Sometimes you want to eat among your own. Seattle vegetarians have a growing stable of FUBU vegetarian restaurants—that's "for us, by us," honkies—devoting themselves fully to vegetarian and vegan cuisine from a variety of angles. (To be fair, I don't know for certain that the proprietors of Seattle's various vegetarian restaurants are indeed vegetarian themselves. Perhaps the owners of Fremont's Silence-Heart-Nest are just canny capitalists who serve vegetarian cuisine inspired by the spiritual teachings of Sri Chinmoy by day and eat veal steak tartare on mink chaise longues by night. I doubt it.)
Georgetown Liquor Company (5501 Airport Way S, 763-6764) bills itself as "Seattle's premiere veggie bar/lounge," and the name/tagline combination encapsulates the GLC perfectly. Here is a veggie joint where booze gets top billing, in a setting that feels like the basement rec room of your teen-vegetarian dreams. By the entrance, a row of scrappy televisions is rigged to old-school Atari video-game consoles, offering complimentary games of Asteroids and Space Invaders. In the corner blares a gloriously noisy jukebox, while above the bar hang newer TVs, possibly broadcasting bouts of hyperviolent Ultimate Fighting Championship. Sri Chinmoy would be horrified.
Any restaurant that refuses to link vegetarianism with ethereality is a delight, and the entire GLC hums with a down-to-earth ramshackle vibe. This extends to both the menu, which boasts a variety of veg-friendly spins on pub grub (sandwiches, nachos, salads), and the service, which is so lackadaisical it's funny. After flagging down a waiter, who seemed genuinely surprised by my existence, I ordered the Darth Reuben ($10), a veggie take on the deli classic with the corned beef replaced by roasted-tomato Field Roast slathered in Swiss cheese (also available with vegan cheese), sauerkraut, and rémoulade on toasted marble-rye bread.
Having abandoned meat before ever sampling an actual Reuben, my powers of comparison are limited, but my knowledge of Field Roast is extensive. What the GLC's menu called roasted-tomato Field Roast looked exactly like Celebration Loaf, with its signature bumpy-ridged top and a not-particularly-amenable-to-the-Reuben-experience taste. But the rest of the sandwich fought the good fight, especially the sauerkraut, which was sparse but strong, with a great tangy bite. Across the table, my (usually carnivorous) dining mate dug into a platter of GLC nachos with fake meat ($12), a flavorful pile of corn chips, pepper-jack cheese, Roma tomatoes, green onions, and jalapeños—all of which was thoroughly upstaged by the made-on-the-premises vegan taco meat, which was so spicy, it was scary, and so delicious, we couldn't stop eating it. Our happily burning tongues demanded the counter-downing of more beer than planned, which brought the value of the Georgetown Liquor Company into clearer focus. Vegetarians looking for a "special" meal out should definitely aim elsewhere. But those looking to get tipsy in a superfun rec-room bar with veg-friendly pub grub should go nowhere but here.
For that fabled special meal, vegetarians could hardly do better than Araya's Vegetarian Place (1121 NE 45th St, 524-4332), a University District mainstay I'd heretofore stupidly ignored. Plunked down on 45th Street within spitting distance of the Ave, Araya's was, I assumed, a collegiate vegetarian restaurant, and visions of kaffiyeh-clad undergrads and PETA-inspired poetry readings kept me away. My punishment for this idiotic assumption: a life devoid of Araya's for years—regrettable, regrettable years.
Araya's hypes itself as "vegan Thai cuisine," which seems restrictive until you realize that the difference between vegetarian and vegan Thai cuisine is egg on your pad thai. Araya's comes off as another good-to-great Seattle Thai restaurant, with special attention paid to vegetables and tofu/meat substitutes. In other words, it's Thai veggie heaven, with the heavenliness extending to the dining room: surprisingly large, well appointed, and both vast and cozy (a nice trick). Service is attentive but never overbearing, encouraging the sort of languorous multicourse meal Araya's extensive menu makes glamorously possible.
We started with a pair of appetizers that would've sufficed as a meal. The spring rolls ($6.50 for six—six!) were exemplars of the form (thin deep-fried crispiness surrounding a fresh veggie jumble), but all thunder was stolen by the vegetable tempura ($9.50), a platter of oh-so-lightly battered-and-fried fresh veggies (red peppers, zucchini, broccoli, onion) that thrilled my vacationing-carnivore dining mate and me equally. There's simply no arguing with a good fresh red pepper, and adding tempura to the equation takes things to an almost pornographically delicious level.
After such pleasing openers, our entrées were perhaps doomed to disappoint. Only one did. My pad phirk khing ($8.50) boasted an attractive aroma and a sprinkling of finely cut lime leaves, but problems arose with another primary component—the fake meat, here billed as "bean composition" (yum!) and formed into knotted chunks that required aggressive chewing. Not helping: the sauce-soaked green beans, which were distressingly bland. But happiness came rushing back with my dining mate's pad thai ($7.95), a straight-up meat-free spin on the classic tamarind-kissed noodles, delightfully spiced, with nice-size chunks of stir-fried tofu. When I order this pad thai again (and I will), I'll request the addition of broccoli and zucchini. But such a request may be a ways off, as working my way through Araya's voluminous menu could take years—glorious, glorious years.
Araya's is a vegetarian destination restaurant easily on par with the upscale standard-bearers—that is, the veggie-FUBU classics Carmelita and Cafe Flora (the latter recently redecorated by new owners, the former celebrating its 13th anniversary with a new chef imported from D.C.'s prestigious Restaurant Nora). But Araya's delights are both more expansive (its menu holds thrice the offerings of Carmelita and Flora) and much less expensive. As for the good-and-grubby Georgetown Liquor Company, it offers a vegetarian experience as different from Flora/Carmelita as bean composition is from foie gras—the punk-rock choice at the other end of an ever-more-fleshed-out Seattle veggie restaurant spectrum. Lucky, lucky us.