Vegetarian dishes are too often relegated to a sidebar, corner or back page of a restaurant's menu, as if to say, "if we must."

Not so at Wildflower Cafe & Bakery, where vegetables in their many forms secure top billing and all the cameos, too.

A staple of Arcata's Northtown for more than 30 years, Wildflower is one of the few dedicated vegetarian and vegan restaurants in the area. The cafe's commitment to hearty, fresh and clever dishes makes it a favorite among people of all diets.

Located on an unassuming corner in a busy intersection, Wildflower is decidedly student-centric — after all, Arcata High School and Humboldt State University are just a few blocks from the cafe in opposite directions.

click to enlarge Banh Mi Breakfast bowl. - AMY KUMLER
  • Amy Kumler
  • Banh Mi Breakfast bowl.

Big windows make for great people watching, and the bright, airy space is decorated with posters of fruits and vegetables, and other pops of color.

Specializing in breakfast and lunch, Wildflower is bustling, friendly and vibrant. At a late lunch on a sunny afternoon, a table of young men speaking English and Spanish shared their favorite menu choices with a neighboring couple.

At first glance, the menu may look like it's competing in our current era of vegetarian plate races, wherein food scientists battle to create meatless burgers and other staples that bleed, sizzle and taste like beef. There's a Reuben sandwich, a tuna wrap and a whole menu of burgers.

But peer closer and you'll find these aren't imitators — they're homages: a Reuben made with grilled tempeh, vegan thousand island dressing and house-made sauerkraut; burgers made from nuts, black beans and quinoa, tofu, tempeh or portobello; and a rich, creamy "tuna" salad made from chickpeas that's just right in a wrap or as an addition to any salad.

Wildflower isn't just trying to appease the cravings of former omnivores, though. The restaurant shines because it boosts, rather than buries, the vegetable.

A house favorite, the Wicked Thai Peanut Stir-Fry, is a mountain of tender soba noodles crowded with carrots, onion, broccoli and other fresh, seasonal veggies. Salads, wraps and spring rolls celebrate crunchy, sweet, earthy and locally sourced vegetables.

This is intentional.

"Our menu is a great mix of timeless Wildflower recipes from years past, as well as new and bright, innovative vegetarian fare," says Wildflower co-owner Sue Charnes. "My objective in creating new dishes was to focus on produce. So many vegetarian dishes focus on meat substitutes or heavy grains. I am always looking for brighter options that highlight the vegetables themselves."

click to enlarge A slice of vegan carrot cake. - AMY KUMLER
  • Amy Kumler
  • A slice of vegan carrot cake.

Charnes and her business partner Jay Repetto are barely older than the cafe. Shortly after graduating from Humboldt State, they had the opportunity to buy the cafe in 2013. They've kept Wildflower's longtime fans happy with old favorites and new twists, all with a focus on freshness. Recently, they began offering monthly dinners, allowing them new ways to showcase seasonal produce and offer wine and beer pairings.

Charnes and Repetto's mission goes beyond preparing the best food they can. Studies show raising animals for meat contributes to a rapidly deteriorating environment.

"Water usage, resources and land management are all deeply affected by factory farming," Charnes says. "For many years, vegetarians and vegans have cited moral and health reasons for their dietary choice. Now, we can surely add environmental responsibility and hope for sustainable future to the list of reasons that people choose to go meat-free."

And they haven't stopped there. Sourcing local breads, produce and tofu means a smaller carbon footprint. They've been using paper straws for two years and offer eco-friendly to-go boxes. They compost all food scraps, use energy efficient lighting and recently began a campaign to eliminate plastic waste from their kitchen and all their incoming products.

It's not an easy task and it's led to some increased costs, Charnes says.

"We are happy and grateful that our customer base is so aligned with our ideas that they do not mind helping to incur some of the costs on these changes. We hope to continue our mission to become a model of a restaurant that can feed the community, have a low-impact on the environment, employ local people and raise awareness about the benefits of (even a part-time) vegetarian diet."

And that's the real deal.

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About The Author

Grant Scott-Goforth

Grant Scott-Goforth

Grant Scott-Goforth was an assistant editor and staff writer for The Journal from 2013 to 2017.

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