TNT Diner

Vegetarian-friendly restaurant Happy Belly opens today in downtown Tacoma

Jennifer Johnson discusses her diet by percentage or ratio, not by labels such as “flexitarian,” “par-veg,” half-veg,” etc.

Those kinds of precious identifiers, of course, can bring fisticuffs in certain circles. I’d even lobby that “flexitarian” join the banned food words list right above “localvore.” Please? Can we do that?

Anyway, Johnson’s eating terms are easy to understand: She eats 90 percent meat free.

And the menu on her brand-new downtown Tacoma restaurant Happy Belly? It also will be about 90 percent meat free.

Her 18-seat restaurant and juice bar opened today in the small space that formerly held Smooth and Juicey at 1122 Market St. She’s serving a limited menu for now. The full menu begins early next week.

Johnson long has traveled in Tacoma restaurant circles as a former manager of Dirty Oscar’s Annex, Jazzbones and numerous other eateries and nightclubs.

This is her first restaurant and she’s aiming for a niche that’s underserved in Tacoma.

With the closure of Caffe Dei and AmeRAWcan Bistro, it can seem that Tacoma’s been stuck in a pattern of one-step-forward, one-step-back for vegan and vegetarian restaurants. However, Quickie Too has been Tacoma’s long running and highly successful vegan restaurant. Viva Tacoma opened in early September and has been attracting crowds for its full vegan menu that’s split between raw and cooked cuisine.

What’s emerging and interesting is the model used by restaurants such as Happy Belly where vegetarians and vegans are catered to right alongside meat eaters. Think: Marrow. That popular high-end Sixth Avenue restaurant has just entered its third year with a menu split between meat and meatless. Another restaurant that does the same thing with great success? The deli inside Marlene’s Natural Foods Market.

“I want to make it fun,” said Johnson last week by phone when describing breakfast, lunch and dinner menus served Mondays through Saturdays. The small cafe also will specialize in juices, just like its predecessor. Some will be premade for takeout; others will be made to order.

So why this particular business model?

“It sounds trite, but it’s really about moderation and about finding balance that works for each person. Some people can tolerate and eat more meat because they’re super active and their body is using and burning it off.

“Others who have sedentary lifestyles, they don’t move around as much and they don’t need to take in as much food or as much meat. There is no hard-and-fast rule that fits everyone. There just isn’t. I feel having options and exposure to more vegetables, fruits and healthy grains that’s presented in a way that’s appealing, that’s how you can teach people and change the way they think about food.”

Added Johnson, “If you can change the way you think about food, it will really change the way you live for the better.” And then she added, “And there will be dessert. It just won’t be an 8-ounce brownie with a scoop of ice cream for two people. No thank you.”

The lunch and dinner menus will be an often changing selection of salads, house-made soups and hearty comfort food style sandwiches. Breakfast items include wraps and scrambles.

“Some dishes will have meat, just a handful. Ninety percent will not have meat, and the protein will be an add-on,” explained Johnson. She explained the add-on protein menu would include a small menu of a la carte meat or animal byproducts, such as eggs, smoked salmon, bacon and chicken, added to any dish.

Will she focus on vegan dining alongside the vegetarian hot sandwiches, salads and house-made soups? “If you’re a strict vegan, this isn’t for you,” noted Johnson. While utensils handling meat and veg items will be separated, Johnson is cognizant that food prepared in an environment that also includes meat won’t appeal to some who eschew animal products.

If you try Happy Belly for any reason, make it this one. Johnson refuses to serve tomatoes when they’re off season. “They’re garbage and they’re watery. The texture is terrible and they don’t taste good. It’s a waste and a disservice,” said Johnson.


That I can get behind.