“I love food, love to eat. I think about food all the time,” executive chef Janine Doran confides as we sit at a table in Café Flora, the Seattle restaurant she’s worked in since 1992. The Seattle native wears fork earrings, stylish red glasses and a nose stud. She waxes passionate about some of her current food favorites: the amazing peppers she just got from Alvarez Farms and the small plates she and her staff dreamed up, such as yucca cakes and flatbread topped with peaches.
At almost a quarter century, Café Flora is the Northwest’s longest running upscale vegetarian establishment. It’s open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and cocktails and is a must-visit spot for anyone who enjoys plant-based cuisine.
Doran learned classic French cooking techniques at South Seattle Community College’s industry-focused cooking school. But coming to Café Flora introduced a whole new world. “I was kind of intimidated by it being vegetarian,” she admits. But the restaurant soon won her over. “I fell in love with the ethics and vision of the owners and what they were trying to do, and the creative aspect of food.”
Café Flora continues to win over new customers, and to lure long-time guests back with both favorite mainstays and the newest dishes devised by Doran and her kitchen crew.
Over the years, the workers at Café Flora have seen plant-based foods move front and center. Today, omnivores are more accustomed to skip meat at some meals, and let vegetables have the starring role. “Nowadays, it’s not just a side thought,” Doran says.
Café Flora owner Nat Stratton-Clarke estimates that while the majority of customers used to be vegetarian, now it’s only about 40 percent. “Now so many of our guests aren’t vegetarian. They’re excited to incorporate more vegetables into their diet.”
A Devoted Foodie
I wasn’t able to interview Stratton-Clarke on my visit to Seattle – an Indonesian volcano extended his Bali honeymoon by five days – but I caught up with him on the phone. Raised in Berkeley by a vegetarian mom, he was a born foodie. Their neighborhood walks took them by Chez Panisse and into The Cheeseboard, where the staff delighted in giving samples of their strongest cheese to the appreciative toddler. Then they’d stop by the original Peet’s Coffee and say hi to Peet himself. “I was incredibly lucky to grow up in the Bay Area and Berkeley where food was held in such high regard,” Stratton-Clarke said.
Later, like many college kids, he went through a rebellious period. But a two-month chicken spree during freshman year left him disgusted. He climbed back on the vegetarian wagon, where he’s happily remained since.
Stratton-Clarke’s parents both came from England, and they took many family trips there while he was growing up. “Granny would take me down to a farmers’ market three times a week,” he said, hearkening back to a time before the popularity of farmers’ markets surged in the U.S. “It made sense to me. I’m getting to meet the person that grew this. I think you end up with so much more respect for food when you meet the person that’s spent that time growing it and caring for it and is selling it to you and really showcasing something that they care about and they’re passionate about.”
Indeed Stratton-Clark began at Café Flora as the buyer who went out to local farmers’ markets to purchase produce. He still goes twice a week to the Columbia City and Capitol Hill farmers’ markets. “I think it’s important. This is the food I’m sharing with the guests coming into Café Flora. It’s important I know the people that grew it and that I can stand behind it in that way and say this is phenomenal food that I can vouch for.”
Café Flora’s menu is a mix of old standards and new creations. The Oaxaca Tacos — corn tortillas filled with cheesy mashed potatoes and topped with lime crème fraiche – was created by the restaurant’s original chef. The Portobello Wellington, a mushroom-pecan pate inside puff pastry with Madeira wine sauce is also a long-time customer favorite. Falafels are another mainstay of the Café Flora menu. Their latest incarnation features tomatoes and local cucumbers in a dressing made with fresh mint, sumac, and purslane, an herb native to China.
Small plates have increased in popularity. Doran and her staff are always acting on new inspirations, whether bringing back ideas from their travels, or devising a one-off Caribbean menu for Valentine’s Day.
It’s not surprising that Café Flora offers phenomenal salads. On my visit, I had one of the most beautiful salads of my life. The lapsang salad combines spicy greens, roasted carrots, radishes, turnips, sesame seeds, almonds and a gingery dressing infused with Lapsang tea. It was a tough choice between that and the farro and cherry salad with arugula, marcona almonds and cherry vinaigrette.
Flora’s pizzas are also winners. I can vouch for the heirloom tomato and corn pizza. A wheat crust is topped with grilled corn, heirloom tomatoes, corn sauce (made with corn and garlic), basil, parsley, fennel, salt and chili oil. You can order it with or without parmesan.
Cocktails for Vegetarians
One of the big changes Stratton-Clarke made to Café Flora was adding a bar. “When I got here, we only offered beer and wine,” he said. “Our guests really wanted cocktails.”
Stratton-Clarke viewed cocktails as another way to showcase creative and fun things they could do with produce. Both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks grew more inventive. Instead of Coke or Pepsi – now 86ed from the menu – customers order house-made drinks like apricot cardamom fizz or strawberry basil soda.
The restaurant business can be a volatile one. How does one account for a restaurant remaining popular for so long?
Doran and Stratton-Clarke agree: Teamwork. Doran believes that everyone – from chef to server to dishwasher – contributes to a restaurant’s environment. “We want actual people who care about food and who love what they’re doing,” she said, whether restaurant work is their lifelong career or a temporary job.
“I always feel like the reason people love our food is because we all put something into it,” Doran said. “It’s not just me. The team makes it happen.
In an entirely separate conversation, Stratton-Clarke told me almost the exact same thing. “Janine personifies what Café Flora stands for. It’s not about the ego. We all bring something to Café Flora. It’s all about collaboration. That’s something we really stand for here.” – Story and photos by Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor