There was a time when declaring you were a vegetarian in a restaurant was like being unveiled as Frankenstein’s monster. You half expected to be chased out of the establishment by the disgusted waiter into a crowd of pitch fork wielding yokels baying for your veggie blood.
Eating out was always a bit of a chore in my earlier non meat eating days. Not many restaurants seemed to get the vegetarian concept. I remember going to one restaurant in Essex for Sunday lunch with my family (including my vegetarian brother) where we were told the only thing they could offer the vegetarians were the veg and roast potatoes they had to go with the roast beef and pork on offer. We declined as the potatoes had been cooked in lard and neither of us fancied a plate of over cooked veg. I believe we retreated, shame faced, to the car with packet of crisps and a bottle of coke each in the end.
The vegetarian’s lot seems to have improved somewhat in the 21st century. Many gastro pubs and independent restaurants offer decent vegetarian dishes with only a few laggards still offering the microwaved veggie lasagne that was so ubiquitous in the 1990s. That said, if you want a good selection of vegetarian dishes to choose from you still need to head to a dedicated vegetarian restaurant. Until relatively recently, in Sussex that meant heading to Brighton to places like the award winning Terre à Terre or Food For Friends so it’s lovely to find a good vegetarian restaurant outside of this city.
Today I found myself in the Little Chelsea area of Eastbourne. This is where you will find lots of independent retailers like my all time favourite second hand bookshop Camilla’s on Grove Road. It’s a wonderful place that looks like the ceiling it is quite literally being supported by the mountains of dusty books. I can get lost in there for hours browsing the cookbook section alone. It’s a bit like visiting an animal shelter. There are so many unloved and neglected volumes just crying out for a good home. You may not find a rare first edition of an Elizabeth David yet in their own way each book is fascinating and even beautiful however dog eared it is. You can’t help but buy a few to take home. Or perhaps that’s just me.
You’ll also find lots of restaurants and cafés in Little Chelsea with the big coffee chains quite rightly relegated to the town centre. I’d arranged to meet a friend for lunch here and, as I am vegan this week, we decided to visit Miss Wall’s Back Garden a new vegetarian café. It’s a homely sort of place with simple wooden tables adorned with colourful flowers and the pitch forks are firmly attached to the wall rather than being wielded as a weapon of destruction. As the name suggests there is also a garden which we were assured is a sun trap (although sadly the sun was snoozing behind the clouds today).
The great thing about a dedicated vegetarian restaurant is that you are usually spoilt for choice. Lunch at Miss Wall’s works like this. You pick a main and two to three sides to go with it from a selection of dishes. I chose the squash and coconut curry which was gently spiced rather than aggressively hot (which was fine by me). My friend had a roasted vegetable tart with feta. Plus there were three other main dishes to choose from which I have forgotten now but all looked and sounded great. Both came with a trio of salads the best of which was the crunchy carrot, red cabbage and beetroot spiked with roasted fennel and cumin seeds (the others were a brown rice, lentil and butter bean salad and a green salad with radish and kohlrabi).
The criticism often levelled at vegetarian food and vegan food in particular is that it’s bland mush. The generous plate of food we each had at Miss Wall’s was far from boring. There were a variety of textures, colours and flavours on the plate and the portion size was generous too. I would defy anyone to go there and come away saying “it would have been better if it had contained some meat.” Plus all of this comes for the very un-princely sum of £7.50 per head. I was stuffed after I’d demolished the lot so I never made it to dessert but the cakes on the counter looked pretty good too.
Veggie or not, if you’re in that area of Easbourne any time soon, I’d definitely pay a visit to Miss Wall’s.