Robert Wade

"If another motherfucker puts a charcuterie plate in front of me I will punch him in the face," James Beard award-winning John Currence


20 Years of Cafe Flora: Looking Back, Giving Back, And Moving Forward

Robert Wade

"If another motherfucker puts a charcuterie plate in front of me I will punch him in the face," James Beard award-winning John Currence recently told food writer Matt Rodbard in an interview. The chef of Oxford, Mississippi restaurant City Grocery was getting some press for banning pork specials from his menu, but his commitment to "exploring vegetables and seafood" reflects bigger ideas in American food culture: more and more people are turning to plant-based diets.

On this note, Cafe Flora, the bread-and-butter of Seattle's vegetarian scene, celebrated their own achievement in vegetable cooking with a 20 year anniversary party at the restaurant last Saturday.

Full disclaimer--I attended as an invited member of the press, complete with requisite gift bag and free-flowing booze--but it should come as no shock to any of the five regular readers (hi Mom and Dad!) of this column that as a vegetarian of more than 20 years, I admire the cuisine and values Cafe Flora offers Seattle diners. That aside, hell, any restaurant making it 20 years in the biz these days has got to be doing something right.

As Currence explains to Rodbard, you can slap bacon on anything and eaters praise it as the second coming of food: "People are bacon crazy. Let's put bacon in ice cream! Bacon soap! Bacon. Bacon. Bacon...I'm exhausted."

Making vegetarian dining attractive, on the other hand, as Cafe Flora strives to do for diners across the board (that night owner Nat Stratton-Clarke estimated a 60/40 omnis/veggies attendee split), involves creating a new community as much as reaching out to the dominant one. In this spirit the event was held as an exclusive fundraiser for the Bailey Boushay House, the HIV/AIDS hospice that opened across the street from the restaurant the same year as Cafe Flora.

Executive chef Janine Doran, who started at Cafe Flora as a line cook in 1992, elaborates, "Nat likes to give back to the community just like the previous owners [David Foecke, his wife Pat (Gracie) Close, and Scott Glascock] did. When Bailey Boushay was going to move in the neighborhood, there was a lot of resistance from the community, and I think that really made the owners even more adamant about saying, 'Were going to be here, we're going to start our business here.' I really respect that kind of determination, and we've both been thriving through the years."

Robert Wade

Growing through the years, Cafe Flora incorporated a breakfast and brunch program, a full bar, and gluten free options. "As we've gone along we've listened to what people are interested in," Doran says. "We have a closer relationship with the farmers. I've gone to the farms and talked with the farmers and it adds to inspiration for menu planning and food creation. Nat goes to the farmer's market and picks up product there, and our kitchen brings talents and ideas and we all collaborate together."

From the highly-attended event--featuring items prepared by Cafe Flora cooks and stationed purveyors vending products from Stumptown, Dry Soda, and Theo Chocolate to Big Al's Brewery, Columbia City Bakery, and Local Roots Farms--you get a sense of where Cafe Flora is rooted, and where it's headed in the future.

20 years from now? "Hopefully we'll still be here," Doran laughs. "We'll continue to listen to where the food movement is going, to produce, grow, maintain the same values, and maybe take on a few more."

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