The Taco Salad at Vertical Diner makes a delightful lunch. Photo: Adam Dorobiala
10 a.m. - 10 p.m. seven days a week
Set in the Meat Packing District a mile or so south of downtown, the Vertical Diner is a recycled space with a comfortable retro-post-punk vibe and uncompromising vegan diner-style food. A large part of the success of this place, for me, is that it doesn’t feel preachy about its do-gooder agenda. Say what you want about vegetarians, but being vegan requires a pretty obsessively strict set of principles. However, Vertical Diner doesn’t radiate any angry or groovy moral attitude. It feels like an artsy diner from the ‘80s in a big city like Kansas City or San Francisco. The excellent servers look the part, too. It is punk, clean and cool—I could see hanging out here daily if I were a teen (and had a lot of money). Its version of everyday food makes a good case that one can become a vegan and still be happy about going to the diner.
I like this place. I really like this place. It isn’t a coffee shop, but it has the relaxed atmosphere of some of my favorite joe-joints. The slow exhalation your seat makes as you sit seems to say, “What’s the hurry, Bub?” and with excellent music smartly picked from Slacker Radio, the air itself seems filled with narcotic reveries from the ‘80s and ‘90s. The servers are nice and punk and won’t put up with any weirdoness, which is just right for a place like this. Homey diners always attract eccentrics and strife-stirrers, probably for the same reason they attract me—they feel safe and warm.
Ambience aside, I like the food here, too. The menu doesn’t bother to tell you it isn’t meat or eggs or cheese, etc., it just assumes that you are hip to the fact that everything is not just vegetarian, but vegan. Does it mean anything that the menu is written in the language of the meat-eating world? Although some of my vegetarian friends have their own opinions about that, I merely see it as a way of submerging the politics of veganness—yes, this is a vegan diner, but in here you’re just preaching to the choir.
For starters, I tried the Tender Tigers ($6.00), a “fried chicken tender” (i.e. wheat meat on a stick) with an excellent vegan ranch dressing. The Nacho Mama ($8.75) is a tasty option, too.
The Taco Salad ($9.50), with its delicate tangy cilantro-lime dressing, makes a delightful lunch. The mixed greens give it a more urban feel than ordinary iceberg would, and give the dish a bit of class. Chicken Biscuit Pie ($8.75), the Vertical version of chicken pot pie, consists of garden vegetables in a delicious sage-finished gravy topped with a biscuit. And the gravy is to die for. Really ... how do they do it? It’s a little sweet, like much American food is now, but that makes it taste better—doesn’t it?
One afternoon, as I sat at the counter chatting with the new-wavey waiter about the most popular food items (he suggested I try the Portobello Reuben), I noticed how the beer bottles and glasses lined up like the bandoleros of some beery giant. Beer, cider and wine by the glass or bottle are available at really reasonable prices. The selection of beers is impressive, and the display they make of the various bottles is one of the many visually interesting assets of the diner. I ordered the Jerk Chicken Burrito, ($9.00) which kicked my butt, in a good way. I upped 75 cents for the house green salsa which was itself a revelation, intensely flavored, thick and very hot. I wanted to eat another meal on this occasion, but this little burrito took all the room my normally huge appetite had. I did finally get around to trying the suggested Reuben ($7.75), and it was fine, but the homemade sauerkraut was less sharp than I like and the Portobello wasn’t really up to the job of delivering the mouth-stretching flavors that I expect from a Reuben. And it came on wheat bread. I asked my friend Katie what she eats when she goes to Vertical, and her favorite is the chicken fried steak, which is called the American Diner ($9.25). It consists of three of the chicken portions over potatoes fried or mashed, and the whole pile covered in gravy. The gravy is just great, the mash is a big maternal hug on a spoon and the fries hold their own against any: Together, the sum is greater than the whole. This is one of those dishes that continue to wash over in memory like a good nap. I want some right now.
If you are someone who must have dessert, the vegan brownie ($2.50) isn’t bad for what it is. I think the savory flavors of Vertical’s accomplished salsas and gravies are dessert enough, though.
I ate at the diner on several occasions while researching this article and was surprised that, although the portions are not serve-yourself large, I felt happily full and satisfied for a pleasantly long time after each meal. My hunger to return, for the atmosphere and for the food, lasted even longer ... I think it’s still lingering.