Good Food, Innovative Menu, Lousy Service
I am done with black bean burgers. Over. Finished. Kaput.
Sure, early on in my vegetarian life, finding a black bean burger in a standard Americana restaurant was a coup. It was an actual vegetarian meal, not simply a weak combination of salads or sides. Black beans were almost exotic in the pinto-standard Midwest. But that was many decades ago. Now, every black bean burger I see, even a good one, reeks of tokenism. It tells me this is the best you’re going to find in our carnivore establishment.
I first became vegetarian in Boulder, Colorado, where ovo-lacto and vegan meal choices were simply part of the culture. In fact, in 1995, a resident of Boulder successfully sued a local pasta restaurant for claiming their marinara sauce, which had anchovy paste, was vegetarian. We vegetarians had clout. We had influence. But by the time I moved to Indiana by way of Minnesota, it was back to black bean burgers. And salads. And sides.
Luckily, times have changed. Even the carnivorous backwaters of the Midwest provide the occasional veg establishment. I travel extensively for work, and every time I hit a new town, I make a game out of finding a new vegan palace. Or any veg restaurant at all. Sometimes it takes a lot of research to avoid that black bean burger.
Actually, finding veg restaurants is not too difficult, thanks to crowd-sourced Websites, such as HappyCow. But finding actionable information and dependable reviews is more of challenge. Online restaurant reviews in Yelp or Zagat have some notable flaws:
- Ceiling/floor effect. Either reviewers start with an assumption of excellence (ceiling effect), or they punish restaurants for any perceived slight (floor effect). For example, Yelp reviewer ‘A’ clearly rates most of his restaurants with a 4 or 5, although true objectivity would center around an average 3. Yelp reviewer ‘B’ rates her restaurants either very high or very low with very little in between. As the ceiling/floor effect increases, so does bias and uncertainty.
2. Subjectivity. How does one separate out personal taste from objective measures? A single reviewer may trade on their reputation and expertise, but averaged reviews dilute this expertise to meaninglessness.
3. Lack of true veg experience. Most reviews of vegan restaurants don’t provide the information vegans actually need. Is the restaurant vegan, ovo-lacto vegetarian, or pescatarian? Does it focus on innovative cuisine, environmental consciousness, or fried comfort food? How does it address the most common reasons for veganism, namely animal welfare, health, environment, and taste?
Take this Zagat review of the Chicago Diner in Chicago, Illinois. Zagat does the best it can by providing separate scores for food, décor, and service, but their free text description is a word salad of catch phrases.
A “vegetarian paradise”, this diner mini-chain “stays true to its mission”, providing “delicious”, eco-conscious eats (many of which are vegan too) plus “rich, flavorful” “milk-free milkshakes”; there’s a “cute staff” and the low-key atmosphere befits the budget prices, so “long lines” are the “only downside” for most.
What’s worse, many restaurants tagged as “vegan” are anything but. A search on Yelp for the best vegan restaurants in Indianapolis, Indiana, pulls up hundreds of entries, only five of which are actually vegan.
I set about creating my own rating system, one that reflected the needs of vegetarians and vegans, standardized the language, was more parametrically balanced, and was not overly reductive. I refer to it as the QISA System.
QISA (pronounced kwee-sa) stands for Quality, Innovation, Service, and Ambience. Each element is given a score of one to five with three being average, one being exceptionally bad, and five being exceptionally good. By anchoring the scale at three, one starts with the assumption that most restaurants are forgettable, neither horribly bad nor incredibly exceptional. Praise or warnings requires a nudge in either direction.
The QISA elements are:
- Quality, which refers to taste and basic preparation. A 3-rating is average, a 5-rating is exceptionally good, and a 1-rating…well, we’ve all been there and hope to never go back. Note that the Quality refers to only the vegetarian or vegan dishes on the menu. An exceptional steak restaurant with a mediocre salad bar is still just mediocre.
- Innovation, which refers to both innovation and creativity. A 5-rating provides something novel or a completely new take on an old theme. A 1-rating suggests boring food.
- Service, which means just that. Most restaurants are 3-rated, suggesting the service was adequate. I realize that this measure is highly subjective. If I have to wait too long for my food, they get my order wrong (and don’t correct it), or they are just plain rude, this will be a 2 or 1. But if they are friendly or (and I’m not proud of this) flirt with me, I might go up to a 4 or 5.
- Ambience, which is the atmosphere and decor of the restaurant. A 3-rating suggests that I didn’t notice the ambience one way or the other. A 5-rating was transcendent. A 1-rating was uncomfortable, dirty, loud, or just plain wrong.
The restaurant’s level of vegetarianism should be clearly defined: vegan, ovo-lacto, vegan-friendly, vegetarian-friendly, vegetarian-possible, or vegetarian-antagonistic. This is an objective measure, not a crowd-sourced opinion. To be vegan-friendly, at least 10% of the main entrees must be vegan. To be vegan-possible, at least one of the main entrees must be vegan.
Describing vegan and vegetarian restaurants in concise language is challenging, particularly since every restaurant has its own distinct personality. While the menu may change daily, the overall “focus” or fundamental nature should remain consistent. Focus descriptors are meant to provide a high-level framework and context. No restaurant should require more than two descriptors.
The focus categories are: ANALOG, COMFORT, ECLECTIC, ETHNIC, EPICUREAN, and WELLNESS
- ANALOG — Some restaurants are hell bent on bringing veganism to the masses by substituting meat analogs (e.g. tofu, seitan, tempeh) for standard meat dishes. Although these restaurants may also be described with another FOCUS descriptor, their vision tends to be ensuring that every dish has an identifiable non-dairy protein source.
- COMFORT — I sometimes refer to these restaurants as “fried tofu” restaurants. Their focus is to create modern versions of comfort food standards, sometimes, but not always maintaining the high fat, high salt, and high carbs of the original.
- ECLECTIC — Some restaurants pride themselves in exploring the borders of imagination found in vegetarian cuisine. The primary goal here is creativity, looking to either recreate standard dishes in a completely new guise or create novel dishes that combine fruits, vegetables, grains, sauces, and spices in new and exciting ways.
- ETHNIC — These restaurants focus on a particular ethnic or cultural cuisine. Typically, the standard ingredients are heavily based on vegetables and grains that lend themselves to vegetarianism. Sometimes these cuisines are vegetarian as part of a religious or cultural code. Indian restaurants are prime examples of ethnically-focused cuisine.
- EPICUREAN — These are your highbrow restaurants, committed to fancy ingredients, skilled preparation, and artistic flair. Vegetarianism, while strictly maintained, often takes a back seat to the gourmet experience. The owners of the establishment are not focused on saving the world; they are focused on getting the best return on investment for their cooking school tuition.
- WELLNESS — These restaurants are committed to the health and wellness of the patrons, the planet, or, if at all possible, both. The menu or restaurant Website typically outlines the health benefits of the food, either in preparation, ingredients, or farming practices.
Using the QISA System, an online review of the ersatz restaurant Wolfsong Diner might look like this:
Right from the start, one surmises that the food quality is top notch, the innovation and service are excellent, and the overall atmosphere is slightly better than average. The restaurant is primarily vegan, although some dishes do have cheese available. The overall focus of the restaurant is comfort food, but the menu includes many vegan analogs of hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken. The price of a full meal plus tip is $25–40. Any further prosaic descriptions of the BBQ seitan wings or Cajun black bean burger is just proverbial icing on the cake.
The QISA system is meant for moderated, not crowd-sourced, reviews, so it may not work well for large-scale user experiences. But by providing center-anchored ratings, objective terminology, and limited descriptors, the system provides a surfeit of information in a tiny package. And if the diner does decide to get that black bean burger after all, they can be assured it will be the best damn burger they ever had.