Selecting Riverfront Times' Best of St. Louis 2011 was no picnic. Choosing the winner meant several worthy candidates would go unmentioned -- until now. In this Gut Check series, we are chewing our way through notable runners up in a number of categories. To see hundreds more winners and finalists and download the Riverfront Times Best of St. Louis mobile app, visit our Best of St. Louis homepage.
At too many restaurants, vegetables are merely a side dish: a house salad, green beans, the dreaded "medley" of "seasonal" vegetables, which somehow always means a medley of differently colored squashes.
For the carnivore, this is no matter. For the vegetarian, let alone the vegan, it's a challenge. Thankfully, St. Louis has more than a few restaurants that cater to them.
Page through for the nine finalists and Riverfront Times' pick for "Best Vegetarian Restaurant."
Gokul Indian Restaurant (6101 Delmar Boulevard; 314-721-1888) and (10633-B Page Avenue, Overland; 314-428-8888)
Indian food makes just about everyone happy. From the naan to the kulfi, not much satisfies the same way this cuisine does. And at Gokul, vegetarians get their due with a menu comprised entirely of vegetarian options. Dishes include samosas and kaju vada (vegetable balls with potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, ginger and spices) to start the meal. Lighter dishes include ragda petis - spicy green-pea gravy over potato patties - or chhloe puri - slow-cooked chickpeas. Gokul rounds out the menu with rice and chaat specials, vegetable korma, aloo gobi and plenty of other delicious choices. For dessert, try the kheer (rice pudding). Every Monday Gokul also offers an all-vegan buffet so you can try a variety of tastes, and trust us, you'll want to try it all.
Everest Café (4145 Manchester Avenue; 314-531-4800)
Since it opened in 2004, Everest Café has been dedicated to the stomachs and hearts of St. Louis diners. Through delicious Himalayan cuisine, chef Dr. Devi States is on a mission to make St. Louis diets healthier, and maybe help St. Louisans live quite a bit longer. Inside the doors of the restaurant's location in the Grove patrons will find nutritious and exotic Nepalese, Korean and Indian dishes prepared with only fresh, healthy ingredients hand-selected by the good doctor -- that means no processed foods or butter or heavy creams. From the menu, veg-friendly items include organic vegetables simmering in different Nepalese or tomato sauces, and Tibetan momos -- vegetable-stuffed dumplings with herbs and spices and served with a homemade pickle. Everest also offers a lunch buffet every day but Monday, featuring a changing variety of vegan and vegetarian Indian and Nepalese dishes. And while they certainly don't recommend overeating at Everest, at least you'll know that fifth plate isn't bad for your heart.
Local Harvest Café & Catering (3137 Morgan Ford Road; 314-772-8815)
Patrick Horine clearly loves his food local. Not only did he found the Tower Grove Farmers' Market, but he also co-owns Local Harvest Grocery and Local Harvest Café. Sure, there's meat served at the café, but the vegetarian options shine. At least half of the ingredients come from within 150 miles of St. Louis to compose breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner options. For dinner, grab a veggie burger or perhaps share some vegan samosas. Come for brunch, and certain items can be made vegetarian, including biscuits and gravy or, for those vegans who feel nostalgic for the mainstay of any hangover, go for the slinger.
OR Smoothie & Café (3 North Euclid Avenue; 314-367-8883) and (6654 Clayton Road, Richmond Heights; 314-647-8881)
It just feels better when you eat healthy. Sure, every now and then, some garbage gets down the old gullet, but let's face it: This usually leads to bellyaches and love handles. Enter OR Smoothie & Café, and those remorseful meals are a thing of the past. Here everything is healthy, with OR being short for "organic." From the raw natural sugar cane, organic milk and coffee, no MSG and even no microwaves, OR takes healthy food seriously and provides the perfect place for vegetarians and vegans to eat like kings. The large menu offers plenty of yummy choices, including veggie spring rolls and veggie sushi (brown rice, celery, carrots, tofu and avocado) for starters. Sandwiches include the veggie meatball sandwich and a veggie burger. OR also includes a hefty list of smoothies as well as a veggie bar to help what ails you, including "Potassium Rich" juice, with carrots, parsley and spinach. With such delicious choices, it's a wonder anyone still chooses not to eat organic foods.
Govinda's Vegetarian Cuisine (3926 Lindell Boulevard; 314-535-8085)
Food nourishes your body, but a colorful temple on Lindell Boulevard provides a vegetarian feast with the hope of nourishing your spirituality. Govinda's, which lies inside a midtown Hare Krishna temple, offers a simple setting for delicious and cost-effective dishes served with timeless wisdom and a peaceful, welcoming atmosphere. The temple features an all-vegetarian lunch buffet every weekday. On Sunday, visitors for Sunday services are invited to enjoy the evening feast, which typically includes such items as pakoras, bean sprouts, rice kheer and mango juice. Regardless of the personal beliefs you bring into the temple, the delicious food, wide selection and friendly crowd will make you love your time with the Hare Krishnas.
PuraVegan (307 Belt Avenue; 314-282-5834)
While other cities may have embraced the raw-food trend years ago, St. Louis doesn't have quite as many options for those seeking out this diet. Lucky for us, PuraVegan entered the dining scene in May 2011. The restaurant features 100 percent raw vegan, 100 percent gluten-free foods with no MSG, no added sugars, no tofu and no soy milk. Don't be misled by the list of things not in the food at PuraVegan. What is left are healthy and delicious eats, such as "Mexi-tacos" with spices, walnuts, carrots, tomatoes and green onion. Or get the café's version of a burger, which is made here with nut-free sunflower seeds, zucchini, carrots and celery. For dessert, try the raw ice cream made with bananas, tahini, cinnamon and agave. Once you've been wowed by the raw food at PuraVegan, come to its classes and learn to prepare your own raw vegan treats at home.
Black Bear Bakery (2639 Cherokee Street; 314-771-2236)
The little bakery that could down in south city is best known for its out-of-sight loaves of Lickhalter rye, pumpernickel and swirl of the two sold in farmers' markets all over the metro area, but those who make a trip to its Cherokee Street location can enjoy some of the best vegetarian and vegan food found in St. Louis. The lunch menu features a barbecue tofu sandwich on sorghum multigrain bread, a muffaletta with meatless sausage, veggies and sun-dried tomato cream cheese on a muffaletta bun, and a Reuben sandwich with tempeh, Swiss, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on the bakery's amazing rye. Black Bear also offers a weekend brunch with an assortment of breakfast items including pancakes, French toast, biscuits and vegetarian gravy, and egg casseroles, as well as enough vegan items to keep you filling up plate after plate.
Raj's Rasoi (2286 McKelvey Road, Maryland Heights; 314-576-6666)
Since September 2006, Raj's Rasoi has been serving up authentic Indian food from its modest spot in a Maryland Heights strip mall. The chef-owner Raj offers plenty of choices for vegetarians as well as items that can be requested vegan. But don't be intimated by the many options; each dish includes a description so you know exactly what you're getting. From vegetable korma (mixed vegetables in a creamy tomato sauce) to mutter paneer (homemade cheese, peas, onions, tomato, garlic, ginger and cream) to aloo saag (potato and spinach with Indian spices), Raj's Rasoi covers all the bases to satisfy hungry vegetarians, and on Wednesdays the restaurant goes the extra mile with an all-vegan lunch buffet.
VegaDeli (177 Hilltown Village Center, Chesterfield; 866-265-8799)
Located in the Hilltown Village Center, VegaDeli serves up 100 percent vegan delights with no additives and nothing processed. The menu features a variety of wraps, including a portobello wrap, with mixed greens, lettuce, tomato, onions, portobello mushroom and garlic sauce. How about a burger? Might we suggest the "HumBurger" -- a soy-free, gluten-free, nut-free patty made with housemade hummus, rice and veggies. VegaDeli also offers raw meals, such as raw lasagna with zucchini "pasta." The vegan chili pairs perfectly with -- what else? -- vegan cornbread. At VegaDeli, guests can also opt for a healthy juice or dairy-free smoothie or even enjoy the benefits of a wheatgrass shot. There's also a kids' menu for budding health nuts, so the whole family can get in on the deliciousness.
And your "Best Vegetarian Restaurant" for 2011...
SweetArt (2203 South 39th Street; 314-771-4278)
Contrary to popular belief, vegetarians and vegans are just like the rest of us. They have hopes and dreams, and when you cut them they bleed blood (albeit iron-deficient blood). And every so often they crave hunks of juicy meat. Here in St. Louis, vegetarians overcome their meat cravings at SweetArt, located in the Shaw neighborhood. SweetArt has mastered oxymoronical creations such as a vegan Philly cheesesteak and a vegan sausage breakfast burrito. The flavors, aromas and textures of the café's PETA-approved menu items could satisfy and fool the most vehement carnivores. And if you haven't had one of the bakeshop's cupcakes (many of which are vegan), you've been denying yourself a true St. Louis treat. But what really defines the spirit of SweetArt is the couple behind it, Reine and Cbabi Bayoc. Reine reigns over the kitchen, putting heart and soul into everything she cooks, whether sweet or savory. The café/bakery does triple duty as a gallery; its walls are lined with Cbabi's lively and colorful artwork. The only way to get the whole picture is to visit the place yourself -- just make sure you go Wednesday through Saturday. SweetArt's closed Sunday through Tuesday. Hey, vegans are just like the rest of us: They've got lives too!