous portion of garlic tahini sauce. This latter genius move adds a rich creaminess where eggs left off. Add in breakfast potatoes, onions, and green peppers, and I was pleasantly satiated by the time I reached a final bite, with none of the familiar meat and dairy-induced post-brunch brain drain. (J. Selby’s does not serve Bloody Marys, which could also have had something to do with it, but they do offer mimosas.)
My meat-eating boyfriend relished the biscuits and gravy, swimming in a vegan béchamel sauce that had a light, fruity, spice cabinet note to it. With Herbivorous Butcher breakfast sausage and a side of breakfast potatoes, it was a meal fit for a big guy, who had no complaints and said he would happily do it all again.
Instead of the trip home for a nose dive back into bed, we bounced around town feeling light, lively, and well brunched.
The staff at J. Selby’s is still suffering from a bit of deer-in-headlights opening jitters, and I suppose several hundred customers a day might do that to a person. Still, they’re making valiant efforts and in spite of crowds, things went relatively swiftly.
The restaurant’s somewhat decadent point of view -- allowing animal product eschewers to have buttery pancakes, gravied-up biscuits, quesadillas, and buffalo wings -- will likely get them far in this world. Vegan eating shouldn’t have to mean only quinoa and brown rice. (They’ve got those too, if you’re of that mindset.)
Kids can even have chicken nuggets and corn dogs, the way all kids everywhere must, a surefire meal for drying up any wayward tears.
169 N. Victoria St., St. Paul