Jessica Paul isn’t a vegetarian, but she’s an enthusiastic fan of the all-vegetarian Gentle Dining dinners that have become a must-attend fixture at Cafe DiCocoa in Bethel. In the past year, Paul and her boyfriend have managed to reserve seats at four of the dinners, each of which focused on a specific country or region.

The dinners come courtesy of Cathi DiCocco, who opened the restaurant 15 years ago. She began offering these prix fixe Saturday night meals with just one seating per evening as a way to showcase the sophistication of vegetarian cuisine and as an escape from the crowded and busy dining experience that characterizes weekend meals at most eateries in this ski town.

“I’ve worked at just about every restaurant in Bethel as a waitress,” said DiCocco, who grew up working in her dad’s Italian restaurant in New York City. “Every Saturday night it was a zoo. I said if I ever have a restaurant, I’d never do this. I wanted to create a beautiful dining experience and treat it like a dinner party.”

According to Paul, DiCocco has more than achieved her goals.

“She’s got candles all over the place and the fireplace going and music playing from the region we’re eating from,” Paul said. “You hang out and drink wine until the appetizers are out. You learn about the area and why they serve what they serve. It’s served family-style, and you get to talk and mingle with other people.”

Describing the dinners as “a highlight of town,” Paul and her boyfriend have introduced 10 of their friends to the experience.
“Two of the guys (we brought) thought they wouldn’t like the vegetarian food,” Paul said. “But they were absolutely thrilled after they sat through the meal. No one left hungry.”

DiCocco doesn’t advertise the vegetarian nature of the dinners, instead emphasizing the cuisine in her promotional material. Initially she did this because vegetarian dining was much more exotic 15 years ago than it is today. Now that word has spread about these dinners and their fabulous plant-based food, most of her customers know the meals are vegetarian but DiCocco still doesn’t make a big deal about it.

“I would venture to guess that 95 percent of the people (who attend the dinners) are not vegetarian,” DiCocco said.

Years ago, at the insistence of an employee, DiCocco agreed to incorporate fish into a Gentle Dining menu.

“Afterwards people came up to me and said ‘Why did you do this? We can get fish anywhere,’” DiCocco recalled.

The meals have been exclusively vegetarian ever since.

“There’s really no doubt anymore that eating meat is not as healthful as eating vegetables,” DiCocco said.

For guests with food allergies or who don’t eat gluten or dairy, DiCocco is happy to accommodate as long as she gets a heads-up with the reservation.

Seating is limited to 28 people and as a result these events fill up quickly. All nine of the dinners held so far this year have sold out. Saturday’s dinner, highlighting the cuisine of Thailand, has only a seat or two left.

“We’re going to make spring rolls to order for an appetizer,” DiCocco said.

The rest of the menu is still being crafted. However, DiCocco did offer some hints of what’s to come for the Mexican countryside dinner on March 13.

Her assistant chef Anna Schauffler plans to make her signature tamales with roasted chilies.

“We’ll have a really rustic, countryside meal, such as roasted roots and potatoes and corn,” DiCocco said. “It won’t be Taco Bell food.”
The Gentle Dining series wraps up for the season with an Indian dinner on March 20. Don’t delay in making reservations should you want to attend.

“You really have to sign up in advance,” Paul advised. “It’s getting really popular.”

Sharing her love of diverse cultures and cuisines is why DiCocco continues to be so passionate about these meals.
“There’s no better way to learn about a culture than to eat its food,” DiCocco said.

And for meat eaters, the dinners offer a gentle introduction to the expansive and cosmopolitan world of vegetarian fare.

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: [email protected]