By Elizabeth Chorney-Booth

It’s a stereotype that annoys foodies and restaurateurs to no end, but the idea that Calgary is a meat ‘n’ potatoes town is rooted in the truths of a not-so-distant past. In addition to the vast ranchlands surrounding the city, it wasn’t too long ago that it was virtually impossible to eat a proper vegetarian or vegan meal in most local restaurants.

I speak from experience: throughout my late teen years and early adulthood, I was a young ideologically motivated vegetarian. Even if I ignored the possibility of hidden anchovies or chicken broth in supposedly meat-free salads or soups, going out to eat was hazardous at best. By my count I ate over 300 falafel wraps over the course of my career as a university student (shout out to the Falafel Hut at the University of Calgary) and I finally gave up on vegetarianism all together when my parents took me out to a nice French restaurant, only to discover there wasn’t a single thing I could eat. No wonder I am so food obsessed now that I eat meat — I’m making up for almost a decade of eating bad salads and slapped-together pasta dishes.

Vegan Street's Banh Mi

Vegan Street’s Banh Mi

That said, I suspect that if I had stepped into the realm of vegetarianism in more recent years, I’d be much happier with my choices. A number of businesses, many owned by vegetarians and vegans looking to create restaurants that they want to eat at themselves, have opened over the last decade or so, greatly expanding Calgary’s meatless options. Vegan Street, one of the newer vegetarian restaurants in town, started as a food truck in 2018 and opened as a full-service restaurant in early 2020. Owners Laine Fedrau and Darian Gustufson wanted to create a restaurant that went beyond the raw smoothie bowls and ultra-healthy fare typical of many strictly vegan restaurants. Fedrau, who is a vegan herself, agrees that plant-based and meat-free eating has improved greatly in Calgary over the years, but she felt like the city was still missing a hip sit-down comfort food restaurant where vegan eaters could comfortably order anything they wanted off the menu.

“So many vegans have told me that it’s lovely to look at the entire menu and order anything.” – Laine Fedrau, Vegan Street

“It was always our dream to bring more options to the city,” Fedrau says. “So many vegans have told me that it’s lovely to look at the entire menu and order anything they want without having to make any modifications. They can enjoy our dishes exactly as they’re meant to be enjoyed and know that everything is completely plant-based.”

Nan's Noodle House

Nan’s Noodle House

Vegan Street joins a host of other restaurants in Calgary that exclusively serve either vegan or vegetarian food. Whereas Vegan Street specializes in 100 percent crave-worthy vegan comfort food like mock calamari (made with blue oyster mushrooms), jackfruit pulled “pork,” veggie burgers, and tacos filled with veggies or fake meat, a place like The Allium serves more chef-driven fare like mushroom schnitzel and squash gnocchi. Vegans hankering for plant-based ramen, pho, or Thai noodle soups can head to Nan’s Noodle House, and those wanting to replicate a Dairy Queen-style experience can get burgers and vegan ice cream at VBurger. Vegetarian sushi fans can find their fill at WholeLifeGo and plant-based eaters looking for a brunchtime eggless omelet can try out The Dandelion. The advantage of being a vegetarian or a vegan in 2021 in Calgary isn’t just that you can find something to eat, it’s that we’re rapidly approaching a point where you can find a little bit of everything.

For the last 15 years, the powerhouse of Calgary’s vegetarian scene has been The Coup, which has a loyal following thanks to its tasty sandwiches, bowls, and dips. The restaurant experienced an injection of talent in 2019 when chef Adam Ryan took over the kitchen and got another renewal right before the pandemic hit when it was sold to the same group that owns Nourish Bistro in Banff and now also the aforementioned Dandelion in Ramsay. New co-owner Caleb Olney says that he never feels like his restaurant chefs’ hands are tied by having to stick to vegan or vegetarian food. If anything, they have more freedom than most chefs in meat-based restaurants that are tied to a particular concept or global cuisine.

VBurger Shake

VBurger Shake

“With a vegan or vegetarian food you have such a wide variety of food to cook under one banner,” Olney says. “If you go into a steakhouse you know what to expect. You’re not going to find a Moroccan dish there, but we can do that. We like having the option to do so many kinds of regional and seasonally-based food.”

The real test for any vegetarian or vegan, however, is eating out at a non-vegetarian restaurant. Places like The Coup and Vegan Street are safe havens for non-meat eaters, but what is a vegetarian to do if their partner or parents insist on going to a steak house? In modern day Calgary, even eating at a meat-centric restaurant often means being able to choose a carefully constructed vegetarian or vegan dish that actually tastes good.

“I did not want to do pasta primavera.” – Stephen Deere, Modern Steak

The Coup Cheese Plate

The Coup Cheese Plate

“I learned from being a vegetarian for a short period of time that we needed to have a veggie or vegan section and also a lot of sides that can be combined to create a vegetarian meal,” says Modern Steak proprietor Stephen Deere, whose menu always includes two vegetarian entrees that change seasonally. “I did not want to do pasta primavera because that was the vegetarian item on everyone’s menu for much of the ’90s. If we’re going to do vegetarian dishes they can’t be throwaways and there has to be some thought behind them.”

If you can get a good vegetarian meal at a restaurant called Modern Steak, the possibilities in Calgary really are endless. These days the meat-avoidant not only have choice, but really good choices, setting vegetarians up not only for success, but also deliciousness.