The image of vegetarian restaurants, full of skinny nightmare hippie girls and guys munching on sprouts and chawing tepid bean curd while listening to Bright Eyes, even if once well deserved, is now completely inaccurate. Among the culinary treats in NYC are many restaurants that happen to not serve meat, though they are fine restaurants nonetheless. As much as the true epicure might enjoy a porterhouse at Peter Luger one night, he is just as likely to sample the stuffed portobello at Blossom or the chef's signature vegetable b'steeya at Counter in the East Village the next.
At many of the best vegetarian and vegan restaurants, the meat is not missing or substituted, it's just not there. Blossom in Chelsea (there's also Blossom Cafe on the UWS) is a good example. The restaurant is housed in an incongruous wood paneled row house on 9th Ave, and the country decor (complete with fireplace) suits the extraordinarily good and satisfying food. Most of the dishes consist of seasonal vegetables, expertly prepared. You might be surprised to describe their food as hearty and comforting—not the first words that usually come to mind when eating vegan food.
Pure Food and Wine in Gramercy is worth going to just for the experience. The food, none of it cooked, is light and healthy; the staff tanned, rested and ready. The space is calming for sure, if a bit trendy. A raw food restaurant, Pure is also vegan—all of the ingredients must stay under 118 degrees, which "preserves the food's natural enzymes and catalyze digestion" according to the restaurant. Since the point is not to mimic meat dishes, or even ordinary cooked food, the cuisine at Pure is it's own thing, separate and apart from other dining.
Catering more to the cocktail tipplers among us, Counter is a vegetarian bistro-slash-martini bar serving all organic drinks.There is a vaguely pan-Asian lilt to the place and the food. The vegan food's good (try the cauliflower "risotto," actually tiny pieces of cauliflower, not rice), but the drinks are top-notch.
Okay, so forget about not imitating meat. Williamsburg has a militant-punk-rock-vegan-chicken-wing place to back up the claim that once in a while, when it's totally absurd, it's okay to eat pretend meat. The specialty at Food Swings on Grand Street is "drumsticks": breaded and fried tofu that actually tears away from wooden "bones." (Yes, the menu is quotation-mark happy.) Why a vegan would want to simulate poultry flesh and gnawing on bones, we may never know.
You'll need desert, of course, and, fitting in with our theme, there are the insanely delicious sugar-, wheat-, gluten- (there are more hyphen-frees, but we'll stop there) free sweets at Babycakes on the Lower East Side. You'll never go back to Magnolia again.