A friend of mine once told me he doesn’t eat in natural foods restaurants because they “make staying healthy so damned unpleasant.” Well, I’m happy to say that the three natural foods restaurants in the Triangle area, Wildflower Kitchen in Chapel Hill, Somethyme in Durham and Irregardless Cafe in Raleigh serve nutritional foods that are a treat instead of a treatment.
Although Wildflower is much better than many restaurants in this area, when compared to Irregardless and Somethyme it has to be rated third.
Wildflower, which was opened in 1971 by Elizabeth Anderson, is the oldest natural foods restaurant in North Carolina. Anderson sold the restaurant to its present owners, Scott Bradley and Sunny Herrick, in 1974. At this writing Wildflower is once again for sale. I hope that when Wildflower is sold, the new owner will decide to continue its existence as a natural foods restaurant. With as many organic and natural foods devotees as live in or near Chapel Hill it would be unfortunate indeed if the town were left without a restaurant to satisfy this need.*
The greatest weakness of Wildflower is its inconsistency, although the most recent time I ate there the food was surprisingly good. In fact, the Jefferson Davis pie, a rich chess-like pie quite similar to pecan pie, was truly outstanding.
Inasmuch as Wildflower cooks without salt, many of the dishes seem somewhat bland. A dash of garlic certainly would have made the Santa Fe enchilada tastier. The High Protein Salad, a meal in itself for only $1.65, is a potpourri of goodies (soybeans, nuts, cheese, sprouts, and more). With the exception of Syrian bread, which is used for several sandwiches, all foods are prepared on the premises.
Service is only adequate, but friendly. Prices are reasonable; the most expensive dinner, Spinach and Mushroom crepe (very good!) is only $3.50, including homemade soup and salad. The decor could easily be improved upon with a few attractive wall hangings. Also, Wildflower’s small kitchen is certainly a handicap in food preparation.
Wildflower Kitchen, open for lunch and dinner every day, is an acceptable alternative to the mundane meat and potatoes found at many local cafes.
However, both Somethyme, on Broad Street in Durham, and Irregardless, on Morgan Street in Raleigh, are vastly superior.
Somethyme opened in 1973. Mary Bacon is the only one of the three original owners still affiliated with the restaurant. Her present partner is Martha Maiden. Irregardless is owned by Andy Arnold and Arthur Gordon.
Both restaurants are excellent. Bacon told me that one of her patrons, who has travelled extensively throughout the United States, rated Somethyme as the best natural foods restaurant in the country. In my judgement, Irregardless is as excellent. To rate either as being significantly better than the other would be a disservice to the one slighted.
Gordon’s reason for going into the food business was to learn to cook. He has done so quite well.
While all three restaurants use chalkboards to announce nightly features, Wildflower and Somethyme have printed menus to supplement these dinner specials. Irregardless does not. Included in the four entrees that Irregardless offers each evening is at least one foreign dish. To assure authenticity in food preparation, and also so that he might learn, Gordon frequently invites foreigners into the kitchen to assist him in cooking. His guest chefs have been Chinese, French, Italian, Greek, Latin American, and Jewish. Although the menu changes nightly, Gordon is establishing a routine of a particular country on a particular night (Monday — French, Tuesday — Italian, etc.).
And the ethnic items are quite good. I had Chinese stir fried vegetables. They were as good as or better than the stir fried vegetables in area Oriental restaurants. One reason is that Gordon buys fresh vegetables from the Raleigh Farmer’s Market whenever possible. The homemade whole wheat rolls were also quite tasty, as was the meatless eggplant parmigiana. Portions were generous and prices reasonable. Irregardless also sells a few natural food and grocery items as a convenience to its customers.
Irregardless Cafe is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday and for Sunday brunch. The restaurant is in the process of obtaining a permit from the City of Raleigh to provide free entertainment nightly.
Both Bacon at Somethyme and Gordon at Irregardless informed me that they make it a practice to check with the dishwashers periodically throughout each meal to discern which, if any, dishes are being returned to the kitchen only partially eaten. This helps to determine how their creations are being received. It also assists in portion control and avoids needless waste. No other restaurant operator has ever told me that he does this, yet it certainly seems a practical thing to do.
Despite the fact that Mary Bacon said she thinks “critics are a weird bunch of people” I still have to like her restaurant. Everything I have ever eaten there has been delicious. Extremely high quality standards prevail. All foods are prepared on the premises in a kitchen only slightly larger than the one at the Wildflower. Even the pimento cheese, which is excellent, is homemade. Nowhere could I find any convenience foods being used. The meatless chili is as good as any in the area. A wide selection of very good omelettes is available for both lunch and dinner. Although Somethyme’s wine list is only average, it is certainly a better selection than offered at either Irregardless or Wildflower.
One of the most unusual aspects of Somethyme is its series of committees designed to give employees a voice in management decisions. The Personnel Committee consists of the two owners plus two elected staff members. This committee is responsible for hiring, firing, scheduling and any other personnel problems which may arise. The Finance Committee is likewise comprised of the two owners and two elected staff members. Its responsibility is cash flow, expenditures, and it serves in an advisory capacity with regard to financial decisions. Staff members of both committees serve six-month terms. With a three quarter vote the staff of the restaurant can reverse decisions of management and the committees.
“Although these practices and committees were originally created out of idealism, they present problems from the standpoint of efficient restaurant operation,” Bacon said.
As a former restaurant owner I can empathize with Mary Bacon and Martha Maiden. I would think that trying to operate a restaurant under those conditions is not unlike trying to float a raft with a hole in it.
Somethyme is open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Free entertainment by local artists is presented most nights.
After eating in each of these restaurants within the last few weeks I have to disagree with my friend. Staying healthy need not be unpleasant. While none of these is the culinary equal of Lutece in New York they are all certainly better than MacWhopper-burgers at your nearest Hardly Hearty Fast Food and Instant Indigestion Stand.
Give your body the break it deserves today — try a natural foods restaurant.
*The Wildflower has been sold, and will continue as a natural foods restaurant under the management of Mary Bacon, part-owner of Somethyme. Mary says the restaurant will retain its individual identity, however. The Wildflower is closed now, and is scheduled to reopen in mid-April.