Through all my phases, from finicky meat-eater to cheese-hating vegetarian to vegan, I've never had a server actually encourage me to complicate my order. But at the Cliff Café last Friday our server, Ryan H., did--even after my "girly lunch" group had finagled a table on the sunny, secluded back porch and asked too many questions. You know: which iced tea was better (plain, over blackberry rooibos); whether the deviled eggs were any good (yes); whether the vegetable of the day (green beans, red bell peppers and broccoli) was made with butter, that sort of thing.
"I think so," he said in response to my question about the butter. I told him I'd have a cup of black beans instead of the broccoli.
And then--the miracle! Despite a laid-back demeanor and the fact that it was near closing time on a Friday afternoon, Ryan H. urged me to stick with the vegetables. The kitchen could make them without butter, he promised, and it wouldn't be a problem.
I was in disbelief. The restaurant experience of the vegetarian, vegan, or Sally type (think When Harry Met Sally) usually involves an odd sort of power struggle with the server. Say, for instance, you want a burger with a salad instead of fries. Some servers give you the full treatment: a long sigh, an elaborate eye-roll, a melodramatic reluctance calculated to let you know how painful it will be to replace those fries. Some agree and then don't do it, whether out of spite or simple forgetfulness. Others charge you a $4 substitution fee. Customers who know this drill know, too, that it's positively shocking when someone not only lets you order what you want, but also does so without making you feel guilty. (And yes, my years as a waitress taught me that picky people can indeed be annoying--but if they're polite, and they're paying, why not get them what they want...as long as the demands aren't too ridiculous?)
At first glance, the Cliff Café's lunch menu is pretty typical of the 'modern comfort food trend: club sandwich, BLT, chicken salad sandwich, burgers of every stripe, even mac & cheese (according to a non-vegan at my table, it's divine) and a meatloaf sandwich. But the menu is clearly designed for flexibility. You can order the BLT with tempeh bacon; the salads are meatless, but meat-eaters can add chicken or salmon; the simple eater can have a side of brown rice and black beans (my favorite fall-back meal) for $6. The prices are reasonable, and the food is basic and ingredient-oriented.
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The dinner menu holds more promise for vegetarians than for vegans--the only truly vegan entrée options are Portobello fajita tacos and the black bean burger--but there are plenty of appetizer, soup, salad and side choices for both.
In the end, I'm thrilled that going vegan doesn't mean I have to give up one of my favorite lunch spots, or that eating there will be a painful exercise in unrequited love. (Picture me, staring lustily at a buffalo burger...) The Cliff Café is great for vegetarians and good for vegans who want to fly under the radar at a business lunch or simply are selfless enough not to subject their meat-eating companions to Asian tofu versions of not-quite-beef. One Cliff salad and perfectly steamed, salted and peppered (and butter-free) side of vegetables later, I was full and very content. The Girly Lunch five relaxed in the sun, sipping our iced teas and wondering if we could just skip work for the rest of the day.
As if he hadn't done enough already, Ryan H. offered us separate checks.
Cliff Café (at the Belmont Hotel)
901 Fort Worth Avenue
open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, 7am to 10pm (9pm Sunday & Monday)