On History

Or, what can we learn from New York City's shuttered vegan restaurants?

I originally wrote this piece in early 2020, before the pandemic, for a website that no longer exists. Understandably, they didn’t want to run it while the restaurant industry was in turmoil, but I think it fits with the themes I’ve been covering lately—around omnivore expectations, lack of knowledge around vegan and vegetarian cuisine, and the interweaving of political and gastronomic meaning—so I’m running it here now. Things have certainly changed since I filed my first draft. Expect an expanded update in my book!

No one wants to hear a bridge and tunnel kid bemoan the inevitable changes to New York City, especially not a vegan one. But the changes in vegetable dining in the last decade have been a shock to the system, a total reconfiguration of the vegan cuisine order. Where would I go now for a Peanut Butter Bomb shipped in from Vegan Treats in Pennsylvania to follow up a bean-based chili and cornbread, as I did at Teany before going to see a band at Bowery Ballroom in the mid-’00s (nowhere, but I could have something much tastier at Superiority Burger)? Could I get a non-dairy banana split after getting my nose pierced on Second Avenue (yes, but at the sleek Van Leeuwen chain instead of hole-in-the-wall Lula’s Sweet Apothecary)?

From fast food to ice cream to health-food institutions, it seems as though an entire cultural shift has taken place, and it’s not just high rent that’s to blame (though that never helps). The cause, counterintuitively, seems to be the increasing popularity of vegetables and faux-meat fast-food burger facsimiles. An entire era of vegan food in the city, wiped out by its own relevance. 

The list of dead restaurants runs long, and someone’s favorite is always bound to be left off. But to name the major players, the ones who received mainstream food blog obituaries: Kate’s Joint, the vegetarian diner on the corner of Avenue B and East 4th Street shut down in 2012, then Williamsburg’s Foodswings followed in 2014, and raw joint Pure Food and Wine and Moby-owned Teany closed up in 2015. Blythe Anne’s Ice Cream Shop, the second incarnation of Lula’s Sweet Apothecary, was cleared out in 2016. In 2017, it was Angelica Kitchen’s turn, and they served their final macrobiotic sushi roll and carob tart. At the end of 2019, when Candle 79 blew out its lights and the Jivamuktea Café shuttered, it seemed as though all the vegan restaurants that defined New York’s meatless dining scene had said goodbye, yet still there were more to go: At the end of March, food truck and The Pennsy stall Cinnamon Snail served its last raspberry blackout doughnut and maple mustard tempeh sandwich. 

Angelica Kitchen had been around since 1976; the others had shorter but no less influential runs. Foodswings opened in 2003, serving tofu buffalo wings, seitan gyros, and other staples that were heavy on the classic vegan proteins. That’s the kind of food that its first owner, Freedom Tripodi, a Bronx native who gave up animal products as a teenager, missed. He was frustrated with what was available at the time, spots that focused mainly on health food, macrobiotics, and more dainty presentations rather than analogues of what omnivores were accustomed to eating at cheap prices.

What he sees now at current vegan restaurants in New York is again, a lack of focus on proteins, which to him is a detriment. But the ethos of Foodswings remains available at Champs Diner in Bushwick, which opened in 2010 and focuses on seitan and processed cheese products. The owners added the photograph-ready Hartbreakers in 2018, noting the shifting cultural tone, and it has a decidedly more updated vibe where everything but the bread and sliced cheese is made in house. The Impossible and Beyond Burgers make headlines for their fast-food and retail success, so now omnivores can get something meat-like just about anywhere, but the signature veggie burger made of beans and grains continues to be the vegan preference. Tripodi’s Foodswings menu approach feels nostalgic, as much a product of its time as Angelica’s or Candle 79’s gingered brown rice or Pure Food and Wine’s raw lasagna. These days in vegan cuisine, neither health nor indulgence reign, but some medium between the two focused on quality sourcing and an inclusive dietary approach, like Bed-Stuy-based Toad Style’s soy-free kitchen where the tofu is made with chickpea flour, Burmese style.

Chef Amanda Cohen, who’s been running Dirt Candy since 2008 and opened the more casual Lekka Burger this year, could be considered responsible for the shift toward vegetables being taken more seriously at both omnivorous and vegan restaurants. She graduated from the Natural Gourmet Institute in the late ’90s, eventually working at Teany, opening the kitchen of Pure Food and Wine, and going on to Heirloom, a vegetarian and raw restaurant where every dish was made three ways (vegan, vegetarian, and raw).

“I wanted to open my own restaurant because, while I hadn’t worked at every restaurant in the city, they were all on the same level,” she says. Kitchens she had wanted to work in, like Kate’s Joint and Chinese vegetarian places, didn’t give her any opportunities. “I knew enough about the kitchens at the time that I didn't really feel like a lot of the vegetarian kitchens were putting out the most exciting food. I thought there was a whole other world out there. And I worked in the kitchen in the city for a number of years and I could work under some great chefs and some really crappy chefs, but I definitely started to develop my own style,” she says.

At that point, she’d been cooking professionally for 15 years but saw no innovation in vegetarian cooking while traditional restaurants were changing so much. The only reason, she saw, for these places getting new customers was that there was turnover in people trying out vegetarian or vegan diets, not omnivores coming in because they were excited about the food.

As plant-based and vegan dining has gone mainstream, though, the loss of the food as countercultural, alternative, and radical has also been lost—which is a good thing when it comes to getting people to eat more plants, but feels like the erasure of how deeply rooted this kind of eating has long been in an approach to life that rejects not just the Standard American Diet of meat and potatoes but the Standard American Perspective that privileges individualism over community. That was the ethos that intrigued me, the bridge and tunnel kid, and got me excited to eat bean-based chili. Tripodi of Foodswings notes that when they opened, they weren’t focused just on promoting animal rights, but on making sure they were part of the community in Williamsburg as it rapidly gentrified. Jivamuktea didn’t let its patrons forget that their vegan sandwich was part of curbing the suffering of all beings. 

In 2020 [Editor’s note: and 2021], there are still complaints about the “preachy vegan” despite fast-food appeals to meatless diets. That cliché may have been borne out of these vegan restaurants of yore, now gone, replaced by vegetable-forward dining and Instagram-friendly new spaces. What we’ve gained in better seasoned food, less reliance on brown rice, and pleas for animal rights, we’ve lost in the feeling of doing something against the grain—even if that grain is now heirloom farro. I’ll happily eat my non-dairy Van Leeuwen banana split in the East Village of today, but I’ll be thinking of the not so distant past, when I would have to go to Lula’s Sweet Apothecary’s, when even though vegetables were everywhere, finding veganism felt like a miracle. When it felt cool.

Throughout October, Friday conversations will be available publicly thanks to Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer's Encyclopedia, out 10/12 from Workman Publishing. Purchase this encyclopedia of incredible ingredients, food adventures, and edible wonders here.

This Friday’s interview will feature Bryan Ford, author of New World Sourdough, to discuss his new projects, next book covering the breads of Latin America, and the effects of climate change on grains.

I was on an episode of the podcast “The War on Cars,” to discuss how lab meat is the electric car of the food world.

Bohumil Hrabal’s The Gentle Barbarian.

Making Sunday feasts for friends the last two weeks, which is very fun and gives me a way to calm down if I also sweat my ass off deep-frying in two pans at the same time. I threw a handful of dill into the carrot top pesto from Bryant Terry’s Vegetable Kingdom—so good. Above is a layered tropical panna cotta set with agar. Get the base recipe for my vegan panna cotta in the next issue of Lux, a very good socialist feminist magazine!