Some of Cleveland’s best vegan food is hiding in a West Cleveland dive bar.
The Green Kitchen at Little Rose Tavern started in May as a Sunday pop-up. But after a massive kitchen renovation that added subway tiles, new shelving and cooking equipment, the restaurant has claimed a permanent space inside the dive bar near West Park and expanded its hours to run Thursday through Sunday. In November, the restaurant will add an industry night on Wednesdays and serve vegan ramen.
The menu, which focuses on vegan gastropub fare, comes from chef John Hagerty, who has worked at some of the city’s best restaurants. He started his career at the Flying Fig before spending time at the now-defunct Reddstone and Lola. He helped launch kitchens for ABC Tavern and worked as sous chef at Forage and as chef de cuisine at Bold Food & Drink.
“I am not a vegan now, but I was a vegetarian from 15 to 22 years old,” he says. “It was always in the back of my mind.”
Later, he earned acclaim from plant eaters when he launched his vegan Monday specials at Winchester Music Tavern. There, vegan dishes made up more than half the menu, and even after his departure, plates like the buffalo cauliflower wings remain synonymous with eating and attending shows there.
“After I left Winchester, I actually was debating doing something on my own or leaving the industry altogether — I was already signed up for welding school,” says Hagerty. “When this opportunity came up with Little Rose, I really couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
Hagerty’s approach to veganism is a little different than many others seen around Cleveland. For one, plant-based food constitutes the entire menu, not just a special section in the corner. Secondly, the menu doesn’t purport to be healthy.
“Let's be honest. Some of that stuff's pretty dull,” says Hagerty. “So making it fun and approachable for people who turn their noses up to vegan food is a fun challenge for a lot of chefs right now. I just really wanna kind of blow people’s minds.”
The menu at the Green Kitchen features 12 permanent options and two to three specials per week. The mind blowing starts quickly with the option to get black truffles shaved on any dish for $10.
There are certainly some healthy options, such as the house salad ($6), which features dill ranch drizzled over cucumbers, tomato and bakon bits, an in-house smoked vegetable take on bacon bits. Meanwhile, the special butternut squash bisque ($6) with ginger, seeds and nuts was smooth, warming and tasted like fall. But we had more fun with the monster tots ($8), which piles five bean chili, cashew cheese, spicy crema and bakon atop fried potatoes.
Meat eaters are often fooled by the Hail Seitan Cleveland Cheesesteak ($13), the Chicken Sammy ($13), often on special, and the Smash Burger ($13), which drizzles vegan cheese sauce between thin Impossible meat patties spiced up with the house seasoning. Another frequent special, the meatloaf ($14), a bold decision for any vegan menu, is another staple that takes advantage of this approach. Indistinguishable to the eye, a hunk of meat sits atop a bed of mashed potatoes soaked in gravy and topped with arugula.
Tricking meat eaters isn’t Hagerty’s only goal. In fact, he recognizes that many religious vegans might not appreciate a take on meatloaf. But no trickery is needed to fall in love with the alfredo ($13), which layers orecchiette noodles in a shockingly creamy and luxurious cashew cream sauce speckled with peas and topped with arugula.
Fans of Hagerty’s work at Winchester will recognize dishes such as the Mac ‘n’ Cheeze ($11) and the crispy buffalo cauliflower wings ($8). Meanwhile, an ever-changing offering of salads and roasted vegetables explores a vast array of flavors and textures.
Before you close out, there are two more things you have to snag. The first is the famous Fire Claw, which is like a sake bomb with White Claw, Fireball and a high-proof liquor floater that is set on fire. The second is a slice of cheesesteak ($6), which should become a staple for any Cleveland vegan looking for an unrecognizable replacement for the decadent dessert.
If veggie-forward eateries have scared you away from diving head first into vegan bites, the cozy, wood-and-wallpaper decor of the Little Rose Tavern, a setting familiar to anyone who frequents Cleveland’s many dive bars, does exactly what Hagerty’s food sets out to do: It puts vegan food in a more accessible package.
If you’re still scared, Hagerty has some choice words for you.
“Quit being a baby and try it because you know not everything needs to be beef, you know, a carrot is delicious on its own,” he says. “You're not missing those flavors anymore. We’re bringing that richness, thanks to different oils, and we’re playing with textures. So just give it a shot.”