Vegetarian dining: Dells, Manty, Brookfield

I am a lifelong meat eater who for years has dined out once a month with vegetarian friends who routinely share their entrees. So I respect and appreciate a no-meat diet.

We have many veggie-friendly menus in Madison, including the newly opened Green Owl, 1970 Atwood Ave., which is a 100 percent vegetarian café that is earning quick raves. You’d be amazed by the succulent Vegan Schnitzel and can learn more at www.thegreenowlcafe.com, 608-285-5290.

Similar devotion is evident at Café Manna, 3815 Brookfield Rd., Brookfield, where eco-friendly building materials and takeout containers accompany the all-vegetarian menu. Walnut feta pate, the signature lentil soup (with tofu cilantro sour cream) and an all-raw-food (including the bread) sandwich demonstrate the level of commitment. Check out this Milwaukee area business at www.cafemanna.com, 262-790-2340.

Venture into small-town Wisconsin, and pickings get slim. I never understood the frustration until on the road with vegetarians. We needed dinner and headed 10 miles off our course, to a highly recommended Italian restaurant in a town of 5,500, arriving at 8:05 p.m. on a Friday.

That was five minutes too late to be served, and it didn’t matter to the owner that we were quite far from home and in search of a meatless meal, but I digress. The consequences of rigidity, especially for a business open no more than four hours per day, is a topic for another time.

“We can make you a salad” and “We have deep-fried cheese curds or mushrooms” were the best of the responses elsewhere. To a vegetarian, this gets old pretty quick, especially when a chef charges big bucks for an uninspired pasta primavera because it’s not on his menu.

Rich Bouril, owner of Culture Café, 3949 Calumet Ave., empathizes. His business since 1991 has morphed from frozen yogurt stand to coffeeshop to meat-filled deli. Now it’s all-vegetarian, to match the 45-year-old owner’s personal change of diet during November 2009.

“As I age and change, so does my diet,” he says. “It’s gotta grow with me, or I won’t be here to talk about it.”

Veggie lasagne, bean quesadillas, sandwich stacks and wraps fill the menu. Add a hot brew from roasted Fair Trade coffee beans. Rich’s café feels like a throwback to the 1960s, thanks to in-your-face bumper stickers, vibrant murals and a guitar that sits in the corner, waiting for anybody to play it.

Rich wears tie-dye colors when we meet, and I’m far from the first to learn about his shift in menu. “Technology is helping me,” he says. “People find me online, on their iPods and a GPS will bring them here.”

For more: www.culture-cafe.com, 920-682-6844.

In Wisconsin Dells, among the waterparks and moccasin shops is a New Age restaurant that deliberately limits itself to vegetarian and vegan (as in no animal or dairy products) choices. The Cheese Factory, 521 Wisconsin Dells Parkway South, began business in 1992.

Mexicali Polenta, chickpea stew with India spices, a mushroom stroganoff and chevre-filled crepes demonstrate the menu’s depth of ethnic diversity. Staff are from multiple nations, living in the Dells to further their studies of “A Course in Miracles,” a spiritual path whose leaders include self-help author Marianne Williamson.

For more: www.cheesefactoryrestaurant.com, 608-253-6065.

I’ve also visited this quartet of dining outlets that offer more than a cursory nod to vegetarian fare:

The Cookery, 4135 Main St., Fish Creek – Expect eggplant fries, tomato and goat cheese flatbread, kabobs of vegetables and artisan cheese assortments at this business, established in 1977 but destroyed by fire in 2008. It reopened in 2009, with an emphasis on local ingredients and dining on two levels. Meat eaters also have wide choices.

For more: www.cookeryfishcreek.com, 920-868-3634.

Driftless Market, 95 W. Main St., Platteville – “No iceburg lettuce here,” the business newsletter proclaims, then expressing preference for an organic mix of greens. The market and its tiny deli tend to champion the products of nearby farms. One of the two daily soups is vegetarian, and make-your-own-sandwich choices include an oven-roasted tofu.

For more: www.driftlessmarket.com, 608-348-2696.

Hackberry’s Bistro, 315 Fifth Ave. South, La Crosse – Executive chef Stacy Hanson has easy access to fresh and nutritious ingredients because he works in tandem with the People’s Food Co-op, located below his restaurant. Curried Vegetable Risotto, Provencal Gnocchi and Butternut Squash Ravioli share the entrée list with wild boar, prime rib and chicken carbonara.

For more: www.peoplesfoodcoop.com, 608-784-5798

Driftless Café, 118 W. Court St., Viroqua – Veggie quiches, curries, chowders, pizzas and tapenades add nutrition. Real whipped cream on house-made cobblers, cakes and crisps add calories. Some options meet vegan dietary restrictions. Generous doses of sunlight, color and local art entice customers to linger.

For more: http://bit.ly/cJipmU, 608-637-7778.

For other pure-vegetarian options in Wisconsin, go to www.happycow.net.