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Eat smart

Health food mecca?

More restaurants honor vegetarian, vegan, raw food philosophies

By Devra First
Globe Staff / January 6, 2010

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The Boston area isn’t generally thought of as a health food mecca. Prime rib, fried seafood, boiled dinner: These dishes represent our conservative culinary roots. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the vegetarian, vegan, and raw restaurants that thrive in other cities have cropped up at a slower pace here.

Yet eating for health has a long history in the area. Macrobiotic pioneer Michio Kushi established the Kushi Institute in the Boston area in the late 1970s. Ann Wigmore, the grandmother of the raw food diet, started schools here a decade before that. With a large population of curious and adventurous students, this seems a natural market for restaurateurs catering to alternative diets.

This past year has seen a marked shift in that direction. A vegetarian restaurant, a vegan pizzeria, and three raw, vegan restaurants all opened in the fall. Another vegan restaurant, Vej Naturals, is in the midst of relocating from a tiny spot in Malden to a space three times its size in Somerville’s Davis Square. The new restaurant, to be called the Pulse Cafe, is slated to open later this month or early next month.

“Part of the reason we opened where we did was that we just wanted a small place to try things out,’’ says Bob Bouley, the cafe’s co-owner and chef. “We weren’t sure what the reception would be. But we were very overwhelmed right from the start.’’

Like Vej Naturals before it, Pulse Cafe will serve what Bouley calls vegan comfort food. “We try to do a lot of familiar foods because we want to be there for the vegans and vegetarians, but we also want to attract the everyday diner,’’ he says. “At least half our customers fit that description. They’re not vegan or vegetarian, but they want to try something different or eat a little healthier.’’ Their hearty dinners might be anything from Italian-style cutlets to a Lebanese dish.

“Even though there are the old-school diners and the Union Oyster House and those kind of places, I think Boston is becoming a very open-minded community, especially with the student population in the area,’’ Bouley says. “People are more willing to try new things.’’

Evelyn Kimber, president of the Boston Vegetarian Society, says she has seen an explosion of interest in recent years, with increased attendance at events such as a New Year’s banquet and vegan cooking classes, which fill up within hours of their announcement.

“There’s a growing awareness of all the compelling reasons for eating vegetarian and vegan,’’ she says. Chief among them: concerns about the environment, animal cruelty, and individual health. In 2006, a United Nations study called “Livestock’s Long Shadow’’ found that animal agriculture is a big contributor to climate change, pollution, reduction of biodiversity, and land and water degradation. Films like “Food, Inc.,’’ books such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals,’’ and news reports have exposed dark truths about factory farming. “And then, of course, hardly a day goes by when there isn’t something in the news about the health benefits of increasing plant foods and decreasing or minimizing animal foods,’’ Kimber says.

Eric Prescott, director of the Boston Vegan Association, also sees an increasing openness to meat-free diets. “People are much more responsive and genuinely curious,’’ he says. “It used to be when you got questions, people would be like, What are your shoes made out of? Gotcha! But now a lot more people are more wide-eyed and really want to know’’ about the vegan diet.

A vegan for eight years, Prescott has long been interested in opening a restaurant that reflects his lifestyle. In October, he helped launch Allston’s Peace o’ Pie, serving hand-tossed vegan pizzas made with dairy-free cheese and gourmet toppings. “A bunch of vegans wanted to put money into a place that represents our values,’’ he says. “If we want veganism to appeal to people, we’ve got to get it out in front of a broader audience and let them know how good it can be.’’

Perhaps due to the increase in interest, or simply to Allston’s insatiable hunger for pizza in all forms, business has been brisk. “It’s too soon to say we’ve succeeded,’’ Prescott says. “But we started off with a bang.’’

At Red Lentil, a new vegetarian and vegan restaurant in Watertown, chef-owner Pankaj Pradhan says there are often lines to get in on weekends. “We have a mix of everything,’’ he says. “We have Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern, a couple of Indo-Chinese dishes.’’ He changes his specials every day and uses organic eggs, grains, and produce as much as possible. He also offers some gluten-free dishes for people with celiac disease.

Opening a niche restaurant in a bad economy was a risk, he says. “I believe in 50 percent hard work and 50 percent luck. I said, You know what? All you do is make good food, the rest we’ll see what happens. My goal was not to make money right now, my goal was to make people happy. My prices are pretty reasonable. I believe that’s what brings people here.’’

What brings people to the Prana Cafe is a lifestyle. Taylor and Philippe Wells own Prana Power Yoga, with studios in Newton, Cambridge, Winchester, and New York. “My husband and I are raw vegans,’’ Taylor Wells says. “We just didn’t have any place to eat.’’ So they opened their cafe, a few doors down from the Newton yoga studio. They offer everything from raw burritos to lasagna to chocolate pudding, plus a kids’ menu.

“We wanted a place for students to go. We wanted to expand the community,’’ she says. “People feel they don’t have a choice right now. We want to give them a choice and make it easy for them to feel good while eating the best food ever.’’

Newburyport’s Revitalive Cafe also specializes in raw, vegan food. It’s an offshoot of Revitalive Health & Wellness, a center where one can learn about the raw food diet or take part in cleansing programs. Co-owner Anna Forkan calls the cafe’s offerings “raw fast food’’: salads, sandwiches, smoothies, and desserts. “We wanted it to be inexpensive and fast,’’ she says. “Our goal is to have everything under $15.’’

Smoothies may be the raw diet’s gateway food. Revitalive Cafe is located in a mall. “All the business owners were coming in every day and getting smoothies and losing weight,’’ Forkan says. “They start feeling better, then they get curious, then they might want to take a class. It’s a cool mix. We get a lot of people from the wellness center who we’ve been working with, vegans who know they have to seek out places to eat, and then just random, everyday people.’’

There’s enough interest to support two raw food restaurants in Newburyport. When Alissa Cohen opened Grezzo in Boston’s North End two years ago, some wondered whether it could survive in a neighborhood known for pasta and pizza. It did, and Cohen opened a second branch in the North Shore city in October. Where Revitalive is quick and casual, Grezzo offers more upscale dining. There’s also a bar for smoothies and juices.

“I think it’s just getting more popular,’’ Cohen says of the raw food diet. “There are a ton of books out. Movie stars are doing it. Twenty years ago, when you said ‘vegetarian,’ people thought you were crazy. Now it’s totally mainstream. That’s what’s happening with raw food.’’

Robert (a.k.a. “Rawbert’’) Reid concurs. He opened the Organic Garden Cafe, a raw and vegan restaurant in Beverly, 10 years ago. At the time, he was a bit of a pioneer.

“When we opened there were only four other raw food and vegan restaurants’’ in the country, he says. “A couple of years ago, I counted 50 to 100. It’s hitting critical mass. Everyone I know who transitions to a fairly high amount of organic, raw foods experiences a dramatic increase in energy and relief from whatever symptoms they’re dealing with. It spoke to me as not being a business venture but a necessity. I knew it had to be the wave of future.’’

This new crop of restaurants effectively doubles the number of meatless establishments in the area. Other longtime restaurants include Grasshopper in Allston (vegan), Life Alive in Lowell (vegetarian with a raw bent), Masao’s Kitchen in Waltham (vegan and macrobiotic), and Veggie Planet in Cambridge (vegetarian).

It may not be long before there are more. Life Alive is looking for space in Central Square, Cambridge. Wells says Prana intends to open cafes near its Cambridge and Winchester studios, as well as an additional yoga studio/cafe. Clover Food Lab, a truck serving vegetarian fare, will open a brick-and-mortar shop soon. And Reid hopes to open a second branch in Porter Square. His goal is May. “I’ve been telling people for the last six years that I’m opening in Cambridge,’’ he says. “I really do intend to in 2010.’’

Welcome to Boston, health food mecca.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

WHERE TO EAT
Grezzo
25 State St., Newburyport. 978-961-1676. (Also at 69 Prince St., Boston. 857-362-7288.) www.grezzorestaurant.com
Peace o’ Pie
487 Cambridge St., Allston. 617-787-9884. www.peaceopie.com
Prana Cafe
292 Centre St., Newton Corner. 617-527-7726. www.pranaraw.com
Pulse Cafe
195 Elm St., Somerville. For updates on the cafe’s opening, go to www.vejnaturals.com.
Red Lentil
600 Mount Auburn St., Watertown. 617-972-9188. www.theredlentil.com
Revitalive Cafe
Tannery Mall, 50 Water St., Newburyport. 978-462-0639. www.revitalivecafe.com