Not too many years ago, the phrase “vegan restaurant” could conjure up images of spartan, tasteless and distinctly unsatisfying fare. Now, veg-savvy chefs are hitting the mainstream, winning over herbivores and omnivores alike with sophisticated, surprising plant-based menus.
Fine-dining eatery Vedge beat out all of Philadelphia’s other restaurants to take the Best Food title in Zagat’s most recent survey of the city’s eateries. And on Thursday, Eater named it one of the top 38 places in the country to eat this year, with a review that ended “The place simply serves breathtaking food that also happens to be vegan.”
“We started this when vegan restaurants were not grouped in with everything else,” said co-owner and chef Rich Landau. “It was like the new age section in the music store, it was in a separate area and you would have to walk through the beaded curtain to the back room to find it.”
Landau and his wife and business partner, Kate Jacoby, began building a mainstream clientele with their earlier restaurant Horizons. The Philadelphia eatery grew popular with the city’s fine-dining crowd, and eventually about 85% of its customers were non-vegans who just loved the food. They estimate that 95% of the guests at Vedge are omnivores, and its probably about the same at V Street, the casual, less-pricey joint the couple opened last year.
“The vegan population has grown significantly in recent years, but also people’s understanding and willingness to legitimize a vegan diet have grown,” Jacoby said. “There are people who want to eat this way one night a week, and others who want to check it out and then bring other people.”
In addition to the rise in pure-vegan restaurants, a growing number of mainstream eateries and shops are selling vegan fare because they see demand, Jacoby said. Her neighborhood bakery makes vegan cupcakes that sell out fast, she said.
Some are choosing the vegetable-based menu because they’re trying to cut meat out of their diets, Jacoby said. Of those, most do so for health reasons and a much smaller group do so out of environmental concerns, she said. Humane concerns tend to rank last among the reasons.
Horizons opened in 1994 as a cafe in the Philadelphia suburbs, moved to the city in 2005 and closed when the partners were getting ready to open Vedge in 2011. Along the way, the cuisine grew more complex and upscale, the eatery developed relationships with local fresh produce suppliers and countless budding chefs trained in Landau’s vegan kitchen.
“We were always trying to be one step ahead of what’s going on and hoping to blaze a trail that’s going to have other restaurants following,” Landau said.
Ross Olchvary is one of the chefs who trained at Horizons, spending seven years learning the art of plant-based cuisine before leaving in 2010 to open Sprig & Vine in New Hope, Pa.
Olchvary began eating a strictly vegan diet when he was 19. “Around that time is when I began to learn how to cook and fell in love with it, so vegan cooking is all I know,” he said. “Thus, deciding to do a vegan restaurant was the natural route to follow. This is the case with almost all vegan restaurants – they’re usually started by a vegan who who really believes in what they are doing.”
He went back and forth on whether to include the word “vegan” in the name of his new place, eventually settling on “pure vegetarian,” he said. But he never doubted that the concept would be in demand. “For years, I was one of many vegans who would often drive an hour just to go to the closest vegan restaurant, so I knew if I built it, they would come,” he said.
His eatery has forged relationships with local growers and even in the dead of winter there are 40 fresh, local ingredients on the menu, he said. That blossoms to about 80 in the peak summer growing months.
Like Landau and Jacoby, Olchvary is an ethical vegan. All three agree that the issues surrounding meat production and animal agriculture are serious ones — and they also know that it’s much more effective to feed people than to preach at them.
“I like to simply cook good food that happens to vegan and not constantly remind customers that it’s vegan or about why to eat vegan. Politics behind food are very important but not within the restaurant setting. If you plant the seed in guest’s minds (or taste buds) that a vegetable-based meal can be as fulfilling as a meat-centered meal, then that will set them (and the world) on a better path, in my opinion,” Olchvary said.
At both eateries, the focus is on the food. In fact, Vedge aims to be at the forefront of carving out a new niche in the restaurant world — just as people head to steakhouses or seafood places, they’ll increasingly be choosing vegetable joints, Landau said.
“We spent years breaking down preconceived notions about vegetarian food,” he said. “We really had to work hard to break down those notions. I Now I shun that word ‘vegan’ as much as possible. it’s a vegetable restaurant, people come out because they’re hungry and want a good meal.”
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