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Originally published June 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 25, 2008 at 7:37 AM

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Seattle's garden of vegetarian options continues to grow

Seattle is known for its natural beauty, technological savvy and increasingly for its abundance of vegan and vegetarian options, including a vegan doughnut shop, vegan grocery and even a vegan-friendly bar. Many conventional eateries are adding options.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle is famed for its natural beauty, technological savvy and sometimes paralyzing addiction to consensus. It's also increasingly known as a burgeoning paradise for those who steer clear of meat (vegetarians) and those who avoid meat, eggs, milk and other animal products (vegans).

Had Oprah spent the 21 days of her recent vegan cleanse diet around these parts, she'd have found weeks of options at her fingertips.

There's a vegan doughnut shop (Mighty-O), vegan bakery (Flying Apron), vegan grocery (Sidecar for Pigs Peace), vegan-friendly bar and ice-cream parlor (Georgetown Liquor, Molly Moon's), a vegan deli (Hillside Quickie) and nearly a dozen vegan restaurants. And that's just in Seattle proper.

Restaurants that cater to vegetarians and vegans keep sprouting around Puget Sound, particularly in Seattle, the Eastside and Olympia. Many others offer vegetarian or vegan options. Most of those that don't are willing to omit or add a few ingredients, or at the very least, have a working knowledge of common no-nos. VegFest, an annual festival of vegetarian cuisine and lifestyle organized by the advocacy group Vegetarians of Washington, drew 15,000 this year.

"It's definitely one of the top five vegetarian cities, and maybe even higher," said Joseph Connelly, a big Mighty-O fan and publisher of San Francisco-based VegNews, a magazine devoted to all things vegetarian and vegan.

How is it that Seattle became such a ground zero for folks who eat to the beat of a different drummer?

The region's liberal-leaning politics play a major role, says Michael Hughes, owner of vegetarian eatery Carmelita in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood. He and his wife, Kathryn Neumann, moved here from Chicago in the early 1990s in part for the political climate.

"It almost seems like Seattle and its environment are a magnet for people who are thinking more environmentally conscious and health conscious," Hughes said. "Seattle's a progressive town, and people can feel comfortable and safe and make a lot more choices and find a lot more choices to make here."

That open-mindedness prompted Jennifer Katzinger and her father, Bill Dowd, to open Flying Apron vegan bakery six years ago. Seattle and the West Coast in general are more open to alternatives of all sorts, and that includes eating habits and cuisines, she said.

Stewart Rose points to the region's immigration patterns and religions. The vice president of Vegetarians of Washington and longtime vegan notes that newcomers from Buddhist and Hindu nations brought their traditional meat-free or low-meat diets, including engineers who came in droves from Asia to work for Microsoft, Amazon.com and other tech hubs. The Northwest also is home to a large population of Seventh Day Adventists, many of whom are vegetarian. These groups opened stores and restaurants to cater to their tastes and needs, Rose said.

"You had the immigration of different ethnic groups, you have homegrown groups that took on everything from yoga to health food," said Rose. "And then you have something else that has been growing in interest and that is the animal-rights movement, which has a very strong presence in the Northwest."

That's what drew Maria Johnson to vegetarianism and, for the past 12 years, veganism. The webmaster for seattlevegan.com says it's amazing how few people think about what they're eating, how it was raised and where it was raised.

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Some local vegans are against killing animals at all; others oppose the way conventional livestock is raised. Both groups keep finding more and more places to sit down together over dinner, Johnson said.

"When I started doing the site, there weren't many options. Now it seems like there's a new option almost all the time," she said. "I think at one time it was kind of believed [veganism] was extremist. Now people are choosing it for different reasons."

Health is a big reason, said Dani Little, a registered dietitian at University of Washington Medical Center. Vegetarians and vegans who follow a proper diet have a lower-than-average risk for obesity, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and diverticular disease. And when they do contract such ailments, she said, they have a lower risk of dying from them. She's noticed a steep increase in plant-based diets over the past two decades, across all ages and ethnic groups. Embracing healthy options is easier here than elsewhere, she says.

"What I notice when I leave Seattle and head east is that the food quality is not as appealing. I feel like we're very fortunate for the produce that comes through here. The quality is nowhere near parallel," Little said.

Nat Stratton-Clarke of Seattle's Café Flora agrees that access to fresh ingredients and artisanal breads, cheeses, tofu and other products enabled the movements to easily catch hold. The vegetarian restaurant has held court in Madison Valley for 17 years and was among the first to receive fresh produce deliveries from Carnation's Full Circle Farm.

With so much infrastructure in place, Seattle's communities were ripe for growth as interest in veganism and vegetarianism blossomed across the country.

Alternative diets have gone mainstream as food allergies and intolerances, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes grow more prevalent. The National Restaurant Association reports that 8 of every 10 restaurants now offer vegetarian options. Books that promote veganism as a path to wellness, including "Quantum Wellness" and "Skinny Bitch," rank high on best-seller lists. Celebrities from Clint Eastwood to Natalie Portman advocate the benefits of a vegetarian diet. The American Dietetic Association has created a vegetarian food pyramid and offers vegetarianism and veganism as heart-healthy options.

And increasingly, folks interested in the globe's changing environment are seizing on their eating habits as yet another way to effect change. A 2006 United Nations report on global warming named cattle rearing as a top source of air, land and water pollution.

Connelly of VegNews pegs the recent boom in local options to the Northwest's prominence as an epicenter for green, or environmentally conscious, living. Many folks going green tend to eat less or no meat, due to the vast amounts of land and energy it takes to feed and raise livestock, he said.

"People are definitely becoming more educated. They are getting an understanding of these issues. And as the people become more aware, businesses respond to that," he said.

Longtime vegetarians and vegans, like Maria Johnson, say it's nice not having to explain themselves as often anymore when they order, and to have more places where friends and family can gather and all find something to eat.

"I remember there was a time when you'd ask, 'Can you tell me what's in this salad?' or something pretty basic, and it's amazing how people didn't know. And it's like, 'But aren't you making it?' " she said.

"Now, a lot of restaurants actually want to let people know that they have something that's vegan. I've had more people contacting me. Before they just didn't think about it. Now there's competition."

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618

or kgaudette@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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