Iconic vegetarian restaurant's legacy created by fate
An hour before the Inn Season Café was set to open Feb. 24, 1981, as a line of eager diners amassed outside the door, there were still a couple things the restaurant needed in order to open: dishwashing equipment and approval from the health department.
“We were supposed to open, and the guy is installing the dishwasher an hour before, meanwhile there’s a line forming,” says John Armstrong, one of the original owners of the Royal Oak vegetarian staple. “It was really meant to be, because everything just fell into place so unbelievably.”
Including the team. Armstrong says he always wanted to open a restaurant, and in the early 1980s reached a moment where “it was now or never.” He’d known Maggie O’Meara from working at The Yellow Bean, a vegetarian deli in Detroit, and Norman Turner, who Armstrong describes as “an unbelievable baker,” and the trio decided they would make it a go.
But they needed one thing: a chef.
Armstrong says they’d heard about a pretty good vegetarian cook in town who had worked with the Hare Krishnas in India and seemed like the perfect fit for the team.
Enter George Vutetakis.
They passed the word along to a local health food store owner, who approached Vutetakis and told him there were a few people he should meet.
“They described their idea for a vegetarian restaurant in Royal Oak with barn wood walls, antique tables, and a menu inspired by the food of Greektown, Mexican Village and other places of Detroit’s culinary heritage,” Vutetakis writes in his book “Vegetarian Traditions: Favorite Recipes From My Years at the Legendary Inn Season Café.”
At first, Vutetakis said no, but the team wouldn’t take no for an answer. Vutetakis writes that Maggie called him “out of the blue” and asked when he wanted to start. He agreed to meet her at the cafe two weeks before the opening date and refers to it now as a “meeting of destiny.”
Vutetakis took the job as head chef and over the next few days put together the recipes for an entire menu that drew inspiration from Mediterranean, Mexican and Indian dishes.
At the same time, the crew was putting the finishing touches on the building, which had formerly housed an Indian restaurant. “Maggie’s father was working on the leaded glass front door, and others were nailing up the barn wood and installing kitchen equipment,” Vutetakis writes.
Armstrong says everything in the restaurant was done communally. “We just somehow attracted this little pod of people,” he says.
The team found tables and chairs at flea markets, repurposed old church pews into booths, and bartered with a friend of a friend to paint murals of broccoli trees, talking carrots, mushroom gnomes and clouds. “That was part of the charm,” Armstrong says. “It wasn’t this slick new restaurant.”
Since opening on that fateful day 35 years ago — with a working dishwasher and the health department’s blessing — the restaurant has paved the way for vegetarian and vegan eateries in the area and across the country.
Armstrong recalls when the crew learned firsthand what it means to run — and keep up with — a popular restaurant. Revered food critic Molly Abraham of The Detroit News wrote a review that Armstrong describes as “quirky and good,” and after that, the word was officially out.
And it wasn’t just the metro Detroit area taking notice.
One of Armstrong’s fondest moments during the early years of the Inn Season was when Frances Moore Lappé came into the restaurant. Lappé wrote the 1971 book “Diet for a Small Planet,” which noted the environmental impact of meat production as wasteful and a contributor to global food scarcity. “That was an incredible moment for me,” he says, holding back tears. “That Francis would come in, and she was so incredibly gracious.”
Though things were going well at the restaurant, Armstrong and O’Meara had a desire to create something else. “We decided we wanted to have a child,” Armstrong says. In 1985, the pair decided to sell the restaurant to Vutetakis, who continued in the spirit of having a restaurant where everything from the cooking methods to ambiance was tailored for the optimum health and utmost enjoyment of customers.
Vutetakis writes in his book that the unspoken motto during his tenure as chef/proprietor was, “Quality of food is synonymous with quality of life.” That’s a theme that has endured since Vutetakis’ departure in 2002.
That year, a new owner, Nick Raftis, a longtime friend of Vutetakis, purchased the restaurant. Thomas Lasher, who served as sous chef under Vutetakis, stepped in as head chef. The pair ushered the restaurant into a new chapter, though some of the most important elements remain the same.
Raftis says the macrobiotic focus of the restaurant is still paramount, and many of the high-quality ingredients found in the dishes come from a big network of area farmers the team has cultivated relationships with over the years. “It’s hard to do, and that’s why people don’t do it,” Raftis says of using fresh, locally-sourced ingredients.
The entire menu is vegan — aside from a few dishes that allow diners the choice of dairy cheese — with many delightful gluten-free, soy-free and wheat-free options, and inspirations from all over the globe making an appearance.
And there are still lines. On a recent Tuesday morning, groups of lunch-goers gather on the benches outside the green building. Once inside, they excitedly talk about their favorite dishes, a few with fresh herbs to pass along to the servers who carry on the legacy of taking care of guests.
In the server’s alley, a few steps outside the small, 600-square-foot kitchen, the phrase, “Remember, we are healers first,” is scrawled on a bulletin board that lists the day’s specials, echoing the sentiment Armstrong says was the impetus for the entire operation.
“We just wanted to take care of people,” he says. “I feel incredibly proud and lucky to have had people realize that good food was important and made a difference in your health.”
Five years ago, the restaurant celebrated three decades of service, and Armstrong remembers longtime diners telling him he’d changed their lives. “One woman told me we saved her life. It’s just a wonderful feeling to have that go out to all these people.”
This year marks the 35th anniversary for the restaurant, and again, the team is celebrating. Raftis says they’re planning multiple events coinciding with Vegetarian Awareness Month in October and look forward to many more years serving the community, a sentiment Armstrong echoes.
“I had no idea it would last 35 years, and now I can’t imagine it closing. I don’t think it ever will. It was really meant to be.”