Vegan equality at the Cellar Club

Taste the difference - Chilli Con Carne and Chilli Sin Carne

VEGAN options are often something of an afterthought on many menus and although plant-based dishes are cropping up more often nowadays it’s still largely a case of lip service, with one or two options on the table.  

Leamington’s Cellar Club, formerly known as Wilde’s, could not be more different. Not only does it have an entire vegan menu but everything about this warm and welcoming venue is food for the soul, from the staff, the music, the decor and the atmosphere to the gorgeous, excellent value food.

Given that vegans do not usually hang around in hordes and are often the lone plant-eaters of their carnivore clan, eating out with friends and family can be dispiriting. Neither are vegans generally seen to hang around with their order – no menu dilemmas or indecisiveness necessary! Vegans are not on restricted diets, they are generally restricted by the menu.

The Cellar Club, however, is a revelation. Meat-eaters are certainly not left out, quite the contrary: this is not a reversal of food fortunes but equality in action. It’s not complicated – one side of the menu is vegan, the other isn’t. It’s a like-for-like list of goodies that is simplicity itself. ‘Just’ great quality, well-cooked, tasty food in generous portions at incredibly reasonable prices.  

I took a confirmed meat-eater, my dad, along to road-test the Cellar Club’s ethos of offering something for everyone so no-one is left out, carnivore, vegan, flexible or otherwise.

Given that everything vegan on the menu has its meat equivalent we chose to compare and contrast a like-for-like dish. Dad chose chilli con carne, while I went for the vegan equivalent – Chilli Sin Carne. And sinful in the best possible sense it most certainly was – up there with the best chilli I’d ever tasted and Dad said the same about his meat version. Simply delicious. Both were hearty, with a rich sauce, just the right amount of spicy jalapenos and topped off with a tasty chilli cheese, whether vegan or dairy version. Even the price was the same – £7.50. This is a refreshing change in itself for vegans, who usually watch and weep while they pay a hefty premium for the privilege of a vegan option compared to their meat-eating companions. The only difference between the two dishes is that one chilli is made of short rib beef and the other beans. Meat-eater dad tasted the vegan version and confirmed there was hardly a difference – they were equally wholesome and sumptuous. Another revelation was that they did not come with the usual rice but gorgeous fries, which made what was already generous portions extra satisfying and junky. This is New-York inspired comfort food to drool for.

It was so filling there was no room to try anything else on the menu, much as I’d have liked to. Meat treats include all manner of beef and chicken burgers, kebabs wings and pulled pork, while vegan options are mock-meat versions of the same, plant-based or seitan, otherwise known as wheat gluten. Both are ethically and locally sourced, meat being free-range, the dishes homemade and diners are invited to ‘pimp up’ their burgers with sides, sauces and toppings. Equality reigns, too, with dessert – indulgent crepes with ice cream, chocolate, fruit and sauces.

One aspect of the Cellar Club experience that is truly different, however, is the drink that goes  with the meal. It’s both innovative and inexpensive; wine or beer on tap but not as we know it – you pour your own. There are literally beer taps in the wall, from which you pour yourself a pint. The wine ‘machine’, as only a technophobe like me can call it, is akin to a sophisticated vending machine. A selection of quality wines is racked up behind the illuminated glass, complete with tasting notes; you pop in a card filled with credits you have bought at the bar and away you go – press small, medium or large and wine is served. You even have the option of a taster, at 85p a go, so you can try out the wines without stumping up for a whole glass. It’s easy peasy even for someone like me, apparently hated by all machines from phones to printers, with the bonus that there’s no queueing at the bar. However, in the unlikely event you find yourself intimidated or befuddled in the least, the incredibly helpful staff are on hand to make you feel less idiotic. And, of course, there’s still a ‘real’ traditional bar if you’re unapologetically resistant to a virtual one.

The proprietor, Gareth, tells me that although beer walls and wine machines are beginning to be seen in cities like London the Cellar Club is the only place in the UK that has both. What’s not cosmopolitan about this, though, is the price. I enjoyed a very fine Valpolicella for just over a fiver – I’d had the same wine locally a week before for twice the price.

Gareth said this was part of their wanting to make dining not only enjoyable but accessible to everyone, from families to students and although as a business it was necessary to have a little mark-up on the alcohol it was way below the level most establishments piled on for maximum profit.

He added: “Food should be fun for everyone – this is our mantra, we want everyone to enjoy themselves, relax and have a good time. We don’t want anyone to be intimidated because they’re not wine or beer connoisseurs, for instance, we want people to be excited about food and drink and not be afraid to ask about it. The folk who come here are some of the nicest people I know, I treat them as friends, I enjoy being with them and I want them to feel the same.”

To this end Gareth is very much the host and so are his staff – no-one is stuck behind the bar, they mingle and help, including often when Gareth can be spotted keeping a sharp eye on the steps leading down into the Cellar Club, which is on The Parade, in case anyone with a pushchair or mobility issues should need a helping hand.

They have also been meticulous in their research, travelling far and wide to find the homeliest, informal yet stylish decor and even the soundtrack is pitched perfectly, in terms of volume and content. It’s background music at a level such that customers can enjoy it but not have their conversations drowned out by it. The tracks are chosen carefully – funky and soulful with the odd surprise like Kylie thrown in, just to make sure there’s something everyone will like.     

Perhaps the best news is that the Christmas menu has been launched and it’s all glorious vegan food except the MOFO (Meat Options For Omnivores) main courses, which include turkey and Beef Wellington. All the trimmings, vegan or MOFO, include roasties, marmalade roasted roots, steamed greens and mulled red cabbage and gravy. Wellingtons are not just for carnivores, either, with vegan options ‘where’s the beef Wellington’ and beetroot, pearl barley and butternut squash Wellington. The ‘no foul play turkey’ and ‘pigs’ in blankets are home-made from seitan. All cheeses and creams are dairy free and there are gluten-free options.

Starting at £17 for a two-course lunch, this is enough to make anyone feel festive, vegan or otherwise. In fact, the Cellar Club is well worth the trip to Leamington at any time of year.