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Originally published Friday, June 7, 2013 at 5:31 AM

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Vegetables no longer just a sideshow

Once a hassle to find, vegetarian dishes are now common on Seattle-area menus — and not just as an afterthought.

Seattle Times food writer

Bar del Corso

3057 Beacon Ave. S., Seattle, 206-395-2069, www.bardelcorso.com

Boom Noodle

1121 E. Pike St., Seattle, 206-701-9130; University Village, 206-525-2675; Bellevue Square, 425-453-6094; www.boomnoodle.com

Buddha Ruksa

3520 S.W. Genesee St., Seattle, 206-937-7676, www.buddharuksa.com

Cactus

(South Lake Union) 350 Terry Ave. N., 206- 913-2250; (West Seattle) 2820 Alki Ave. S.W., 206-933-6000; (Madison Park) 4220 E. Madison St., 206-324-4140; (Kirkland) 121 Park Lane, 425-893-9799; www.cactusrestaurants.com

Judkins St. Cafe

2608 S. Judkins St., Seattle, 206-322-1091, www.judkinsstreetcafe.com

Lark

926 12th Ave., Seattle, 206-323-5275, www.larkseattle.com

Olivar

806 E. Roy St. Seattle, 206-322-0409, www.olivarrestaurant.com

Terra Plata

1501 Melrose Ave., Seattle, 206-325-1501, www.terraplata.com

The Tin Table

915 E. Pine St., Seattle, 206-320-8458, www.thetintable.com

Tilth

1411 N. 45th St Seattle, 206-633-0801, www.tilthrestaurant.com

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For those looking for an exceptional vegetarian dining experience, I highly recommend... MORE
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When you’re a meat lover, and they go meatless (or vice versa) — where to?

I get asked that restaurant question a lot.

As a caring carnivore, I might point to Seattle’s farm-to-table finest: places like Lark, where the locavoracious “meat” menu coexists — separate, but equally as delicious — with the locally procured “vegetables/grains” menu. Or Tilth, where I might knife into grass-fed Wagyu beef from Skagit River Ranch, while you fork into a five-course vegan feast.

But this month, I thought I’d pose the question to local food folks for whom “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” is more than a Michael Pollan mantra.

“To me, being a vegetarian-friendly restaurant is not about offering vegetarian sides cobbled together,” insists Kim O’Donnel, a flexitarian whose veg-to-meat ratio runs about 70/30. “Imagine going to someone’s house for Thanksgiving and having them say, ‘Have some sides!’ ” harrumphs the author of “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook” and “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations.”

She’d roll her eyes. “You need to have a main dish that’s not an afterthought!”

Like? “Like the crispy garlic tofu at Buddha Ruksa” Thai restaurant. “It’s better than their signature crispy garlic chicken.” And the roasted butternut-squash enchiladas at Cactus, now with four festive locations for mixed-diet companions (with a fifth slated to open in Bellevue Square this summer).

“At Judkins St. Café, there’s always a great meatless dish,” O’Donnel says, in addition to their homemade black bean quinoa burger with pickled onions and avocado aioli. And her hat’s off to Judkins owner Michael McGloin, who hosts monthly Meatless Monday prix fixe dinners year-round (call to reserve) — and a Texas-style BBQ on Sundays during the warm months (from 4 p.m., first come, first served).

When McGloin (an omnivore) and his wife, Katy Terry (a vegetarian), step out, they’ve found the best of both worlds at Olivar, he says. She might be tempted with fideua — Spanish macaroni baked with braised endives, piquillo pepper coulis, asparagus, pea vines and Comté cheese gratinee, while he could lavish attention on lamb albondigas with almonds and sherry. The couple regularly head to Bar del Corso, where he might tangle with grilled octopus while she sups on suppli (fried risotto balls). They’re both crazy for the wood-fired pizza. Me, too.

It’s the vegetarian wood-fired pizzas and substantial salads at Tutta Bella that keep Kerry Sear coming back — with his sons Sebastian, 12, and Oliver, 6. The executive chef and food and beverage director at ART at the Four Seasons Seattle doesn’t do meat or poultry; a former vegetarian, he does eat seafood.

Of our far more flexible dining scene, Sear says, “It’s a lot better than it was 10 years ago, when all they’d give you was the grilled vegetable plate.” Unless, back then, you were dining on a multicourse vegetarian menu at Cascadia, his now-shuttered fine-dining spot.

Sear occasionally gets out with friends to a local pub or one of the city’s many bistros, where “they can have a Sloppy Joe, and I can have flatbread and olives.” He extends compliments to Tamara Murphy’s Terra Plata for its more-than cursory nod to the meatless in Seattle. “I like the rooftop deck, the market-to-table, it’s very fresh and very simple.”

In the early ’90s, Jim Watkins came to Seattle to helm the kitchen at Cafe Flora, the city’s first finer-dining vegetarian restaurant. Today he’s director of dining services at Bastyr University in Kenmore, where he introduced meat to the school’s vegetarian kitchen.

Off-hours you might find Watkins socializing at Boom Noodle — whose vast Asian menu visibly marks its many vegetarian (and/or gluten-free) options. Don’t miss the wok-fried broccoli.

“At this age, I try to eat healthy,” says the 62-year-old chef, who also gives props to the Tin Table. There, the menu includes an impressive vegetarian risotto and vegetables that are always prepared with care. “But if I ever get a craving for a burger” — an infrequent treat — “I have it here,” Watkins adds.

That’s a ringing endorsement for the Tin Table’s popular Floozy Burger, a brioche bun bedecked with Painted Hills beef, bacon, cheese and “lots of caramelized onions.” Which, by the way, is also available in a vegetarian version.

Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times food writer: nleson@seattletimes.com

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