As early as the 1830s in the U.S., the Graham Journal of Health and Longevity espoused a regimen called “Nature’s Bill of Fare.” It advocated meatless meals that contained no more than three different articles of food, and no desserts, condiments, or beverages except water. Diners were to eat at precisely the same time each day and chew very thoroughly. Needless to say, the “Grahamites” were very much at odds with the majority of Americans who expected to eat meat three times a day.
Some of the followers of Sylvester Graham lived in special boarding houses where no meat was served, but it wasn’t until the 1890s that the first public vegetarian restaurants appeared in this country.
The first was the well-named “Vegetarian Restaurant No. 1” opened on West 23rd Street in New York City in 1895. It was sponsored by the New-York Vegetarian Society, which did not tolerate either taking life for food or drinking alcohol.
One of the co-founders of No. 1 was its manager Louise Volkmann, a remarkable 50-year old German-born woman who was active in the women’s suffrage movement, the labor movement, and the peace movement, as well as being a music teacher and a volunteer in prisons and hospitals. However, not even such a force of nature as Louise could make the restaurant succeed. It closed due to insufficient patronage in less than a year.
By 1899 a few more vegetarian restaurants had opened around the country. In Minneapolis a restaurant operated by two partners, Peterson and Mataumura, made the concession of supplementing the menu of Vegetable Turkey and a roast made of crushed nuts with a few meat dishes for non-vegetarians. Detroit and Boston also had restaurants catering to vegetarians, while San Jose actually had two, one of which also accommodated meat eaters. Detroit’s vegetarian café evidently was vegan; its macaroni was served with nut paste rather than cheese and its eggs were made of cereal or nuts and served boiled, curdled, or scrambled with lemon or, presumably fictitious, “cream.” [illustration of Los Angeles’ Vegetarian Cafeteria, ca. 1910]
Many of the early vegetarian restaurants served nut and grain-based food products – Granose, Nuttose, Wheatose, and others made by the Battle Creek Sanitarium Health Food Company in Michigan. Well-off people, not necessarily all vegetarians, would sign up for a stint at the Sanitarium to improve their health. A vegetarian dinner there in 1900 featured items with remarkably unattractive names such as Gruel, Dry Gluten, and Protose Salad.
The vegetarian movement and its restaurants got a boost from rising meat prices and stockyard scandals shortly after the 20th century began. A 1904 directory listed 57 vegetarian restaurants nationwide, and the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 encouraged more to open. New customers mobbed vegetarian restaurants while eating places of all kinds added meatless dishes such as spaghetti and omelets to their fare, an exercise they would repeat under the austerity measures of World War I. Up to and during the war, vegetarian cafes flourished and chains began to form, such as the Physical Culture Restaurants in New York, with branches in Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Chicago. In addition to the Battle Creek connection, a number of pre-WWI vegetarian restaurants were connected to the Seventh-Day Adventist religion.
Often going under names such the Hygienic Restaurant or the Pure Food Restaurant, a typical vegetarian restaurant menu of 1902 or 1903 might have included selections such as these from Chicago’s Mortimer Pure Food restaurant:
Asparagus on toast, 15
Roosevelt [vegetable] cutlet, with mushroom sauce, bread and butter, 20
Poached eggs, with rice and currie sauce, bread and butter, 25
Spinach, with poached eggs on toast, 25
Broiled new potatoes on toast, 20
Spaghetti a la Mortimer, 10
Broiled fresh mushrooms on toast, 25
Baked beans, 10
How well vegetarian restaurants fared in the 1920s is unclear. The Childs restaurant chain, by then a public corporation, embraced vegetarianism briefly but changed its policy after its stock prices dropped in response. On the other hand, restaurant industry leader Myron Green, a Kansas City cafeteria proprietor, claimed in 1928, somewhat unbelievably, that meat eaters constituted less than 25% of food service patrons. In the early 1920s Los Angeles added two raw food restaurants and a Sephardic Kosher café to its list of meatless eating places. Also in this decade, a chain of vegetarian cafeterias appeared in the South, including one in Knoxville TN. In New York City Herman and Sadie Schildkraut operated a vegetarian hotel in the 1920s and by 1933 were directors of Schildkraut’s Vegetarian Food Emporiums, headquartered at 225 W. 36th.
Although meat rationing during World War II would bring back menus featuring vegetable plates, the vegetarian movement would not experience another boom until the counter-culture-inspired food revolution of the 1970s.
© Jan Whitaker, 2008, revised 2015