What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago this week, Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby were still relatively unknown niche players in the wider Philadelphia dining scene when they moved Horizons Cafe, a vegan destination known for grilled seitan "wings" in a far-flung suburban strip mall, to an ambitious new location in Center City. The word vegan - and its animal-free promise of Vegenaise and copious fake meats - still struck fear in the hearts of many mainstream diners.
When the two moved to their elegant new space at Vedge five years later and began focusing more on redefining pure vegetable cookery, the zeitgeist had begun to change. The farm-to-table movement put local produce on a pedestal in restaurants of all genres. Juice bars and pickle culture thrived. And as the especially inventive cooking at Vedge continues to win national notice, a reservation there has become among the most coveted seats in Philadelphia.
Radishes are sexy!
Most important, admirers and fierce competitors alike have sprouted like wheatgrass and produced a stunning variety of vegan options, from fast-food "chick'n" sandwiches to seitan "pepperoni" pizza, Brussels sprout tacos, take-out markets selling vegan babkas, cocktail bars stocked with vegan-safe spirits, and cafes where cappuccinos come topped with steamed almond milk. Add in a large contingent of mainstream restaurants now carving out portions of their menus for animal-free cooking (parsnip-carrot Wellington, anyone?), and one can argue this region is becoming Vegandelphia, and the omnivores are just nibbling in it.
Many more projects are still to come (see Sunday's review of Bar Bombón). But here are several established vegan-friendly destinations you should know:
1221 Locust St., 215-320-7500; vedgerestaurant.com
The owners of Philly's vegan crown jewel prefer to call it a "vegetable restaurant." But no matter how you classify Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby's open-kitchen perch in this gorgeous historic manse revamped with modern style, Vedge is the kind of place that has defied stereotypes to become one of the region's best all-around dining destinations. The cuisine continues to evolve, with small plates that have largely left behind Landau's tofu roots in favor of refined examples of pure veg-craft, from extraordinary riffs on radishes and pastrami-spiced carrots to addictive "rutabaga fondue," as well as Jacoby's stunning vegan desserts (cedar and popcorn ice cream!). With polished service and a serious focus on cocktails and natural wines, Vedge gets better with every visit.
126 S. 19th St., 215-278-7943; vstreetfood.com
Vedge fans get a more casual, globe-trotting taste of the owners' culinary magic at this affordable Rittenhouse Square ode to international street foods. From Hungarian langos fritters to Latin-inspired carrot asado, borders melt away on these small plates, thanks to the chefs' wide-ranging command of bold ethnic flavors. The long three-room space is an intimate and cozy haven in which to graze, watch chefs work the grill at the back kitchen counter, or sip an excellent and unusual cocktail (mixed with mustard? Turkish coffee?) at the airy front bar while 19th Street strolls by.
Sprig & Vine
450 Union Square Dr., New Hope, 215-693-1427; sprigandvine.com
Former Horizons chef de cuisine Ross Olchvary has brought one the region's most interesting vegan kitchens to a Bucks County strip mall BYOB just beyond New Hope's main drag. The menu relies on local ingredients and international ideas for more traditional entree-size plates that feel fresh and inventive. Recent highlights include satay-glazed Brussels sprouts, green onion pancakes stuffed with maitakes, and crisply fried kabocha squash soba noodles in nori-miso butter.
Charlie was a sinner
131 S. 13th St., 267-758-5372; charliewasasinner.com
If you didn't know vegan cocktails were a thing, you will after a night of "plant-based" imbibing and nibbling at this sultry lounge revamp of a seedy old strip bar on 13th Street, reimagined with literary pretension by HipCityVeg owner Nicole Marquis. The kitchen has undergone several chef changes since my last visit, but the small-plate menu has retained a number of signature hits that made it one of the more intriguing vegan efforts in Philly, from polenta with Nebrodini mushrooms to smoked cauliflower and bucatini with "meatballs."
127 S. 18th St., 215-278-7605; and 214 S. 40th St.; 267-244-4342 hipcityveg.com
Nicole Marquis' quick-serve hits tap Philadelphians' clear desire for vegan fast food with the Zippy burger (a Gardein patty topped with smoked tempeh), crispy "chick'n" sandwich glazed with ranch dressing, and (my fave) the curried tofu wrap. The focus on fake meats isn't for everyone, and the tiny Rittenhouse location is perpetually jammed. Two more locations (including one in D.C.) are planned for the near future.
507 S. Sixth St., 215-625-6660; blackbirdpizzeria.com
This pizzeria is one of the sustenance pillars of Vegandelphia, but with all the great tomato pies in Philly (from Capofitto to Tacconelli's), I simply can't get past the artificial flavor of the lactose-free Daiya cheese on most of the pizzas here. The outstanding housemade seitan, however, which customers buy in bulk (5 pounds for $29), is another story. Shaved thin and griddled with peppers, it anchors the best vegan cheesesteak in the city - especially when Blackbird's Whiz-like vegan sauce is slathered with some restraint on that crispy Metropolitan Bakery roll.
Miss Rachel's Pantry
1938 S. Chadwick St., 215-798-0053; missrachelspantry.com
Set incongruously amid auto body shop row in Deep South Philly, this ultra-charming market-cafe from Rachel Klein hosts elaborate fixed-price Saturday-night suppers at its country table and serves veganized comforts a la carte Friday through Sunday, including chocolate babka, matzo balls, and sticky buns. A variety of housemade "cheeses" are intriguing, especially wedges of "muenster" that are best melted into grilled cheese.
Su Xing House
1508 Sansom St., 215-564-1419; suxinghouse.com
Chinatown has long had meat-free restaurants that cater to the mock duck crowd, but I often find the cooking to be too heavily deep-fried and drowned in thick sauce. This vegan Chinese near Rittenhouse has a slightly lighter, fresher touch, with good dishes built around black mushrooms, spiral seaweed, bean curd, and flavorful sauces. The crispy "As You Wish" roll is hard to resist.
P.S. & Co.
1706 Locust St., 215-985-1706; puresweets.com
The vegan movement dovetails with the "food is thy medicine" health-food movement at Andrea Kyan's sleekly designed (and somewhat pricey) juice bar, gluten-free sweet shop, and cafe near Rittenhouse Square. There are a lot of raw greens involved here, and I've loved few of the savory items I've sampled. A richly flavored fish-free version of Burmese mohinga soup, though, was a special I'd return for.
Kung Fu Hoagies
Lots of food trucks serve good options for the vegan crowd (the soon-to-be-restaurant Foo Truck's Thai-curried quinoa burrito is a favorite), but the Kung Fu Hoagie cart, a regular in Clark Park, is dedicated to sandwiches that offer inventive vegan twists on banh mi (veggie pork, tofu meatballs), BBQ skewers, spicy ramen, and vegan jerky. Just pulled off the road for the cold season. But follow its whereabouts on Twitter.
1429 Wolf St., 215-964-3232; vegancommissary.com
Longtime vegan entrepreneur Steven Laurence has moved and morphed his weekend vegan bruncher on South 11th Street to a prepared foods market on Wolf Street with Saturday-only hours. Chef Damian Patterson Jr.'s specialties include crispy nuggets of "mac-and-peas," poached avocado hollandaise, and a recent gnocchi with mushrooms sauced in a rich "beurre blanc" enriched with wine and pureed leeks.
1515 S. Fourth St., 215-839-3333; grindcorehouse.com
You have to appreciate the irony of a former butcher shop in Pennsport that's been transformed into a vegan coffee shop where the lattes come topped with the nondairy foam of your choice and the tattooed regulars nibble sandwiches stuffed with faux-meat cold cuts named after radical philosophers. The Counter Culture coffee is worth the stop. But so is the hot chocolate touched with curry and topped with convincing vegan marshmallows.
18 S. 20th St., 215-751-0477; mamasvegetarian.com
The pursuit of kosher-friendly cuisine (rather than veganism) is the prime motivation behind this casual Israeli quick-serve. It just happens that the city's best falafel (complete with fresh housemade pitas and a killer toppings bar) is also animal-product-free. (All items are vegan with the exception of latkes and the sabich.)
1625 Sansom St., 215-867-8181; dizengoffphilly.com
As with Mama's falafel, the pursuit of divine hummus here comes from a love of Israeli culture rather than adherence to dietary guidelines. But four out of the five daily-changing hummus toppings usually fill the vegan bill, and whether they're made from kidney beans, beets, limas, braised bitter greens, or crispy fried chickpeas, chef Emily Seaman's creations are reliably some of the best vegetable cooking at any given moment in Philly. Meat-lovers will usually find one option.
937 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-389-6694; www.royaltavern.com
The Royal may be one of the city's gastropub pioneers, known for a burger topped with bacon and long hots and for a meat loaf sandwich. But chef Mark McKinney has also been one of the city's pioneers of vegan inclusivity, creating a smoked tempeh club and mushroomy vegan cheesesteak that are equal draws. Similar efforts in the company's other pubs (seitan burritos at Cantina Los Caballitos, vegan roast beef at Triangle Tavern) have also been notable.
Cresheim Valley Grain Exchange
7152 Germantown Ave., 267-766-2502; grainexchangephilly.com
This whiskey-centric Mount Airy restaurant-bar specializes in cast-iron comforts laced with cheese and bacon. But the menu's flip side offers vegetarian and vegan renditions of almost every item. The mock-meat efforts are sometimes too heavy (chicken fried seitan), but the red quinoa with roasted acorn squash is one of my favorite salads anywhere.
308 E. Girard Ave.; stock-philly.squarespace.com
This Fishtown soup counter began in 2014 with a pursuit of the most natural beef pho possible. But it was the vegan mushroom pho soup that really delivered the depth and umami I crave.
19 W. Girard Ave., 267-324-3530; sanchopistolas.com
The taco is a ready canvas for vegan cooking, from the seitan tacos at Loco Pez to the more extensive menu at the new Bar Bombón. But the Brussels sprout taco with caramelized shallot puree is so popular the cooks peel 10 pounds of leaves one by one each day. The roastiness of those deep-fried leaves wrapped inside fresh tortillas is worth it. Note: Must order without the honey vinaigrette to be vegan.
Other favorite vegan dishes . . .
In Chinatown, long a destination for vegetarian cooking, I love the mock Shanghai-style duck and tofu skin noodles with edamame at Dim Sum Garden (1020 Race St.), the crispy Buddha Roll at Lee How Fook (219 N. 11th St.), the spicy lentil fritters and tea leaf salad at Rangoon (112 N. Ninth St.).
The vegan Wellington at Coeur (824 S. Eighth St.) wraps layers of parsnip, carrot, and pureed mushroom in crisp pastry glazed with fennel gravy.
There are plenty of great tofu banh mi (request no mayonnaise for vegan), but the one at Lee's Café (522 Washington Ave.) is my current favorite.
The tahini-bound quinoa cake with chickpea fritters and miso-glazed eggplant was a highlight on the tasting menu a year ago at Marigold Kitchen (501 S. 45th St.)
South Indian vegetarian cooking is a natural fit for vegans. My favorite dosas can be found at Devi (151 W. Lincoln Highway, Exton) and Bangles (889 E. Lancaster Ave, Downingtown).