Beginning around 1970, nearly every campus had one: a vegetarian cafe catering to hippies, guys with long hair and handlebar mustaches and gals in tie-dyed dresses with lots of beads. Some operated in church basements, others in bookstores or student unions. They were the pop-ups of yesteryear.
The vegetarian fare provided a stark contrast to the burgers and pizza that students often ate. Steamed vegetables, black beans, nut loaves, leafy salads with bright orange dressing, as well as acre upon acre of brown rice, were presented on steam table serving lines.
It was where many customers first tried things like tofu, kale, textured vegetable protein, and avocados, and there was even a vegetable curry or two to provide spicy contrast to food that was often relentlessly bland. Japanese cuisine exerted a powerful influence, with soy sauce and seaweed being prominent in a cuisine sometimes termed macrobiotic, a dietary system based on opposing principles of yin and yang.
Some of these restaurants, like Ithaca’s Moosewood, became internationally famous and spun off award-winning cookbooks, while most labored in obscurity and disappeared without notice. But in Greenwich Village, where Bleecker Street once teemed with head shops, folk-music clubs, and hippie boutiques, the cuisine remains a viable dining option.
Though most of the hippies have vanished these days, many dining preoccupations first fielded by these cafes have become common — such as with the availability of brown rice (and beliefs about its healthiness), serving meals in bowls, and the adulation of kale and avocados.
So come with us now to visit these hoary and historic dining spots, which are worth a meal even if only to sample one of the city’s most distinctive heirloom cuisines.
Founded in 1974 in a St. Mark’s ice cream shop, Dojo offered vegetarian food with Japanese elements and became a precursor of today’s Little Tokyo neighborhood. By 1991, it was so popular that it spawned a larger branch in a corner of the NYU campus. The original closed in 2007, but the newer location is still going strong, with three handsome dining rooms and two bars.
The menu has expanded, but hippie vegetarian cuisine still forms its heart. It now offers lots of seafood and the occasional meat dish, but in the section entitled “Dojo Classics,” you’ll find a hijiki tofu sandwich and the “vegan mama” (steamed vegetables, tofu, brown rice, Dojo dressing). Udon, Japanese curries, and home-style croquettes now fill out the menu, and it’s a great place to get vegetable gyoza. 14 West 4th Street, between Mercer Street and Broadway
Though only three decades old, and thus founded near the end of the hippie era, Village Natural looks the part with tangled plants in the window of its semi-subterranean digs, and a neon sign in a font that looks like spliff smoke. Inside is very plain and brightly lit, like the basement of some religious sanctuary. The menu has vastly expanded from the macrobiotic stuff advertised on a sign outside, now including Mexican, Chinese, Italian, and Middle Eastern, some with such punning names as “spaghetti and wheatballs.”
But the old cuisine still occupies a significant proportion of the menu. I tried a veggie bacon burger that came smeared with guacamole and topped with a strip of fake bacon — planted among the other ingredients, it really did taste like bacon. My so-called macro platter still demonstrated the roots of this cuisine with a hefty dose of steamed vegetables, black beans, hijiki, and brown rice, with a nice ginger gravy on the side that would have been just as at home on a slice of meat loaf. 46 Greenwich Avenue, between West 11th and West 10th streets
Like Village Natural, Quantum Leap has survived by expanding its menu to encompass many international types of food, appealing to modern vegetarians as well as the health conscious in expanding its customer base. In particular, the menu explores the possibilities of textured vegetable protein (TVP), which was formulated from soy beans by big agribusiness in the 1960s and is sometimes known as “fake meat.” In some contexts, you really can’t tell the difference.
Swamped in spicy red sauce, accompanied by a vegan bleu cheese, the faux chicken wings are perhaps a little too fibrous but worth trying. Made with tempeh, seitan, or TVP, other dishes leap from seitan satays with peanut sauce to a taco bowl with fake chicken strips to Philly cheesesteak panini, and there is a vegan equivalent for many of the popular dishes of the day. “Quantum leap” is a physics term describing an electron as it jumps to from one energy shell to another. The restaurant Quantum Leap was founded in the same year as Dojo, 1974. 226 Thompson Street, between West 3rd Street and Bleecker Street