When I decided to eat vegetarian and chronicle the effort on my blog, "Gagging Towards Bethlehem," I envisioned an exercise in Spartan self-restraint. I'd always wondered how long I could live without chicken nuggets and bacon, and the resolution-happy month of January seemed the perfect time to test my inner strength.
Turns out it wasn't so hard. I started going to the grocery store every day to marvel at exotic vegetables and fruits—chard! purple carrots! Grapples!—that I could incorporate into Technicolor meals. I came up with creative ways to eschew meat, and it was rare that I was left wanting.
But one giant hitch threatened to derail my month of meatlessness: eating out. Weekly work lunches were the roughest. I needed to stick to my meat-free guns without dragging my co-workers to vegetarian cafes with dense, dry, ancient-grain breads and brown tempeh horror stews. And I certainly didn't want to be the lone diner sulking over a bowl of lettuce while my tablemates chowed down on juicy burgers.
My quest led me to a handful of Triangle restaurants that offer the best of both worlds. Here are my top picks for places where omnivores and vegetarians can dine happily, side by side:
I found the widest range of veggie-friendly options at The Spotted Dog (111 E. Main St., Carrboro, 933-1117). It's shoehorned into the little strip of concrete between Weaver and Main streets in Carrboro. Vegetarian chimichangas, pastas, burgers, salads: They have plenty of options for everyone, and most of their dishes are easily made vegan with the omission of cheese or sour cream. But the veggie burger is what makes Spotted Dog worth a special trip. Served on a soft, grilled bun and topped with crunchy sprouts and dill mayo, the burger is impeccably spiced. The flavors are ever so reminiscent of sausage, in case you're missing your meat. Lunch can easily be had for around $10.
For Indian, Mint (504 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 929-6188, www.mintunc.com) is my absolute favorite. The lunch buffet is $9 on weekdays and it includes entrées, appetizers, soup, dessert and all the naan you can stuff down your gullet. If you don't see what you want on the buffet, they will make you a lunch portion from the dinner menu. The classic chicken tikka masala is superb for meat eaters, but even the waiters agree that Mint's vegetarian dishes are the way to go. The vegetable korma is radiant—fragrant, bright yellow sauce studded with fresh, bright green and orange vegetables. You can't miss.
Planning to propose to a vegetarian? Durham's Parizäde (2200 W. Main St., 286-9712, www.ghgrestaurants.com/parizade/parizademaster.html) is the perfect special-occasion spot. Despite the haute New York-circa-1989 decor, the white-tablecloth service is immaculate—the servers even have those little tablecloth scrapers—and the food is deliciously moan-inducing. From the vegetable mezze with warm grilled pita and bright vegetable pickles to tender, fresh lemon pasta and flavorful individual pizzas, there is plenty to enjoy without meat. Dinner skews on the pricey side, but there's a daily $4.95 lunch special. Plus, you'll feel like you're in a Bret Easton Ellis novel.
As a recent UNC grad, I am well-acquainted with Cosmic Cantina (128 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 960-3955;1920 Perry St., Durham, 286-1875). It's cheap, it's fast, it's open forever and it's freakin' awesome. Even before I went vegetarian, my favorite item there was the classic vegetarian burrito. Until the day I die, I'll be able to recount my at-one-time daily order: "Veggie burrito, no salsa and a drink, please!" No matter which location you choose, the owners are cognizant of the fact that a lot of people go through their requisite vegetarian phases in college, and they cater to those changing appetites. From grilled vegetable or tofu burritos to salsa and cheese quesadillas to the omnipresent vegan platter "daily special," there is a ton to eat here for vegetarians and omnivores alike, all amazingly priced. Where else in town can you stuff your stomach with a delicious burrito and a drink for less than $5? Plus they have beer. Awesome.
Foster's Markets (2694 Durham Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham, 489-3944; 750 Martin Luther King Blvd., Chapel Hill, 967-3663; www.fostersmarket.com) are not only lovely little gourmet stores with coffee, wine, foodie gifts and a roster of novelty-nostalgia candy. They're also great cafes with plenty of options for vegetarians and omnivores. From the sides—the mac and cheese is a meal alone—to the wraps and sandwiches, everything is fresh, local and welcoming. The portabella mushroom sandwich is warm and flavorful, while the Very Veggie Wrap explodes with bright vegetables. The veggie sampler plate consists of three fresh vegetarian sides or salads of the day. Everything on the menu can be had for less than $10.
Rachael Oehring blogs at gaggingtowardsbethlehem.com.