While veganism may be considered a hip and progressive trend in modern dining, the practice of abstaining from animal products is a centuries old practice, dating to the ancient civilizations of India and Greece.
And yet, only in the past decade have all-vegan restaurants begun cropping up in cities outside of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, as the cultural perception of veganism has shifted from niche and alternative to more mainstream.
Veganism, an extension of vegetarianism that excludes meat, eggs, dairy products, and all other animal-derived ingredients, is a way of living that contains many subsets, including raw veganism. This is the practice of excluding all food and products of animal origin, as well as food cooked at a temperature above 118.4 degrees.
Now, as the practice of following a vegan diet has grown and evolved alongside other issues such as organic farming, environmental awareness and sustainability, more high-profile chefs and restaurateurs are accommodating vegan diners than ever before.
We asked a few vegan chefs and restaurant owners from across the country to share what many diners have already experienced: that going meat- and dairy-free can be easy, fulfilling and, yes, delicious, too.
Co-owner, Borrowed Earth Cafe, Downers Grove
“I think there’s a general misconception that ‘healthy food’ is not going to taste as good as the standard American fare that you can get in any restaurant. What we’re trying to do is get people to fall in love with the flavors, because, really, it’s the biology of taste that creates a memorable experience and what causes people to have strong reaction and want to repeat it. We’ve also found that the best results come when we meet people where they’re at. If we say, ‘Just come in for dessert,’ and the person tucks in and realizes ‘This tastes just like chocolate cake,’ … or ‘This is the best cheesecake I’ve ever had,’ then that’s when we know that we’ve hit the mark.”
Dish to tempt nonvegans: “Our cheesecake is great for first-timers. Usually, the cheese part is made with cashews and coconut oil, and that creates the consistency. Then it can be flavored with virtually anything; you can use fresh fruit in season, nuts or chocolate. We make a pecan turtle cheesecake that uses cacao butter. All chocolate has a degree of fat in it, and cacao butter is basically the cream of chocolate fat. The taste is just unbelievable.”
Owner, Karyn’s on Green, Karyn’s Cooked and Karyn’s Raw, Chicago
“I think what my restaurants are providing is a place for people to be able to get vegan food consistently, to have three different atmospheres. Because most of the time, when people think of vegan food, they think of one element — like maybe a hippie-type atmosphere — and what I provide is a very large range: a cross-section of vegan food styles, tastes and environments. Each one of my restaurants offers a bridge for ... how committed you want to be.”
Dish to tempt nonvegans: “My ‘crab’ cakes are a delicious, judgment-free alternative for vegans and non-vegans alike.
“Above all else, I’m very passionate about flavor, and this dish has it all, along with every item on the menu — even without meat, poultry, seafood or dairy. “I want to give people an imaginative, satisfying and healthful dining experience. After all, if you don’t take care of the most magnificent machine you’ll ever be given, where will you live?”
Owner, Elizabeth’s Gone Raw, Washington, D.C.
“I adhere to a plant-based diet for health reasons. I’m a breast cancer survivor, so I really changed my diet drastically after I was diagnosed, in addition to conventional treatment, and that’s really the inspiration behind the restaurant. But there (are) so many nutritional benefits to a vegan diet: It lowers your cholesterol, it lowers your blood pressure, it increases your energy level, and it gives you vitality.”
Dish to tempt non-vegans: “I’d try the green apple and beet ravioli. The apple and the beet are sliced paper thin, so it’s almost translucent, and then it’s filled with a macadamia nut ricotta, and on top of that, a delicate fennel foam that’s just exquisite. If you’ve never had raw vegan food, this dish will be intriguing to you, because the ricotta has the same taste and texture as a (non-vegan) ricotta, and the sweetness of the apple balances so well with the acidity of lemon and beet.”
Co-owner and executive chef, G-Zen Restaurant, Branford, Conn.
“We do organic vegan food, and raw food as well. A lot of places focus on one or the other, but here there’s something for everyone, and the selection is broad. We make everything from scratch; take traditional recipes and ‘veganize’ them. I think (veganism) used to be more of a fad … but since there (are) so many vegan options available to people now, they really stick with it. When I first started doing this, there were five vegan restaurants in North America. Now, there’s at least five vegan restaurants in every state, if not 25 or 50 in states like California and New York. Today’s market demands that.”
Dish to tempt nonvegans: “I’d go with one of our roasted seitan and mashed potato dishes for a meat eater. And on the lighter side we have a raw pasta dish that’s really good. It’s made with a spiralized zucchini that mimics angel-hair pasta, and we serve it with crispy kale chips on the side.”
Co-owner Ethos Vegan Kitchen, Winter Park, Fla.
“We are a 100 percent vegan restaurant. Since opening in late 2007, we have seen vegan dining continue to grow. Although we are certainly seeing growth in the number of people adopting a fully vegan diet, what is more striking is that non-vegan diners are becoming more open to eating vegan food. The mainstream view is shifting from (seeing) veganism as weird and unnatural to valid, possible, and beneficial.”
Dish to tempt nonvegans: “Our ‘What’s the Dilly, Philly?’ sandwich is a vegan take on a Philly. Nonvegans are often surprised by the flavor and firmness of the seitan. Our secret is in the marinade: Before sauteing to-order with the traditional onions and peppers, the seitan is marinated to give it a rich flavor that many nonvegans associate only with meat.”
Owner and executive chef, Sprig & Vine, New Hope, Pa.
“If an ingredient is vegan and it’s growing locally, it is most likely somewhere on our menu. Our employees and guests are a diverse mix of vegans, vegetarians and omnivores. At Sprig & Vine, our primary focus is making delicious food. Rather than preaching values and touting health benefits, we let the food speak for itself. And our guests, many of whom are not vegetarian or vegan, leave very satisfied.”
Dish to tempt nonvegans: “Our chocolate mousse pie is a dense chocolate mousse made primarily from chocolate and tofu, yet it’s incredibly rich, and no one would guess that there is tofu in it. It’s currently served with mint-cacao nib ice cream that is made with coconut milk, and it is just as creamy as dairy ice cream.”
This story was originally published March 26, 2014.