Remember the good old days? The times before World War II, when food was natural and drive-throughs weren’t around to proffer foods pumped with trans-fats and processed sugars? I don’t. And at 41, neither does Dan Hanley, general manager of WaterCourse Foods, the Front Range’s go-to spot for vegetarian and vegan cuisine.
“People my age don’t know any better,” said Hanley. “They don’t know that food used to be natural, that foods didn’t have hydrogenated oils and trans-fats and all sorts of refined, and redone, and re-cooked crap.”
Michelle and Dan Landes knew better, and the couple envisioned a restaurant that would step back to the days of natural foods, before World War II and pre-packaged foods. They came up with WaterCourse Foods, now 10 years old.
The restaurant in North Capitol Hill at 837 E. 17th Ave. offers all-vegetarian meals (all of which can be served vegan), along with organic wines, gluten-free desserts and outstanding breakfasts.
“We wanted the concept of whole, pure food, served at a fair price by wonderful, ecstatically happy people,” Hanley said.
It’s achieving all parts of this equation that’s made WaterCourse so successful. This February, the Landeses opened City, O’ City, a coffee lounge/bar/vegetarian pizza joint at the original WaterCourse site on East 13th Avenue. They expanded with a bakery, which provides desserts and breakfast pastries for both restaurants, in 2003; and they own the new space on 17th Avenue.
“Some people do come into [our restaurants] and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know this was a vegetarian restaurant,’ and they walk out,” said Hanley. “And it’s just a shame, because we have a whole entire menu of delicious food that’s well-prepared, that doesn’t have all this nastiness that people are accustomed to.”
WaterCourse goes far beyond the absence of “nastiness.” That would be like defining vegetarian food as no more than the absence of meat. On the menu, you’ll find plenty of tofu, from seven styles of breakfast scrambles to a buffalo tofu sandwich and Thai peanut stir fry. Seitan (pronounced SAY-tahn), protein-rich wheat gluten made by washing starch from dough, makes appearances in fajitas and a Philly-style seitan sandwich. In addition, the menu offers traditional meatless dishes such as eggplant parmesan and hummus wraps. It’s the perfect place for veggies to bring their meat-eating friends.
“I think it takes a huge knowledge of vegetarian food to open an all-vegetarian restaurant, a huge knowledge,” Hanley said.
As he pointed out, you can’t serve a vegetarian meal of mashed potatoes, gravy and vegetables and expect people to pay $14 for it. Hanley thought that, because of the demand for the ingredients and the quality of the finished dishes, the food at WaterCourse may be a little more expensive than that at a traditional restaurant.
But looking at the menu, it’s really not. The prices are well under what you might expect from a restaurant that buys natural (and organic and locally, whenever possible).
Entrees are $9.95, the most expensive breakfast item is $8.25 and the sandwiches are easily one of the best deals in town: $8.95 includes a big sandwich or wrap and two sides. (Make sure to try the tomato coconut curry soup.) So how do they manage to serve complete vegetarian meals at the same price, if not far less, than what you’d find at some nationally-known natural grocery stores?
“We really are out there, always demanding more and more from our vendors. And that’s what I think you have to do, because the products are out there. Some people don’t know this, but there have always been organic wines. There have always been vegan wines. You just have to find them,” said Hanley.
The latest addition to the family, City, O’ City, follows in WaterCourse’s footsteps, at least as far as food theory is concerned: whole, natural and vegetarian, vegan upon request. With the exception of a few appetizers, the City, O’ City menu is completely different and focuses on pizza (all the dough is made right next door in the WaterCourse Bakery), and vegan pizzas come with house-made mozzarella sauce.
They call City, O’ City a “downtempo coffee house and bar, serving thin crust vegetarian and vegan pizzas,” an apt description for this mellow Capitol Hill newcomer. You may find a couple settled in at a dark, wooden booth and laughing over a shared pie; a solo diner sipping Dazbog coffee and typing on a laptop; or a group relaxing at the bar with beers on tap. It’s a fantastic neighborhood hangout and
a welcome addition in a city that has little to offer in the way of late-night, liquor-serving coffee lounges. (City, O’ City is open until 2 a.m. nightly.)
“It’s important for us to know that any single person who enters [our restaurants], whether it’s a guy in a suit and tie, a woman covered head to toe in tattoos or a gay couple cooing at each other
holding hands, that they’re all welcome and safe and desired here, and part of our community. And you don’t see that at all restaurants,” Hanley said. “That is why I work here, because I love what WaterCourse foods is all about, I love what Dan and Michelle have created.”
So do we.
WaterCourse Foods, 837 E. 17th Ave., Denver 303-832-7313
City, O’ City, 206 E. 13th Ave., Denver 303-831-6443
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.