There was a time not long ago when few people in the Tampa Bay region knew what a vegan was. Coffee shops didn't offer soy milk. Restaurants considered an iceberg lettuce salad drenched in ranch dressing to be a fine vegetarian alternative to steaks and fettuccine alfredo. It was not easy to be a vegan in Tampa Bay.
But today's trend toward more healthy eating and an apparent increase in the Tampa Bay region's pro-animal rights, vegetarian and vegan populations have helped restaurants that serve primarily vegan fare – or at least offer multiple options that are sans-animal products – become increasingly common and increasingly profitable.
"There are so many more places now than there were four years ago," says Jodi Chemes, vice president of Youth Outreach for the nonprofit Florida Voices for Animals.
Meat and dairy free options run the gamut from almost exclusively vegan menus to omnivorous fare offered alongside veggie dishes of all kinds. None are lacking in flavor or variety.
Here are some of the Tampa Bay region's best bets for vegan dining: Trang Viet Cuisine1524 E. Fowler Ave. in Tampa
Near the USF Tampa campus, this unassuming eatery features a surprisingly extensive list of vegan items on its menu. Restaurant owner Trang Viet, a native of Viet Nam, grows most of the restaurant's herbs and some of the vegetables, including cinnamon and chili peppers, in his garden in rural Lutz. "Those things are hard to find with quality at the market," Viet says. He features so many vegan items because his family is Buddhist, and members eat vegan for a few days each month, he says, adding that Viet Nam's substantial Buddhist population makes for a wealth of vegan recipes. "Traditionally, we've known how to cook vegan food for many years," he says. He gets extremely creative when it comes to meat substitutes, and features veggie "fish," "pork" and even wheat gluten-based "chicken" drumsticks. Steam buns and "chicken" curry are among the menu's top picks. Such a diverse menu has won him a steady customer base, half of which he says is vegan. Debby Magill, director of public relations for Tampa Bay Vegetarians, says the group honored Trang with Best Restaurant of the Year awards twice, and would have done so for a third year if it weren't for a two-year limit placed on honorees. "They're consistently good," she said. That Trang Viet also features meat-centric items like pho on its menu means that it's the kind of place where you can bring mixed company – veg and non-veg, that is. The Grass Root2702 N. Florida Ave. in Tampa
1212 S. Florida Ave. in Lakeland
In early 2006, when The Grass Root
was just getting started in its original digs at Florida and Columbus in Tampa, its hibiscus tea alone was worth a visit. Of course, it also offered an excellent selection of vegan and raw food items (including the raw burrito, which swapped the tortilla for a romaine lettuce leaf). Since then, this place has won numerous awards (including Creative Loafing's 2008 "Best of the Bay" Best Vegetarian Restaurant award) and has opened a second location in Lakeland. Their selection includes numerous vegetarian and vegan sandwiches, raw veggie sushi, comfort foods like vegan ramen and an some intriguing smoothie options, like the Peanut Punch, which lists Irish moss and hemp milk among its ingredients. THE Pizza Place536 First Ave. N. in St. Petersburg
One of the most frequent questions asked of vegans: How can you live without pizza? The answer? They don't. More and more pizza places in the Tampa Bay region are getting hip to the idea of leaving the cheese off and focusing on fresh vegetables and herbs. This downtown St. Pete eatery is particularly good about catering to vegans. "They will veganize pretty much anything on their menu," Chemes says. Their spinach, artichoke and pesto pizza is already vegan, and they offer a selection of soups that are sans animal products. Gourmet Pizza Company610 S. Armenia Ave. in Tampa
Nestled just off the main intersection of Swann and Howard in Hyde Park, this tiny eatery with the big bold name regularly caters to the vegetarian and vegan crowd with a selection of meatless and specialty menu items, including vegan crusts and bread sticks. Check out Gourmet
's Veggie White and Portobella Gorgonzola pizzas, two favorites year-round.Consciousness Blossoms3390 Tampa Road in Palm Harbor
This place may be a haul for many, but its staying power suggests that making the trip is well worth it. Most days it serves only breakfast and lunch, but on Fridays, it stays open for dinner. Renowned meditation teacher Sri Chinmoy is said to have inspired the healthy, meatless fare on the menu, and images of him hang on the walls. The menu includes breakfast sandwiches and omelets for ovo-lactos, but also extends well into the vegan realm. Patrons can find vegan BLTs, reubens and "Neatloaf" sandwiches, and the Moroccan peanut soup is purported to be the stuff of legend.Casa Tina365 Main St. in Dunedin
This is the place for vegans who want to get festive. It has been in business for 17 years, and sits at the heart of Dunedin's Main Street. Co-owner Tina Marie Avila, a vegetarian, says that the menu's veggie offerings are nothing new. "We have offered vegan and vegetarian since our inception," Avila says. "We have had a steady flow of vegetarians since the beginning as there are not too many options in our area." But this place does not just offer a few vegetarian options; they get creative on items like the chayote relleno (chayote squash stuffed with a spicy almond-onion mix). Nearly any dish, including the burrito, fajita platter and mole verde (in which they serve rich, chocolaty mole over mixed vegetables) can be prepared vegetarian or vegan. "Mexican food is perfect vegetarian as rice, beans and all of the delicious sauces are very satisfying, filling and flavorful," Avila says. Casa Tina
also features an extensive selection of margaritas as well as some of the best sangrias anywhere.