What is it about vegetarian restaurants and ponytails? Nearly every patron (and most of the servers) at One World Cafe on a recent weekday seemed to sport a ponytail. Some were shiny and bouncy, others gray and thin, springing from nearly bald heads, but ponytails were definitely the accessory du jour.
Ponytails seem to represent a certain kind of still-in-the-'60s college sensibility, and One World Cafe is a certain kind of still-in-the-'60s vegetarian restaurant. Every college town seems to have one, and Baltimore is lucky to have one as fine and friendly as One World Cafe, across the street from the Johns Hopkins University.
The restaurant embraces all types of vegetarian eaters, serving its share of brown rice and tofu, but not stinting on less-healthful substances such as alcohol, caffeine or sugar.
The sprawling restaurant, with its worn terrazzo floors, purple-felt-covered pool table and young, easygoing wait staff, has a relaxed vibe that encourages lingering.
The original One World opened in Federal Hill in 1993, but the cafe's true calling as a college hangout became clear after the University Parkway location opened in 1999.
Owner Isabel Currey, a vegetarian, sold the Federal Hill spot in 2002 to focus on the current site, which would be perfect if only it had more places to park.
Currey said business has grown so much that the pool table might soon get the heave-ho to make way for more seating.
The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, with items ranging from such true vegan dishes as miso soup and black beans with organic rice to such veggie-fied college fare as chili, quesadillas and nachos.
Many of the dishes, including a reuben made with tempeh and a cheese steak made with strips of seitan, use soy products as meat substitutes. The menu, crafted by chef Sue Novack, changes seasonally.
The key to eating at One World is to enjoy the food for what it is, resisting the temptation to compare the dishes to their meaty counterparts.
A vegetarian crab cake, for example, is really nothing like a crab cake at all. Instead, it is a very good zucchini cake flavored with mustard and Old Bay. The cakes, fried until crisp but not greasy, are served with beautifully roasted potato wedges and a bowl of numbingly average coleslaw.
Similarly, the gyro is a delicious combination of roasted eggplant, spinach, red peppers, olives, tart tahini sauce and feta cheese in warm pita bread, but all the veggies in the world can't replace the marinated meat in a real gyro.
One dish that was not trying to be something else was a stew of vegetables and rice with Indian-style spices, served with a block of tofu bathed in a red, creamy-spicy tandori sauce.
The vegetables, served, shockingly, over white rice instead of brown, were warm with complex spices, yet I longed to douse the dish in soy sauce to brighten the flavors.
A more compelling mix of vegetables, less overwhelmed by potatoes, would have helped, too.
One World offers a selection of organic beers and wines, as well as other alcoholic beverages. The coffee drinks, made with shade-grown, organic, fair-trade coffee, are as sweet and creamy as the stuff found in the big chains.
Thick smoothies made with real fruit are rich enough to serve as dessert, but it would be a shame to miss out on the treats prepared by vegan pastry chef Elke Wardlaw.
The vegan banana cake was dense but not all that heavy, considering it had no eggs or butter. It was loaded with bananas and topped with a sweet frosting made of tofu, soy milk and real sugar.
A pecan tart lacked the flaky crust made possible with shortening but otherwise satisfied my sweet tooth.
Both desserts, however, were too cold from sitting in the refrigerated display case.
One great thing about One World is that it doesn't take its health-food philosophy too seriously.
Though tofu scramblers are popular for breakfast, so are eggs. Tuna and salmon are served. Sugar is embraced.
Near the front door, baskets are filled with One World refrigerator magnets and matchbooks.
Do One World patrons smoke?
That couldn't be right. Maybe the matches are used to light incense.
One World Cafe
Where: 100 W. University Parkway
Open: Monday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., (kitchen closes at 11), Sunday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., brunch menu all day
Credit cards: All major
Prices: Appetizers, $2.50-$4.95; entrees, $5.95-$13.95