So, my name is Leigh and I’m a vegetarian. Come back though, it’s fine. If you’re already vegetarian or vegan I’m going to recommend a few of my favourite places to eat in the city and I hope you like them too. If you’re a meat-eater stick around and I might tempt you to try something new, or even just find a new place you can go with your veggie mate and still get something meaty and delicious while they lose themselves in lentils.
I went vegetarian about six years ago, and did it overnight through no fault of my own. For reasons I can’t remember, I’d been getting really into animal rights and was reading a book called The Great Ape Project, which advocates giving higher primates basic ‘human’ rights. I was reading this book in Edinburgh on a work trip, thinking about animal rights generally and just feeling a bit odd all of a sudden about eating meat. Now bear in mind, I was a serious meat fan, and very much in the “could NEVER be a vegetarian” camp, but here I was feeling all out-of-the-blue conflicted. As circumstance would have it, there was a long-standing vegetarian with me who said ‘here, why not give it a go while you’re here, see if you like it?’ So with his guidance try it I did, and never went back. It was awesome. Since then I’ve tried a greater variety of foods than ever before, I’ve got a much better, wider-ranging diet and while I can’t say I don’t miss meat from time-to-time, it’s really no biggie, and easier than you can possibly imagine to drop it out of your diet.
The most recent statistics indicate that 2% of adults in the UK are vegetarian, with a higher percentage (6-8% depending on who you ask) being mainly vegetarian, and eating fish but no meat. The number of vegans in the UK comes in at less than 0.5% of the population. Now, I don’t know what those figures look like for the North East specifically, but from my experience as a resident of the region I can say I never met a vegetarian (at least one who does it for non-religious reasons) until I was in my teens, and I think – with my Sweeping Generalisation Hat on – we’re kind of, well, meaty up here, aren’t we? We’re hardened and wind-swept and culturally inclined towards meat being the centre of a meal and everything non-meat is only there to keep it company and make sure it doesn’t slide off the plate.
So I get it. I get that the landscape in the region is one that likely has a lower than the UK average number of vegetarians and vegans in it, so we don’t have a fantastic selection of eating options out there. Sometimes, for us weak-kneed, anaemic, provocative little arseholes it’s better to just stay in with a pack of Quorn scotch eggs and a soya shake, tape the windows up, stick on a joss stick and some Adele and get ratty on twitter.
Except that’s all nonsense. Statistics aside, Newcastle has a small but perfectly formed bunch of veggie-friendly places out there who don’t just fudge it, they put on offers that are not only massively exciting for vegetarians and vegans, but might just twist the arm of the meat-eaters out there or at least give them somewhere they can go with a veggie pal or significant other and still get a damn good feed. Plus, more and more people are cutting down on meat in their diet for health, weight, taste and a variety of other reasons, and they need interesting places to go to.
So here are my favourites. And in the interests of research and the interests of stuffing my face at any opportunity given to me, I went round all of these places to check them out again. A very satisfied belly and several near-broken belts later, this is what I thought…
Perched ignominiously across from a pawnbroker and next-door to Heron Foods on Clayton Street, the completely charming Scrumpy Willow & The Singing Kettle stands out with it’s cute old-timey frontage that leads you into two tiny, cosy, perfectly-formed floors. Marvelously homey, being in the Scrumpy Willow feels like being in your mad aunt’s spare rooms full of wonderful tat she couldn’t bear to get rid of. Antique stools and detailed lamps mingle with aromatherapy books and old copies of National Geographic propped up on radiators, cabinets bursting with interesting ornaments jostle for space with pop-art portraits of Ziggy Stardust and Han Solo.
The Scrumpy Willow uses local produce from farmers who care about the environment, and they make everything from scratch on-site including – notably – their incredible homemade bread, baked fresh every morning and an astonishing eggy bread. Their menu is predominantly vegetarian and also features a huge vegan selection alongside all-organic meats so it’ll cover off everyone who rocks up, whatever their dietary tendencies. They run a range of all-day breakfasts, light bites, fish bites, sandwiches, mains and puddings alongside organic coffee and loose-leaf tea, organic vegan wines and a frankly cracking selection of organic vegan ale, bitter and stout.
This time round I had their Eggs Florentine for £5.95, served on toasted homemade bread with spinach, mushrooms and a mustard hollandaise sauce which was not only delicious, but they don’t scrimp on portion size or presentation at this place so you get spectacularly-served, reasonably priced food that leaves you full. Other recommendations are the eggy bread (seriously, do it), the vegan daal and the griddled polenta. They don’t take cards though, so be sure to arrive with cash.
Just down from Tilley’s on Thornton Street you’ll find The Settle Down Café. A strange mix of café, community centre and arts space this little gem won’t be to everyone’s taste coming as it does without menus and a definite ramshackle, pop-up vibe, but it has some of the friendliest, funniest staff in town, is welcoming as hell and comes with a limited but delicious range of homemade cakes, soups, toasted ciabatta sandwiches and salads.
The place is light and airy, full of mismatched furniture and when I was in I found myself sitting a few tables away from some terribly arty and interesting meeting going on, but that’s the thing about this place – they host a range of arts and crafts workshops, sales and groups so it attracts that arty crowd and constantly feels alive and vital as a result, with a buzz and life to it that makes this place stand out if you’re willing to get into what it’s trying to do.
I went for the Thai lentil and coconut soup with an accompanying falafel ciabatta for a heart-breakingly reasonable £4.50, which was delicious and managed to escape the usual bland soup-of-the-day shackles by being wonderfully flavoursome and filling, particularly after being mopped up mercilessly with that ciabatta.
Take those lean veggie legs on a ten minute walk out of the city centre and get yourself to Heaton Road, and you’ll find two of the most-loved vegetarian-friendly venues around, The Sky Apple Cafe and The Butterfly Cabinet.
The Sky Apple Cafe Sky Apple Café has been around since 2002, specialising in homemade, affordable, locally sourced, seasonal vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free cuisine. Running as a cosy café during the day, the Sky Apple becomes a restaurant at night with full table service and a menu which changes up every six weeks or so. They serve alcohol but they are fine with you bringing your own, charging the usual corkage fee. Hilariously, they also had so many people bringing their own cakes in (how that began I can’t imagine) that they’ve recently introduced a ‘cake-age’ fee of £1 a cake.
Sitting in Sky Apple with sunlight beaming through the window, every wall painted as a glorious blue sky full of clouds and music that sounds like being cuddled falling asleep to the end-credits on a Studio Ghibli film, it’s impossible to not feel relaxed here. Chuck in fast, friendly service and it’s easy to see how this place has been a much-loved veggie hangout for over a decade.
I got a Sky Apple Classic Veggie Burger served on focaccia with vegan garlic mayo, tomato, lettuce and gherkin, with a generous portion of those dark, delicious twice-cooked chips that everyone seems to be doing these days. For £6.30 I got a veggie classic done well, served fast with no frills in hypnotically relaxing surroundings. I had Heinz ketchup with my chips, but it wasn’t the organic version, which weirdly left me feeling like they’d missed a trick. If you’re in during the day don’t miss out on the decadent mozzarella explosion that is the Refried Bean Chimichanga (stock up on napkins), and if you’re joining them in the evening you’ll not go wrong with either the Battered Halloumi and Chips or the Cambodian Curry.
Now onto my favourite veggie eatery in the city. I first came to The Butterfly Cabinet under its original incarnation as the Belle and Herb and fell instantly in love with this beautiful, perfectly-formed little café. I hadn’t been for ages, and when I went back and it had regenerated into the butterfly cabinet (I’m resisting every urge to chuck in a caterpillar to butterfly trope here) it was like bumping into an old friend and still getting on famously. It’s simply gorgeous, with huge windows flanked by red velvet curtains, a giant fireplace, mismatched dark wood furniture, a wooden counter, an old-timey till and a ceiling that’s nothing less than a work of art.
And that’s before we even get to the food. A huge range of breakfasts, muffins, omelettes, sandwiches, Panini, ‘proper’ lunches and burgers, the menu covers all appetites but wins out for the veggies in the audience through a sheer bull-headed dedication to provide as much variety and choice across their menu as possible by offering interesting vegetarian twists on their staples alongside huge (seriously, HUGE. It’s near-ridiculous) portions and not being shy or snobbish about using fakey bacon, sausages and the like.
Me, I’m all about the breakfasts in this place. I went for the Vegi English which comes with two fakey bacon, two Quorn sausages, two eggs (fried, poached or scrambled), two hash browns and beans served on a bin-lid of a plate for £5.00. A FIVER. It’s impossible to go wrong here, it really is. I’d also comfortably recommend the Vegi USA, Vegi Business (and it really does mean business. For £8.50 you’ll get a feed that’ll power you for 24 hours, minimum), Blue Cheese Omelette, Veggie Butterfly Club Sandwich and Veggie Brie Burger.
But that’s just me trying not to recommend everything from their menu. You really cannot put a foot wrong in this place. On top of the food and fabulous surroundings, they serve incredible coffee, put on gigs and have amazing, friendly and very dedicated staff. If you’ve never been before, stop reading and go now. Do it. I’ll wait.
Good wasn’t it? I’ve got a last recommendation in the centre of town for a place that doesn’t skew towards vegetarians specifically, but knows how to put some exciting options on their menu for the non-meat eaters out there. The Stand Comedy Club Box Office Bistro is already getting a nice little rep for itself as one of the best places to eat in the city, and their Head Chef (previously of Barn Asia, The Open Kitchen, Salsa Café and Blackfriars) changes the menu around regularly, so there’s always something new to try.
Vegetarians will find no gloopy risottos or soggy vegetable lasagnes (I don’t care how char-grilled, authentic and Mediterranean your vegetables are by the way, it’s still a god damn lasagne) here, instead there is a tidy little range of tasty, perfectly presented Asian-inspired options. Pushing my belly to its limits, I tried the Crispy Oriental tofu with hoisin sauce and rice pancakes, Hang lay Thai rice balls with tamarind and dill dip, Balinese curry and sticky rice, Pad Thai with sweet potato, mushrooms and hot peanut sauce, Chocolate caramel steamed pudding with raspberry ripple ice-cream and Banoffee pie with banana anglaise and banana and ginger ice-cream. All vegetarian, all uniformly spectacular, and not a manky char-grilled aubergine in sight.
This is a fantastic venue where meat-eaters and vegetarians can have a great meal with options galore, but watch out veggies, your options here are so tasty that you’re going to find the more carnivorously-inclined in your party poking around in your pad Thai or leaning over to nab a cheeky Thai ball when you’re not looking.
Those are my faves. Also of note are the Chill Out Café on Starbeck Avenue in Sandyford, Tea Sutra on Leazes Park Road, Jack Sprats on Chillingham Road and the New Bengal on Gosforth High Street. In fairness to them, the chain coffee shops do neat little ranges of vegetarian and vegan food now, with Starbucks and Costa being particularly good and changing up their offer regularly. What about that North East stalwart; Greggs? Leading the charge and bringing the good people of the North East something for every palette surely? Well, no actually. It’s kind of crushingly disappointing. Sure, they sell meat-free savouries and sandwiches with non-meat fillings, but due to the way they operate at shop-level they openly state that they can’t advertise any products as being ‘strictly’ vegetarian, even though they don’t contain any meat ingredients. This is a real shame, especially from a leading and much-loved local business. Plus, strictness aside, they state that they are only able to launch products where there is customer demand, which makes sense on the surface but creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in reality. So demand it folks. Demand a Quorn mince pasty baked in a little separate oven, and tell all of your mates. If they bake it, we will come. I am partial to a cheese savoury stottie though.
Ultimately, Newcastle isn’t that bad at all, and really quite brilliant if you know where to look. But how to make it better? Well, one of my most memorable experiences was going for a birthday meal in Malta, a country where vegetarianism is considered borderline insanity, and I’d been routinely offered ham and tuna sandwiches as vegetarian options. The venue was the Venus Restaurant (I know, right!?) and there wasn’t a single non-meat dish on the menu. I asked, and the waiter brought the head chef out, and my heart sank. He crouched down next to me, said they never get vegetarians in and would love to make something special for me. He went through every option, got incredibly excited about being able to do something different and served me a birthday meal that blew all of my emotions.
It worked because he got interested and excited. So, for all of you restaurants and cafes in town – or about to set up shop – who want that veggie dollar it’s easy. We want big portions, reasonable prices, friendly staff and, most of all, exciting options. Get into it a bit. And don’t be shy of Quorn.
Scrumpy Willow & The Singing Kettle – 89 Clayton St, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE5 5HS
The Settle Down Café – 62 Thornton St, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 4AW
Sky Apple Cafe – 182 Heaton Rd, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 5HP
The Butterfly Cabinet – 200 Heaton Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE65HP
The Stand Comedy Club – Box Office Bistro – 31 High Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 1EW
The Chill Out Café – 31-35 Starbeck Ave, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE21RJ
Tea Sutra – 2 Leazes Park Rd, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 4PF
Jack Sprats – 413 Chillingham Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 5QU
The New Bengal – 232 High St, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE3 1HH
Leigh is Scran on the Tyne’s Assistant Editor, and if you’d like to request that he reviews your venue you can email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.