While there’s a lot of awareness these days about food preferences and allergies, there’s still often a stigma around vegetarian and vegan food that it’s not delicious. This may be in part because Boston, unlike most other major cities, doesn’t have a lot of restaurants that cater to non-meat-eaters. Fortunately, Linda and Michael Harrison are changing all of that with their vegan restaurant True Bistro in Teele Square.
After becoming vegetarian about 20 years ago and vegan seven years ago, the Harrisons couldn’t figure out why Boston didn’t have a white tablecloth vegan or vegetarian restaurant like Millenium in San Francisco or Candle 79 in New York City. So they decided to create one.
“We couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t a nice, upscale restaurant in Boston like in most major cities,” Linda said.
So when Michael got laid off during the recession in 2009, the Harrisons began looking for a spot to open their restaurant. They worked with a broker, looking at spaces all over Boston before finding the ad for their current spot at 1153 Broadway on Craigslist.
The space had previously been a small coffeeshop and converting it to an upscale eatery took more work than the Harrisons had anticipated. But after closing on the property in June 2010 they got right to work, opening True Bistro in November 2010.
“We’ve been incredibly lucky,” Linda said. “We’ve gotten a lot of support from the neighborhood.”
Michael had previously been an accountant and had worked with restaurants, so he knew the business side of the industry, but there was still a lot to learn. As Linda said, opening the restaurant required a lot of “blood, sweat and tears.”
“There was a steep learning curve,” Linda said. “You don’t know until you’ve gone through the process. But it’s all been worth it. We’ve gotten a great response from vegetarians and vegans we know as well as strangers.”
At first True Bistro was open for lunch as well as dinner, but the neighborhood didn’t provide a lot of mid-day business, so now the restaurant is Wednesday through Sunday for dinner and on Saturday and Sunday for brunch.
And while the menu is definitely focused on making vegetarians and vegans happy, Linda said that the meat eaters who dine at True Bistro come away satisfied as well.
“A lot of our customers aren’t even vegetarian or vegan,” Linda said. “This is a place you can bring non-vegetarians and vegan friends.”
The Harrisons mostly leave the menu up to head chef (and Somerville resident) Stuart Reiter and sous chef Giles Siddons, who both worked at the aforementioned Millenium in San Francisco, though the Harrisons consult on major changes.
“Our chef and sous chef are both vegans,” Linda said. Creating the menu is a “joint effort. Stuart has a lot of experience with costs. When we first opened, I wanted to be everything to vegans, but you’ve gotta make it work [financially]. We have an extremely creative chef. And we were so lucky to get Giles.”
Indeed the food at True Bistro is delicious. I’ve dined there several times and loved each and every bite. The flavors and textures are diverse and rich and the dishes so innovative, with references to a variety of cuisines throughout the menu. Some highlights: wild mushroom arancini, cornmeal-crusted oyster mushrooms, leek tart, stuffed eggplant and blackened seitan. The pumpkin cheesecake is both light and thick, perfect for a chilly fall night. And the wine and drinks are well-curated and prepared, complementing the food perfectly.
For the Harrisons, becoming vegan was a journey. It started when they moved to the United States from Bermuda more than 20 years ago and stopped eating meat because of factory farming. After reading Making Kind Choices by Ingrid Newkirk, the Harrisons decided to become vegan. Linda read Living Vegan for Dummies on a plane ride to Colorado where she was traveling for business and decided that if she could eat vegan while on the road, she could do it at home too.
“I did it for four days,” Linds said. “If I can do it this way, I can do it forever. I gave the stuff to Michael to read and we became vegan and never looked back.”
The Harrisons are now active in the animal rights movement and often host events at the restaurant that support organizations like Farm Sanctuary and the Humane League. True Bistro also hosts events for Somerville community organizations and features work by local artists on the restaurant’s walls.
“We try and do things that are community centered,” Linda said. “Artists seemed to be a really win-win situation. It keeps the restaurant fresh and because we’re in Somerville and it’s a community thing with such an abundance of studios. And it benefits the artist because we’ve sold stuff.”
The Harrisons have focused on supporting the local Somerville community and it has supported them right back. While many of True Bistro’s customers come from all over the area, a large portion are from right in the neighborhood.
In fact, the community has been so supportive that the Harrisons are hoping to expand their business. They’d love to add more tables, a bar and the ability to take reservations, which they can’t do now in such a small space.
“I think with vegetarians and vegans we’re a destination restaurant,” Linda said. “But I think we get a huge support from the neighborhood.”