Life on Mars | zero to ★★★ | Vegan bar | $ | Capitol Hill | 722 E. Pike St., Seattle; 206-323-9166; lifeonmarsseattle.com; daily 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; no reservations; 21-and-over only
Attention, vegans: You are right and the rest of us are wrong.
When it comes to what we eat, pursuing a plant-based diet appears to be the single most important thing that we all can do to support the continuation of life on Earth. The impact on climate change of reducing packaging, curtailing the carbon footprint of how far your food travels to get to your mouth and buying organic all pales compared to eating less meat, and dairy, too. (Yes, nonvegans: This means cheese.) A recent New York Times special section entitled “How Should We Eat?” provided exhaustive details, the kind that should have obsessive locavore zero-wasters rocking back and forth while crying and eating cheese, if they’re not already vegan.
The diet of those rich or piratical enough to jettison themselves off this burning-up sphere in a not-too-distant dystopian future looks to be a vegan one as well (excepting potential cannibalism). NASA’s official plan for colonization of other planets calls for eating that’s “similar to a vegetarian diet that someone could cook on Earth — minus the dairy products.” Elon Musk’s secret scheme could include petri-dish meat or an Ark-style pair of wagyu cattle, but the worker bees will be consuming plants, when they’re not busy growing them or pollinating them with Q-tips.
But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. On the plant-based-eating front back here at home, capitalism seems to be working its leisurely way around to the right idea, with big-meat industry players and fast-food outlets looking at the big money involved in faux meat — one estimate puts that market going from $14 billion to $140 billion in the next 10 years. On a local level, Seattle’s recent vegan innovations include the runaway success of Frankie & Jo’s ice cream; the expansion of longtime favorite Plum Bistro to include nearby Sugar Plum and Plum Chopped; an offshoot of (nonvegan) Local 360 called Local Vegan with a $68 prix-fixe menu; and, in a category by itself in the local vegan space, Life on Mars.
Open since June in a new development along Capitol Hill’s Pike-Pine party-time corridor, Life on Mars is a 21-and-over place with a full bar and an all-vegan comfort-food menu. It comes with the very Seattle cred of KEXP DJ John Richards, aka John in the Morning, as one of the owners, and vinyl is a theme. Shelves of albums occupy one whole wall, awaiting patrons’ choice for the end-of-the-bar turntables during happy hour, with some for sale, too. The name references the David Bowie song, and the décor glancingly references the song’s era with booths upholstered in mustard-colored vinyl lit by bulbous glass fixtures, plus retro-conical metal ones above the central bar. Despite all the records and a trippy Northwest mural on an exposed brick wall, though, the space feels more bland New Seattle than cool 1970s hangout — more hipster hotel lobby than space oddity.
But for a vegan dive bar, there’s always veteran punk/metal venue The Highline, not far away. Life on Mars is clearly something our world’s been waiting for — lines are out the door during peak hours, and the menu, designed by Portland-based chef Joe Ball, has been an astronomical success. When I tried to order a cup of coffee at happy-hour o’clock recently, the extremely amiable server very apologetically explained that the food program’s been so popular in the first few months, dealing with coffee had fallen by the wayside.
Also, in Seattle, who goes to a vegan bar for coffee? The bananas-level activity at Life on Mars got me thinking: Who does go here, and what, exactly, for? Am I, so far a committed omnivore, the best judge of this place? And given the crowds, does it even matter what I think? To be fair, I went over and over again, by myself and with a variety of differently dieted friends. It became very clear to me that, especially here, your voyage is not necessarily the same as mine.
So how many stars for Life on Mars? I’m new to giving this type of restaurant-review rating, and frankly, in this instance, I think it does humankind a disservice. I come in peace! How about multiple ratings for various viewpoints?
First, a reminder that our scale is different from Yelp’s — to wit:
★★★★ = Exceptional
★★★ = Highly recommended
★★ = Recommended
★ = Adequate
No stars = Poor
OK — here we go!
For the Grateful Vegan Possibly Under the Influence of Cannabis: ★★★ (highly recommended, get it?)
Sitting in a cute little two-person booth at Life on Mars one evening, my friend Dave said that for a vegan or vegetarian (like him), going to a place where nothing on the menu is off-limits always feels like an incredible luxury. He actually shouted it; Life on Mars gets very loud when crowded, but Dave didn’t much mind. Dave, visiting from a non-legal-cannabis state, also noted that the food seemed custom-made for the stoned palate (like his). For instance: crispy, golden Ghostfish gluten-free-beer-battered cauliflower wings with a choice of different sticky sauces. A completely decent, good-and-salty housemade black-bean burger. Hand-cut “Disco Fries” messily loaded with coconut-oil-based cheesy-goo, vegan gravy, garlic-black pepper soy aioli and green onion. Sandwiches made with waffles where the bread should be. A salad with French fries in it, though we couldn’t locate any in ours and didn’t care enough to shout-tell the busy server about it. Dave was happy at Life on Mars, and I was happy to be with him.
For the Vegan Sophisticate: ★★
My friend Ritzy (yes, that is her real name) loves food and ate absolutely everything before going vegan for health reasons (absolutely helpful, she says). With her refined tastes, she prefers going to excellent restaurants and just eating their excellent vegetable dishes. She’s not a fan of vegan attempts to imitate meat such as Life on Mars’ “Summer BBQ” sandwich, with jackfruit doing a convincing trompe l’oeil of pulled pork but squishing mushily in the mouth, while tamarind barbecue sauce rang unremittingly tart. Barely browned in spots “Roasted Broccoli” met with disapproval (“I can cook vegetables — why can’t they?”), but was eaten anyway (such is the life of a vegan). The “Market Board,” a big spread of hummus, nuts, veggies and such, was a winner, in context. As Ritzy is also a cannabis aficionado and not a total snob, she could get behind the Disco Fries. She isn’t likely to become a Life on Mars regular, but she wouldn’t un-recommend it.
For the Grumpy Omnivore: no stars
The “House Mac” at Life on Mars wasn’t fooling my friend Tan. “Sabotage,” he called it. “I feel like they’ve just taken all the joy out of macaroni and cheese,” he elaborated mournfully. I had to agree: Truly good vegan cheese is a nut yet to be cracked, and the sauce here tasted, well, nutty and a bit spicy but lacking in cheese-level gratification, with the corkscrew noodles overcooked. Tan took one bite of the Life on Mars BLT and refused to comment, much less eat more. I ended up ordering this three separate times, trying to understand; it defied my comprehension. The sweetish, mapley-flavored coconut bacon seemed possibly defensible, but each time was so thin and scant, it shattered and fell out. At summer’s peak, the tomato was consistently sad and pale — can’t a vegan at least get a great tomato? The waffles functioning as bread managed light-textured interiors, but were depressingly dry and, on one occasion, harder than a waffle should ever be. This is the kind of vegan food that makes omnivores go: Why? But Tan did grumpily eat some French fries, and …
The Cocktail Aficionado and/or Pike/Pine Partyer: ★★½ stars
As a cocktail expert, Tan deemed the drinks list here quite a good one, with smart spins on classics. The “Neil from Yonkers” — bourbon, Kashmiri amaro, lemon — turned out to be a balanced, refreshing variation on a whiskey sour, with hints of chai spice and a whole star-anise pod prettily, fragrantly drifting on top. “Velvet Goldmine” softened the unusual combo of mezcal and dark rum with cashew orgeat, ginger and lime, like a more creative dark ’n’ stormy. The drinks go down easy here, which might add to the weekend-evening din: Life on Mars buzzes, with DJs and record-release events sometimes adding to the energy. Come early in the evening if you don’t want to party. And speaking of parties, veganism isn’t the only way Life on Mars wears its politics on its sleeve: The latest Democratic debate got named “Houston, We Have a Problem” on the website’s calendar, with a call to come “see what else we can learn before we replace this human piece of garbage.”
Life on Mars: 722 E. Pike St., Seattle; 206-323-9166; lifeonmarsseattle.com; daily 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; 21-and-over only
Highly recommended for comfort-food favorites for stoned vegans; recommended for regular vegans; recommended for cocktails/partying; not recommended for grumpy omnivores
No reservations, 21-and-over only; expect lines at peak times
Prices: $ (snacks and sides, $4.50-$8; shared plates, $9-$15; salads $8-$16; sandwiches and burgers $12-$14)
Noise level: cacophonous at peak times, generally quieter at happy hour
Service is uniformly nice but sometimes overwhelmed, thus slow
Drinks: beer, wine and full bar, with cocktails $10-$15
Access: no obstacles, two gender-neutral restrooms