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Best Place to Not Eat Meat

The Quiet Storm Coffeehouse & Restaurant 5430 Penn Ave., Friendship. 412-661-9355. www.quietstormcoffee.com

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Vegetarians and vegans don't often have high hopes when it comes to dining out. They're used to settling for one or two meat-free selections on the menu, usually a grilled cheese sandwich or a bland veggie burger. And vegans are often stuck with whatever salad doesn't contain some sort of animal byproduct. But at the Quiet Storm, both groups can rejoice at the bountiful harvest awaiting them. Let them eat tofu.

Now in its seventh year after opening in the Friendship area, the restaurant/coffee shop/neighborhood hangout specializes in vegetarian fare, with a huge selection of brunch, lunch and dinner items. The menu ranges from standard veggie eats such as hummus and beans & rice to a long list of specialty salads, sandwiches and international dishes, like seasonal curries and pastas.

The establishment went through several changes before finding its niche. The site of a former nuisance bar, the Storm opened in 2001 as a coffeehouse and live-music venue. Owner Jill MacDowell began working there in 2002 and gradually expanded the kitchen from a regular weekly Sunday brunch menu into a three-meal-a-day place. She took over sole ownership in 2005, and has since maintained the comfortably kitschy atmosphere -- even if she had to alter its mission somewhat.

"We were always three things -- a coffee place, a music venue and a restaurant -- and it's easier to be successful when you're one thing," says MacDowell. "I think shaving one of those things off has helped business quite a bit." Last December, she did away with the live music to better accommodate their new neighbors and dining customers. The venue also recently went smoke-free.

Vegetarians have an ever-evolving list of options here. For starters, the plate of "dirty nachos" -- tortilla chips smothered in meatless chili, cheese, peppers, and sour cream -- is savory but not too spicy. The lentil loaf, a hearty mound of spiced vegetable mix, is enhanced by aromatic sage and seasonings. Sweet raisins, crumbled tofu, sliced veggies and a divine combination of peanut butter and Sriracha (Asian chili sauce) all go into making the "spicy peanut" wrap, one of the most popular lunch and dinner items.

But the top-selling entrée is easily the "home fries," a heaping plate of mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs or tofu, cheese, onions and zesty crumbled soysage drizzled with aoli. It ain't pretty, but you won't notice. "The home fries kick the ass of everything else, but I'm happy to say most of the menu sells pretty evenly," says MacDowell.

Carnivores, take note; instead of lamenting what you can't have (i.e., meat), here you can celebrate all that's still here. The Quiet Storm has many creative interpretations of normally meat-based cuisines like gyros, chili and cheese steaks; newbie vegetarians can also indulge their cravings and reminisce about their past persuasions. Seitan, tofu, tempeh and TVP are all protein-rich substitutes that are versatile and crafty in their meat mimicry. Soysage patties, tofu tenders and fakin' bacon are just a few options.

"The idea is [the menu is] approachable, or there's recognizable things on it," says MacDowell. For example, their "magic snake," a cheese steak substituted with seitan seasoned with imitation beef broth, is more than just a reasonable facsimile. "It kind of ushers people in the idea that something can be hearty and flavorful and not actually be steak," says MacDowell.

Folks still do come in just for the distinctly rich, organic fair-trade coffee (the drink menu is also expansive), and the setting lends itself to a mixed bag of customers, from knitting clubs to business meetings to marathon study sessions, church groups and neighborhood kids busy at the pinball machines. Shelves are packed with board games, books and magazines to keep you occupied while waiting for your meal. Locally made art hangs above the mismatched tables and booths, and the music is employees' choice, which means it's always eclectic and interesting.

The floor of the Quiet Storm is a colorfully incongruous arrangement of tiles. There's no pattern, but -- as with the rest of the place -- you'll find a little bit of everything in it.

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