The Saloon Ventura
456 E. Main St., Ventura

Giddy up on over to the Saloon and you’ll want to put away your 10-gallon hat as you dine on vegan and vegetarian fare. This ain’t your pappy’s diner, formerly known as Saloon BBQ, and that’s not such a bad thing.

You wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that The Saloon Ventura has undergone a massive transformation since its inception, where ribs and brisket were served alongside fried pickles and all manner of cocktail. These days, as the times keep a changin’, the restaurant has changed, too, catering to a more animal-friendly crowd. For those who hold grudges against animals, worry not: The food is more than worthy of your time.

Gone are the days of the Old West, spittoons replaced with chic modern, neon-sign hipness one might find in downtown LA (DTLA for the cool kids). Tall tables and sofas welcome you and your beverage of choice with a large open gathering space in the rear where in the evenings live music accompanies craft cocktails.

At around noon on a Saturday, brunch was served and we eagerly hopped up to a tall table and ordered coffee and a Bloody Mary ($8). We perused the new menu and quickly landed on chips and guacamole, a classic standby, as we wrapped our heads around the thought of barbecue joint going vegetarian. Thrilled at the concept, we rubbed our hands together menacingly, waiting to see the looks on old regulars’ faces as they came through the doors.

It didn’t seem to bother anyone, really, as the dining room slowly filled up with passersby having come from the farmers market, though we did hear, “Didn’t this place used to be a BBQ joint?”

Of course, we had to try the Vegan Fried Chicken and Waffles ($14). The person or people who equated eating vegan with eating healthy has never watched me quaff a pound of French fries and a sleeve of Oreo’s at 11 p.m., and so of course, the chicken and waffles were right up my alley. Served with warm butter and thick syrup, the meal came with enough to serve two.

We also chose the Vegan Berry French Toast ($12) and, because we love carbs, a side of breakfast potatoes ($4).

Saloon, through all of its makeovers, remains keenly adept at making everything they touch pretty. The French toast came loaded with berries, glistening from the syrup, dusted with a heavenly layer of powdered sugar. From the first melt-in-your-mouth bite, I was in love with this new Saloon. I watched my partner cut into the “chicken” cutlets, a thick, breaded faux-meat that, once sampled, proved a good facsimile. A vegan friend noted that she had to ask if it was real chicken — though, admittedly, she hadn’t had chicken in over a decade. Those more familiar with chicken will notice the difference but it’s hardly an issue. Coupled with the sticky syrup and the warm, thick waffle, the pair worked as well as any other meal with the same name.

Before I receive angry emails with the subject, “bUt ItS noT CHiCkeN” please note that for as long as Taco Bell can call chicken flesh in the shape of a triangle a “Chip,” Saloon and anyone else can call whatever they want whatever they please.

Also on the brunch menu were the required avocado toast ($8), the vegetarian breakfast sandwich ($10) with avocado, two eggs and a chipotle aioli, and breakfast tacos ($12) served with scrambled egg and vegan sausage, black beans, roasted-corn salsa and guacamole.

One unchanged aspect of Saloon remains its cocktails, which on any given night is reason enough to visit. From the classic cocktail menu comes the Old Fashioned and its bourbon, sugar and bitters and the curious Tea Party featuring lavender tea vodka. You’ll also find a seasonal cocktail menu with such concoctions as the Ramona Flowers, a mixture of gin, vermouth and blue curacao, and for brunch, a Grapefruit Mojito ($13) or bottomless mimosas ($12).

If anything, Saloon has become a place where anyone and everyone can pull up to the bar and find something that pleases them. Meat eater? Try the Soyrizo Mac and Cheese ($9) and tell me you miss the pork. For dinner, there are all manner of black bean burgers and plates including an interesting Moco Loco ($15), which I’ll have to try when I return.

On the wall in the back, a neon sign designates the area as the Last Call Club. With Saloon’s new plant-based look, I hope it’s reached its own last call and chooses to stick with it for a while.