There are more reasons than ever to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet these days. Whether you’re motivated by concern for the environment, consideration for animal welfare, or health reasons, the interest in a vegan diet is higher than ever.
Depending on where you live, eating out as a vegan can be no big deal or a major headache. But even in veggie-friendly areas like San Francisco, where Greens restaurant at Fort Mason is considered to be the founder of gourmet vegetarian dining, elevated dining without animal products tends to be limited. This is changing, however, as plant-based restaurants are increasingly cropping up across the country.
Chef Kate Jacoby, one half of the husband-wife team behind the elegant Vedge Restaurant in Philadelphia, says she’s seen a huge growth in the vegan dining scene. “The popularity of plant-based dining is on the rise and has been building exponentially over the past three to five years,” she says.
“Plant-based options are taking more and more of a spotlight at ‘mainstream’ restaurants—all segments of the food industry are really jumping on the vegan bandwagon.”
Cooking with vegan ingredients can actually inspire chefs to be more innovative. More and more non-vegetarian chefs are launching vegan and vegetarian ventures, like accomplished British-Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi, who put out the vegetarian cookbook Plenty. Or Michelin-starred chef Tony Lu, who was inspired by Buddhist vegetarianism to open the much-lauded fine dining destination Fu He Hui in Shanghai.
Vegan restaurants are also increasingly crossing culinary categories, so plant enthusiasts no longer have to miss out on their favorite exotic flavors. Despite traditionally being a meat-heavy cuisine, Mexican cuisine is increasingly going vegan. Matthew Kenney, the dynamic founder of a mini vegan empire that includes Venice Beach’s Plant Food + Wine, Bar Verde in New York, and California’s Gracias Madre is an offshoot of Cafe Gratitude’s legendary vegetarian restaurants.
Kenney sees veganism as a new frontier in dining on the rise. “Plant-based cuisine is the most dynamic segment in the food world today and is growing in popularity across all spectrums of the market, from fast food to high-end dining,” he says. “I’m thrilled to see companies such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and Costco all finding ways to incorporate more plants, while the most innovative chefs in the world also introduce plant-centric menus with the same creativity once reserved for the preparation of animal products. This is only the beginning of a complete shift in the global food paradigm.”
Here are a few of the finest plant-centric places offering an elevated eating experience:
Focusing on seasonal produce, Vedge is nestled in an elegant brownstone building in the center of Philadelphia. James Beard-nominated chefs Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby utilize methods often reserved for meats in their cooking to imbue vegetables with incredible flavors. The result is dishes like wood-roasted carrots on top of pumpernickel, crushed garbanzos, carrot mustard, carrot kraut, or the innovative rutabaga fondue, served with soft pretzel, pickle, and charred onion.
Elizabeth’s Gone Raw, Washington, D.C.
Elizabeth Perry established the restaurant after discovering the health benefits of raw veganism during her fight against breast cancer. She has been a pioneer in elevating vegan cuisine to fine dining, with exquisitely plated dishes like crispy mozzarella baton red pepper paper, served with tarragon sauce, white corn butter, or petillant de rhubarbe-habanero sorbet, adorned with best brown ale espuma and pink pepper corn dust, served in a set tasting menu. The restaurant is currently only open on Fridays, but Elizabeth also hosts catering events inside this stately Federal Period townhouse.
Plant Food + Wine
This Venice Beach establishment is Matthew Kenney’s flagship. His restaurants can be found around the world, with different concepts like Make Out, a cafe-style restaurant with cold pressed juices and raw dishes, to Arata, an Asian-vegetarian concept. He is a passionate proponent of plant-based diets and is a speaker, consultant, and founder of many vegan initiatives, including the first classically-structured raw food academy. Plant Food + Wine serves dishes like yellow watermelon poke with ponzu lime marinade, pickled ginger, cape gooseberries and kale, or macadamia kelp noodle cacio e pepe, with snap peas, pea sprouts, and crispy oil cured olives, in a pretty, outdoor Bohemian setting.
Matthew Kenney’s Mexican restaurant brings vibrant flavors to New York’s East Village. The sleek setting offers vibrant dishes served as tapas such as cauliflower al pastor tacos, served with smoked pineapple, salsa roja, scallions, pipits and salsa verde, or jackfruit chimichanga, with baby carrot, potato, rice, beans, pico de gallo, and salsa roja.
Originally founded in the San Francisco Bay Area by the Englehart family, Café Gratitude has a plethora of restaurants in Southern California, all following the mantra of serving sustainable and locally-grown raw vegan food. These casual but chic venues offer fine foods such as Indian curry bowls or raw pesto kelp noodles served with heirloom cherry tomatoes, basil hempseed pesto, olives, arugula, cashew ricotta, and brazil nut parmesan.
Noting the upsurge in gourmet Mexican eateries in San Francisco, but struggling to find somewhere that abided by their commitment to veganism and organics, Café Gratitude’s Englehart family opened Gracias Madre in 2004 in the Mission District. The restaurant elevates Mexican cuisine’s fresh and citrusy flavors with animal-free fare, offering dishes such as quesadillas stuffed with cashew cheese and pumpkin seed salsa, or eggplant, butternut, and mushroom tacos.