In case you haven’t noticed, vegan food is having a moment. Again.
As of late, it seems like every other restaurant opening in the East Bay has a menu touting plant-based fare, from vegan sushi to Italian food. The meat-free movement last had its heyday in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, with restaurants like Millennium and now-closed Encuentro serving high-end vegetarian plates. The trend retreated somewhat until recently. So, what gives?
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Marie Chia of Oakland pop-up S+M Vegan, which specializes in meat-free Singaporean-inflected cuisine. Chia points to a variety of things that have led to the vegan “resurgence,” including a heightened awareness of sustainability and environmentalism and access to an overwhelming amount of information online. “We are seeing this time where all these movements and trends are growing and have trickled down into mainstream,” she said.
Vahid Boyd of Grandeur, an Oakland-based joint specializing in halal, vegan and gluten-free burgers, couldn’t agree more.
“[Vegan food] is not new at all,” Boyd said. “The concept has always been there but it’s trendy now because it has become beautiful in the public imagination.” And by beautiful, Boyd means that veganism is “good for the planet, it looks good, it has huge health benefits, people are more educated about it, there are more options and it’s more widely available.” All of which, he said, accounts for this newfound curiosity and renewed interest in vegan cuisine, especially among Millennials and Gen Xers.
“Vegan food is not new at all. The concept has always been there but it’s trendy now because it has become beautiful in the public imagination.” — Vahid Boyd, Grandeur
Members of these generations, notably Millennials, are “driving the worldwide shift away from meat,” according to Forbes, and their interest in veganism has spread across social platforms and online forums.
“This growing movement that the Gen Xers and Millennials have produced started when they really took a look as to where food comes from,” said Shane Stanbridge, Chia’s partner at S+M Vegan. “You can’t look that far into the supply chain and not freak out a bit. That’s why I think a lot of people are exploring veganism, to take hold of their own production of food and to support small-scale producers.”
Plus, it doesn’t hurt that renowned omnivorous chefs all over the world are taking stock of the current situation and making plant-based cuisine that’s drool-worthy.
“You have Michelin-rated chefs like René Redzepi making vegetables cool and interesting,” Chia said, with Stanbridge adding chef Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions (who will open a completely vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco sometime later this year) and Jeremy Fox of Napa’s now-closed Ubuntu to the list. “They’re proving that vegetarian food can be excellent.”
“When I see top-tier omni[vorous] chefs opening a vegetarian or vegan restaurant, they are stepping back and trying to make stuff that is responsible,” Stanbridge said. “We are, as chefs, responsible for making things acceptable — making vegan food more acceptable. I see chefs trying to change and make a difference in how we approach food and how we feed people, because ultimately that is our responsibility as chefs.”
For Boyd, who offers a menu meant to please carnivores and herbivores alike at his Grand Avenue storefront, he feels the responsibility lies not only in educating diners on the benefits of eating a vegan diet, but also creating a space for dialogue.
“We are, as chefs, responsible for making things acceptable — making vegan food more acceptable.” – Shane Stanbridge, S+M Vegan
“I want to service as many people as possible. It’s about cultivating other ideas for a healthy lifestyle, and a way to bring people with different dietary restrictions together,” he said of his concept at Grandeur. And even though vegan options only comprise roughly 30% of Grandeur’s menu, Boyd’s meat-free twist on classic comfort foods — burgers and hot dogs made with products from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat — are helping push vegan cuisine to the forefront.
The idea of offering vegan alternatives to familiar foods was especially important to local-rap legend Toriano Gordon, who opened Vegan Mob, which serves vegan barbecue and soul food dishes, in October 2019. Gordon founded Vegan Mob to get more people to cut meat and dairy out of their diets.
“My mission is to make [vegan food] an easy transition,” he said. “I don’t want to appeal to only vegans. I want to appeal to everyone.”
As a black chef, Gordon said he wants to focus on popular comfort fare like barbecue and soul food because cooking recognizable foods makes trying plant-based dishes more approachable for people in communities that aren’t typically vegan.
“I wanted to do soul food and barbecue because that’s my culture,” Gordon said. “I don’t see a lot of POC eating in vegan restaurants and I think that’s simply because they’re not informed. You can’t blame people for not wanting to break with tradition, but they have to be guided and pulled. Having a place for people to go eat familiar things makes it easier.”
Although veganism has often been tied to mostly white subcultures — most notably, hippies and punk activists — that’s not to say vegan food has never had a diverse heritage or background. Vegan communities of color have long been making food, but until recently, have not had much visibility in the mainstream.
“As veganism grows, online communities grow too,” Chia said. “You see more and more forums that are specific to a group: black vegans, Asian vegans, Latinx vegans, queer vegans. These communities are important. As a member of the East Asian community, I felt so isolated when I was thinking of going vegan. But then I found this vibrant community online. Being able to speak with groups and communicate in chats has been huge in visibility and growing veganism further.”
And it helps to have an advocate, too. Both Chia and Stanbridge credit greater visibility of multi-cultural cuisine to San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic Soliel Ho, who hailed S+M Vegan’s shaobing sandwich “the best sandwich in the Bay Area.”
“I don’t see a lot of POC eating in vegan restaurants and I think that’s simply because they’re not informed… Having a place for people to go eat familiar things makes it easier.” – Toriano Gordon, Vegan Mob
“Her influence has already been pretty huge just in the way she’s given vegan food and POC-, queer-, trans-owned restaurants a chance. She’s brought these places to the attention of the [larger Bay Area] community, pulling these restaurants to the forefront,” Chia said.
After Ho’s review ran, the pop-up saw huge lines at its standing gig at Eli’s Mile High Club, often selling out of food. Their rise in popularity has led Chia and Stanbridge to expand their business. They’ll open a brick-and-mortar restaurant called Lion Dance Café in Oakland’s Dimond district in late spring or early summer.
Though there is no telling when, or if, the huge influx of plant-based eateries to the East Bay (which Gordon claims is “hella good out here!”) will level off at some point, or if the current trend will fall back once again to a fringe movement, each chef is working towards a more sustainably edible future through the continued efforts of education, accessibility and representation. But the general consensus from those in the industry is that the trend has nowhere to go but up.
“I think we are going to see a lot more fine-dining or elevated vegan food in the coming year,” Stanbridge said. “I love vegan food that’s easy, like burgers and barbecue, but if you look at the food world at large, new techniques that come from high-end restaurants are what stick and make top-down change.”
Some East Bay vegan hotspots to try
THE BUTCHER’S SON How can you have a delicatessen without the deli meat and cheese? Well, the brother-sister team at The Butcher’s Son figured it out and they’re offering the familiar flavors of a chicken Parm or a Reuben with some plant-based edge. The Butcher’s Son, 1954 University Ave. (near Milvia Street), Berkeley
ETERNAL Josh Levine, owner of 14-year-old Oakland vegan donut shop-café Donut Farm opened Eternal last year in Jack London Square, where he moved the savory part of his menu. Eternal is an all-vegan café serving breakfast, lunch and brunch dishes, as well as donuts, while Donut Farm now only offers its namesake specialty. Eternal, 247 Fourth St. (at Alice Street), Oakland; Donut Farm, 6037 San Pablo Ave. (near 61st Street), Oakland
GAY4U From the chef behind Hella Vegan Eats, the latest iteration of the all-vegan concept pops up Friday through Monday, including weekend brunch, in Oakland’s Garden House. Diners can expect tantalizing comfort food like chicken and waffles and vegan mac. Gay4U, at Garden House, 380 15th St. (at Franklin Street), Oakland
GRANDEUR Chef-owner Vahid Boyd opened this gluten-free, halal, vegan restaurant in June 2019 in the hopes of bringing people with multiple dietary restrictions together over a great plate of food. And while this spot isn’t 100% vegan, all animal products are humanely raised and ethically sourced. Grandeur, 366 B Grand Ave. (near Perkins Street), Oakland
MALIBU’S BURGERS This food truck recently debuted its vegan burgers, sides and shakes (yes, shakes!) for the East Bay crowds. Pro tip: make your tots or fries “hella hella” style for potato goodness topped in caramelized onions, cheese and Mama’s Spread (oh, saucy). Malibu’s Burgers, check Instagram for next location; Oakland
S+M VEGAN Dishing up Singaporean creations that are almost too pretty to eat, the duo behind S+M Vegan utilize fresh, seasonal and local produce for their eclectic pop-up menu. And be sure to stay tuned for the debut of their first brick-and-mortar Lion Dance Café later this year. S+M Vegan, check website for next events; Oakland
SOULEY VEGAN Chef Tamearra Dyson has been serving up authentic Louisiana-creole flavors sans-meat since 2006. Soak in the homey-diner vibe over a plate of Dyson’s okra gumbo or shrimp po-boy. Souley Vegan, 301 Broadway (at Third Street), Oakland
TIMELESS COFFEE Slated as the all-vegan coffee roaster, bakery and chocolatier, Timeless’ delectable baked goods and rotating breakfast and lunch menus make it easy to dip your toe into the vegan waters. And you’ll definitely want to with such dishes as the tofu scramble breakfast burrito or a buffalo chicken pizza. Timeless Coffee, 2965 College Ave. (Near Ashby Avenue), Berkeley; 4252 Piedmont Ave. (at Glenwood Avenue), Oakland
VEGAN MOB Offering vegetarian and vegan versions of classic soul food and barbecue flavors, Vegan Mob knows how to dish up plant-based fare with style. Go big with the Mob Plate that’s packed with your choice of brisket, links, ribs or shrimp and piled high with three sides like vegan mac, coleslaw or collards. Vegan Mob, 500 Lake Park Ave. (between Walker and Rand avenues), Oakland