Those seeking vegetarian dining in Wisconsin haven’t always had many options, but that’s beginning to change.
At the Reedsburg Country Club, diners can enjoy an Impossible Burger, made with a completely meatless patty.
Reedsburg Country Club Chef Travis Bennett said the menu item was born when one of the business’ vegetarian board members, Kelly Steinhauer, expressed a desire to see more vegetarian meals on the menu.
“People liked it,” Bennett said. “I think people thought it was going to be like a black bean burger, (but) black bean burgers don’t actually try to replicate meat… When you cook, it will actually brown like ground beef would.”
Bennett, who sometimes eats the burgers himself, said the patty is “almost indistinguishable from ground beef.”
Bennett said the meatless burger sells more on Thursday nights, when trivia events are held and more non-regular customers stop in.
“Sometimes we sell a lot and sometimes we’ll go two weeks without selling one,” Bennett said. “It’s hit and miss… It’s always frozen so there’s no wait involved.”
Country clubs aren’t the only restaurants, looking to offer vegetarian friendly menu items. Burger King’s impossible burger is produced by the same company Reedsburg Country Club uses, Impossible Food.
“We actually started using them before they did,” Bennett said. “We’ve been doing it for probably close to two years now.”
Culver’s is also working on their own meatless patty, but the burger has yet to be released to the public. Culver’s Founder Craig Culver said he was fond of the burger, after trying it.
In Mauston, State Street Tap Owner and Chef Claine Clements recently updated the restaurant’s menu to include more vegetarian options.
The menu now includes hummus, salads and wraps. The southwest veggie wrap is particularly popular.
“Everybody does the traditional black bean burger or something like that, so I kind of wanted to go a little bit out of the box,” Clements said. “So I created a veggie wrap that’s really popular. It has hummus, green peppers, mushrooms, red onion, cheese and tomato.”
Clements stayed aware of the vegetarian meal options that were available in the area, including what options were used overly frequently and where there was an opportunity for innovation.
“I have a sister who’s vegetarian and we wanted to kind of come up with something that’s a little different,” Clements said.
Something for everyone
In Wisconsin Dells, High Rock Cafe has been offering vegetarian fare for years.
“We always have vegetarian dinner entrees and it’s important for us to have vegetarian appetizers,” said High Rock’s Tara Draper. “It’s always been on our mind.”
Draper said High Rock’s location in a tourist hub increases the need for an inclusive menu that can offer something for everyone.
A current favorite at High Rock is the Gilly Goat. A dish consisting of goat cheese, whole roasted garlic cloves, olive oil, and a diced pepper and olive tapenade.
A salad with fresh kale spinach, strawberries, almonds and a blackberry-ginger compote is also a seasonal hit.
Some dishes are designed to be meat-optional.
“The tikka masala has been really popular, and if you want to add chicken to it you can,” Draper said.
Draper said her less than vegetarian upbringing did little to dampen her enthusiasm for meatless menu items today. If anything, she views vegetarian dishes as a world yet unexplored for palates like hers.
“I didn’t grow up eating a lot of vegetables so I’m learning to appreciate vegetarian dishes a lot more now,” Draper said. “You’re getting to try something you’ve never had before.”
Dining at Everly, a modern Californian-style restaurant in Madison, Draper said she was inspired by the experience.
“They had this roasted carrots with kimchi dish and it was amazing,” Draper said. “I’ve never had carrots like that before and I’ve been trying to replicate it in my kitchen.”
Traditional fare, differnt
The popular lunch spot Press Box in Sauk Prairie has long offered a wide variety of soups to pair with its burgers and sandwiches.
When Chef Guthrie Larson began working at the restaurant, soups that one might otherwise assume were meatless actually used a chicken broth as the base. He’s since changed that.
“That’s pretty common actually, and a lot of folks will tell you it is vegetarian when it’s not,” Larson said. Going forward at Press Box, “if there’s no meat in the title, there’s no meat in it at all.”
While some area restaurants are expanding or altering their menus to offer more vegetarian options, one place has been perfecting an all vegan menu for years: The Cheeze Factory in Baraboo.
“Most parts of the globe have vegetarian traditions,” said Cheeze Factory Owner and Chef Sage-Louise. “It’s not a new thing, really. It seems new in this country, but it’s not really new at all.”
The Cheeze Factory opened as a vegetarian restaurant in Wisconsin Dells in the 1990s, offering dairy and egg products on their menu, some of which were their most popular items.
The switch to a menu without dairy and eggs six years ago was jolting for some customers. Some didn’t come back.
“We had people who would come for years and they loved the omelettes and the cheese sandwiches and the pizzas,” Sage-Louise said. “Some people were irate, they were actually angry at us.”
But for Sage-Louise, there is no doubt moving to a vegan menu was the right decision.
“It was the cruelty factor,” Sage-Louise said. “I had seen a lot of documentaries on how animal factory farms operate (and) how not only the animals, but the staff, how cruel and horrific the environment is… I decided I wasn’t going to support this thing any more.”
The switch was made all at once. “Even as a vegetarian restaurant for 25 years, we had vegan options,” Sage-Louise said. “When we went all the way, we just transitioned all at once. We closed for three weeks.”
Years later and in a new location, The Cheeze Factory remains a popular dining option, sometimes even drawing customers from afar. As one of the only fully vegan restaurants in Wisconsin, The Cheeze Factory has cultivated a following and a reputation.
The restaurant won “One of the 20 Best Vegan Restaurants in the World” from Happy Cow 2019, and “Best Vegan Restaurant in Wisconsin” from Big/Travel 2019.
The Cheeze Factory menu includes cashew dream cake, velvet chocolate truffle, house pancakes, scallopini, hummus, a texas taco salad platter, salad bowls, lentils, shirataki noodles, flatbreads, portabello mushrooms, and the ever popular bangalore bowl.
A rotating display cabinet boasting cupcakes, tarts, cheesecakes and more greets customers as they sit down at their tables.
Dairy may be gone from the menu, but both soy and almond milk are available as beverages or stir-ins for the restaurant’s Colombian coffee.
Sage-Louise said as the years have gone on, tastes have changed and customers are more open to trying something new. Many of their customers are not vegan or even vegetarian, just people looking for a good meal.
Sometimes customers aren’t aware of the restaurant having a completely vegan menu when they sit down, and don’t immediately realize it when they start eating.
Occasionally, the meat substitutes are so convincing people are persuaded they’re actually eating meat after all. Sage-Louise said once a customer, a vegetarian, was so thoroughly persuaded he had been served meat she had to bring out some of the mushrooms he’d ordered from the kitchen to show him otherwise.
He “did not believe that it wasn’t meat,” Sage-Louise said.
Whether they’re looking for a meatless meal for personal reasons, or simply looking to try something new, restaurants all over south central Wisconsin have a wide variety on offer.
Draper is optimistic for those looking to do some culinary exploring.
“Something that has set us apart is people expand their palates, and introducing them to stuff that they might not be familiar with,” Draper said. “Once people try stuff they get hooked on it.”