For most people around here, University Way means "the Ave," the densely populated blocks between 42nd and 50th favored by UW students and those who want to take their money (beer pubs, pizza joints, panhandlers). But north of 50th, University Way becomes another world—looser than the high-drama Ave, and funkier, with free parking. My original north-of-50th crush: Chili's Deli & Mart, the family-owned eatery that was a convenience-store/southern-Indian deli combo until the food's popularity necessitated a transition to a more traditional sit-down restaurant, the name of which remains Chili's Deli & Mart. Funky!
Two blocks north of Chili's, a conglomeration of like-minded businesses has created a small universe of high-functioning idealism, where those who abstain from animal products can feast with abandon and all creatures of the world can live without fear of being milked, filleted, or made into wallets. The heart of this meat-free paradise: Wayward Vegan Cafe, a beloved comfort-food dispensary specializing in greasy-spoon standards: ham and eggs, country-fried steak, pulled-pork sandwiches, all of the meat in quotes.
The origins of the Wayward Cafe are found in what is essentially the big bang of Northwest vegan entrepreneurship, centered in the legendary eatery Good Morning Healing Earth, which operated for 20 years out of a tucked-away spot on 55th before the owner passed away and left the place to his employees. Rechristened the Rainy Day Cafe, the restaurant eventually hatched the Wayward Collective, whose members went on to create some of Seattle's best-loved vegan eateries: Georgetown's defunct Squid & Ink, Broadway's new and thriving Highline, and the Wayward Vegan Cafe, which operated for two years out of the former Good Morning Healing Earth/Rainy Day Cafe space before moving to its new home on the northern Ave this past February.
The move gave Wayward an expanded and improved dining area, spruced up further with an expanded menu: a sprawling assortment of gut-filling diner staples reconceived without meat. Vegan army vets can stroll down a modified memory lane with Wayward's S.O.S. (Seitan on a Shingle, featuring house-made seitan and mushroom gravy over an herb biscuit with a side of greens for $8), while those hankering for the edible love child of a ham sandwich and French toast can enjoy the vegan Monte Cristo ($9).
Meat-free meat is an evolving science, with results ranging from surprisingly delicious to packing material, and the grub I got at Wayward spanned the spectrum. Best in show: the Pull No Pork sandwich ($9), featuring shredded seitan grilled with peppers and onions and tossed in Wayward's house-made barbecue sauce. The shredding brought the seitan down to appetizing size, and the fresh veggies, spicy sauce, and house-made roll helped make it delicious. In need of more development in the lab: the Breakfast Burrito ($7.50), one of a couple dozen breakfast/brunch items built around egg-impersonating scrambled tofu. In my burrito, this seasoned tofu was scrambled with spinach and big wads of textured-vegetable-protein chorizo and topped with cilantro sour cream, but there's no getting around the essential iffiness of tofu eggs, a taste I've attempted to acquire since college with little success. For what it's worth, Wayward's scrambled tofu was not much different than the box mixes I made as a student, suggesting the inherent limitations of the dish (which was nevertheless being eaten with relish by diners all around me).
As important as the Wayward Cafe's food is its position in University Way's vegan universe. Across the street in the vegan grocery store Sidecar for Pigs Peace, I found Doh Driver, one of Wayward's four owners, who gave me the specifics of the Wayward Collective continuum and explained Sidecar for Pigs Peace's mission and insane name. Pigs Peace Sanctuary is a safe haven for abandoned exotic pets located up in Stanwood, Washington, and the Sidecar store is one of its fundraisers, with profits from Sidecar's sales of vegan everything—from belts and pet food to cosmetics and frozen pizza—going to Pigs Peace. As Driver tells me, she was a longtime Sidecar volunteer before taking over as store manager, and one of her pending renovations is the changing of the funky name. "We'll be named Vegan Haven—someday," says Driver. "Because we're a nonprofit, we have to wait for the secretary of state to sign off on the name change, and someone in the office is sitting on the paperwork..."
When I ask about Wayward Cafe's menu, Driver refers me to another of Wayward's owners: Colin Blanchette, whom I find one block north at Pizza Pi, the vegan pizzeria Blanchette purchased with his wife a year before they bought into the Wayward Cafe. Like Wayward Cafe, Pizza Pi offers an extensive menu of meat-and-dairy-free delights—calzones, Italian sandwiches, and pizza pizza pizza—but, amazingly, there's only one overlap with Wayward's offerings. "We both serve Philly cheesesteak sandwiches," Blanchette tells me, "but they're completely different."
Like all the best vegans, Driver and Blanchette are proactive idealists who aren't scolds or dupes. When I bring up PETA's recent offer to help pay Lindsay Lohan's rehab bill if she agrees to go vegan, both wince. "I hate most things that PETA does," says Driver, who concedes that the stunts do help raise awareness of the cause in general. "When I went vegan eight years ago in rural Florida, no one knew what the word meant. Now people everywhere know what vegan means."
Having created their perfect little universe of veganism, is there anything they miss from the omnivorous world? "Not having to read labels," says Blanchette. Driver has no regrets: "Now that I have vegan tiramisu for sale, there's nothing I miss."