Critic's Notebook

Seattle’s Most Endearing Vegetarian Restaurant Turns 25

And what a celebration it will be.

By Kathryn Robinson September 19, 2016

Portobello wellington pwww8k

Cafe Flora's Portobello Wellington.

Seattle in 1991 was a very different place.  

Seattle vegetarians had no more than a few restaurant choices—including the guru-inspired Silence-Heart-Nest (still plugging away in Fremont), and Roosevelt’s genuinely legendary Sunlight Cafe, which is still peddling the terrific sesame waffles it pioneered during the Ford administration. Both were known mostly for morning food, cultivating mostly countercultural followings.

But for higher-end herbivorean cuisine—the beautifully-composed-plate-on-a-white-tablecloth kind of cuisine—Seattle had to wait until 1991, when four friends united to create a restaurant across from the then-controversial HIV/Aids support facility, Bailey-Boushay House. Their purpose, besides providing good vegetarian food, was to create community around an institution that was still somewhat stigmatized.  

And what a community it formed. Bailey-Boushay folks became but a fraction of the fanbase for the groundbreaking Cafe Flora—a restaurant which in the ensuing 25 years went on to lend culinary legitimacy to plant-based dining, broaden its appeal among omnivores, and become Seattle’s first vegetarian dining room to transcend hippie-dippie constituencies into the realm of the establishment.

Indeed, Cafe Flora became a little like a Seattle version of Greens: the seminal San Francisco restaurant made famous by the inventive herbivore chef, Deborah Madison.

Flora’s food enshrined farm-to-table long before anyone was calling it that, with sublimely inventive moments—the Oaxaca tacos, the fried avocado with cayenne aioli and papaya chutney—that pried open carnivorous minds. Regulars became regulars based on cravings for certain dishes—like those tacos, which fans petitioned to get back when the restaurant attempted to take them off the menu.

Or the beloved Portobello Wellington, with a mushroom-pecan duxelles and a Madeira wine sauce built on caramelized vegetables—a trick these vegetarian chefs picked up from Peter Cipra at the oh-so-not-vegetarian Labuznik—which became a mainstay of the menu and indeed, of a city. We honored Cafe Flora’s Portobello Wellington as one of Seattle’s 15 legendary dishes in this magazine’s 2007 Best Restaurants issue.

To honor 25 years’ worth of this kind of deliciousness, Cafe Flora will be reprising some of its early favorites with a greatest hits menu Sunday, Oct 2 through Thursday, Oct 6. Make special note of Sunday, October 2, when dishes will be available for 1991 prices and portions of drink sales will benefit Bailey-Boushay, still doing its fine work across the street.

They’re taking reservations now, for parties of six or more. For heaven's sake, don't wait; this is a restaurant and an achievement worth making plans for. 

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