Dining with Dietary Restrictions in Melbourne

I recently learned an interesting fact: across the globe, the average person consumes 75 pounds of meat per year. Australians, however, consume a whopping 198.8 lbs per person per year, making them the highest consumers of meat worldwide.

Though Melbourne prides itself on being a world class food city, I would argue it still has some work to do when it comes to catering to vegetarians. Sure, there are some reputable restaurants that serve up vegetarian-only fare — Vegie Bar and Smith and Daughters, for instance — but it can be a struggle to find places that satisfy both my taste buds, as well as my meat-eating significant other’s. 

With this in mind, I made sure to have a good list of restaurants prepared when my mom and sister came to visit as we all have dietary restrictions — my sister is also vegetarian and my mom requires gluten free.

Below outlines some of the culinary experiences we had during their stay:

The Highs:
Moroccan Soup Bar — Both my mom and sister were feeling under the weather so we decided to check out Moroccan Soup Bar, assuming soup would be on the menu. Upon arrival, we discovered they did not have soup, but offered an assortment of vegetarian dips, rices, vegetables and their famous chickpea bake as part of a set three-course menu. Every dish was incredible and full of flavour and texture. It was one of the best dining experiences I’ve had in Melbourne so far (the best being dinner at Maha for Valentine’s Day). That being said, my significant other left full, but unsatisfied. Perhaps not the best place for non-vegetarians. Although, I suspect part of his disappointed was because he didn’t get to have Moroccan lamb.

The Organic Food and Wine Deli — We stumbled upon this tiny shop on Degraves Street by chance when my sister was in need of a sugar fix from Doughnut Time. This place is incredible. They offer a wide array of tasty, ready-made gluten free, sugar free, vegetarian and vegan sandwiches, wraps, curries, pies, salads and treats. We returned several times during their stay.

Honourable Mention — The MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground) for having gluten free meat pies. We took my mom and sister to see an AFL game there, and as every good Aussie knows, having a meat pie (preferably a Four’N Twenty) is part and parcel of watching a match at the grounds.

The Satisfactory:
Vegie Bar A vegetarian institution for over 20 years, I’ve had varying experiences at Vegie Bar. The first time I came the food was incredible — even my significant other enjoyed his mock duck dish. They had a new menu our second visit and we both found our meals bland and disappointing. Despite this experience, I took my family for dinner as it is an institution and I figured maybe the cook was just having an off night our last visit. Again, I found my food bland but everyone else thoroughly enjoyed their meal. They all had burgers, whereas I ordered a wok veggie dish. Perhaps burgers are the way to go here.

Meatball and Wine Bar — This might just be my favourite place in Melbourne to satisfy a group with varying dietary needs. As the name suggests, the Meatball and Wine Bar specializes in meatballs. You get your choice of balls (pork, beef, chicken, fish or veg — all gluten free), sauce (tomato, white cream or a pesto salsa verde) and accompaniment (cannellini beans, polenta, mashed potatoes, pasta or veggies). With all these options you can make your meal as healthy or decedent as you like. My mom loved the novelty of a restaurant dedicated to just meatballs, so much so that we bookended their trip with visits here, going for dinner on both their first and last night.

The Lows:
I’m reluctant to categorize this experience as a low as it really is a lovely establishment and the staff were very friendly, however a high tea at a literary-themed tea room left an unsavoury taste in my mouth. They were very accommodating with our request for vegetarian and gluten free options, bringing out three separate platters for each of our dietary needs. Our tea was constantly replenished, the timing between the sandwiches and the pastries was perfect, and they did not try to push us out, even though we stay 30 minutes past the end of our tea time.

However, some of the sandwiches on the vegetarian platter contained salmon, which I only discovered after taking a bite of one thinking it was tomato. The owner was apologetic but said that some vegetarians eat fish in Australia, some even eat white meat, and that I should have requested vegan instead. When my significant other’s mother agreed with the owner I reluctantly accepted this explanation, as well as a free espresso shot to wash the taste away.

Confused by how the word vegetarian can carry different meanings in different countries I googled “what vegetarian means” in Canada and Australia and found it actually does differ. The Dieticians of Canada website states “vegetarian diets usually exclude meat, chicken and fish”. However, Nutrition Australia argues the word is not well-defined and that in Australia there are five major types of vegetarian. It seems the tea room owner assumed I meant “semi-vegetarian” when I said “vegetarian” meaning I would eat poultry and/or fish, dairy and eggs, just not red meat.

Now I can’t help but wonder if I have unwittingly eaten fish or white meat during the six months I’ve been here. I’m disappointed this is something I now have to pay attention to but I suppose it’s not surprising in the meat-eating capital of the world.