Don’t Cry for Me, Carmelita

As a favorite vegetarian restaurant closes, Seattle’s meatless scene soldiers on.

After 16 years in business, Carmelita, one of Seattle’s most beloved vegetarian restaurants, announced on Facebook last week that it will close in September. The news of the Greenwood restaurant’s impending end was a blow to some. After owner Katherine Neumann, who runs the restaurant with her partner and husband Michael Hughes, posted the news, she says “Some of my regulars told me they cried when they read it.”

“It’s a decision we didn’t take lightly, but it’s something we’ve been considering for a while now,” says Neumann, who lives down the street from the restaurant with her husband and 10-year-old son. The lengthy Facebook post that announced the closure explains, “It’s just time,” though the restaurant did partially blame the economic hardship of the Great Recession.

“We’re a small restaurant, and we don’t have investors like a lot of restaurants these days,” Neumann says, noting that increasingly small profit margins helped seal the deal. “The financial responsibility is solely on our shoulders. The reality of it is that the margins are slim in a restaurant to begin with; you factor a downturn in business and increase in food cost, and it’s hard to stay in it for that long a period of time.”

Alongside 21-year-old Café Flora, Carmelita is one of Seattle’s most treasured and longest-running vegetarian restaurants. There’s a sense that its shuttering signals a change in Seattle’s plant-based dining scene. Surprisingly, some vegetarian restaurateurs feel that change is a positive one. Café Flora owner Nat Stratton-Clarke says that it’s easier now to be vegetarian than ever, especially in Seattle. “The food has evolved and changed so much, and Seattle has really embraced it over the years.”

This change, he says, has much to do with the bounty of vegetarian food now available at non-vegetarian restaurants. “Poppy isn’t vegetarian, but they always have great food. I often visit with gluten-free friends, and they’re always able to make something work. La Medusa does a great job too. I always see them at the farmers market; like Café Flora, their food is so fresh and seasonal. Seattle is a great place for vegetarians and vegans—there’s so many options.”

Makini Howell, who owns and operates vegan cafe Plum Bistro on Capitol Hill, also sees dining preferences evolving, with vegetarian-only restaurants becoming less relevant as the role of the vegan restaurateur evolves. “I think these days [as a restaurant owner] you have to pick a side—be vegan or be a restaurant that has a little something of everything,” she says. “I think a lot of vegans don’t go to vegetarian restaurants because they just want vegan, and a lot of meat eaters are going to vegan restaurants to experience that type of vegetarian cuisine,” she adds.

Supporting Stratton-Clarke’s claim, boutique tour company Metropologie recently launched a vegetarian and vegan culinary tour of the city. “The interest is there,” says president Cresdan Maite, whose start-up also offers urban-horticulture and medieval-architecture tours.

Despite the impending closure of the restaurant she has run since 1996, Neumann is optimistic about vegetarian dining in Seattle. The space where Carmelita currently resides will house a new restaurant from Chris Navarra (Prost, The Ridge, Martinos), Chris Gerke (Nickerson Saloon, The Ridge, Martinos), and Shannon Wilkinson (Little Water Cantina). Though that venture will incorporate “a new concept that isn’t vegetarian-focused,” she says, “I don’t think [interest in vegetarian cuisine] has waned at all. I think more and more people are eating vegetarian or are incorporating meatless meals into their lives. There are so many places that have opened up, and there are really nice options for people who are vegan and vegetarian. It’s easier to be vegetarian or vegan in Seattle now than ever before.”

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