According to Ashley Roberts, eating out as a vegan in Philadelphia is easy. Why? Because so many restaurants offer vegan options.
“I feel like you can go into pretty much any restaurant and they can accommodate you in some way,” says Roberts.
She describes the contrast between Philadelphia restaurants and the venues she frequents when visiting family in places like Upstate New York and Windsor, Vermont. “I would go to a local restaurant where my sister lives, and the people didn’t even know what being vegan really meant,” she says. “I feel thankful that I live in a place where it’s very common. Even if it’s not a vegan restaurant, they know what vegan is.”
Restaurants that offer exclusively vegan options are great, but Roberts and others love when “normal” restaurants offer vegan food; it makes it easy to go out with friends and family who follow omnivorous diets.
Though Roberts says not every restaurant in the city will provide the most satisfying options, it’s pretty easy to find ones that do.
Vegan food hasn’t always been this accessible in Philadelphia.
Vegan food blogger Leigh Lemeshuk of Leigh Cooks Plants says that the trend of traditional restaurants offering vegan-friendly menus became popular about three years ago. Now, she says, “Philadelphia has become a vegan mecca.”
“Restaurants feel pressured to provide an option for vegetarians and vegans,” she says. “It’s necessary at this point.”
Though the trend toward offering vegan foods may have become more popular in recent years, Tattooed Mom, a bar and restaurant that doubles as Philadelphia’s unofficial street art museum, has had vegan options since it opened 23 years ago.
“We want to bring the communities together and educate people about why you would want to choose a vegan option.”
— Jon Medlinsky, Martha co-owner
Initially, the restaurant offered two or three vegetarian/vegan-friendly options. But because much of the staff ate vegan, Tattooed Mom’s team started exploring more ways to transform meaty menu options into delicious vegan dishes that they could eat at work.
“It was just stuff that we were messing around with to make the menu interesting and available to us,” says owner Robert Perry. “Then from there someone would ask, ‘What is that? Can I get that too?’ ”
About nine years ago, Tattooed Mom committed to including a wide variety of vegan dishes on its menu. Today, over two-thirds of the options they offer are vegan-friendly.
While making food more accessible to vegans is important to the Tattooed Mom team, that isn’t their only goal. They hope to expose omnivores to plant-based cuisine by making it accessible to everyone.
Through vegan menu options and promotions like Meatless Mondays (which has been suspended during the pandemic), Tattooed Mom creates an opportunity for people to explore, says Perry, “as opposed to a purely vegan restaurant where they might be put off right away.”
Newer restaurants in Philadelphia are equally committed to providing a space for people of all diets to try out plant-based foods, too.
Jon Medlinsky, co-owner of Martha, says, “We want to bring the communities together and educate people about why you would want to choose a vegan option. We’re kind of in that transitional, middle ground for people.”
When Medlinsky and co-owners Cary Borish and Michael Parsell opened Martha just over five years ago, they were inspired by Medlinsky’s longtime friend Kevin Mudrick, who was a vegan. Mudrick helped to design the restaurant and helped the owners clearly mark vegan dishes, making food more accessible to people of all dietary restrictions.
Martha’s mission isn’t just to make food accessible to vegans but to make healthy food available to the entire local community. And in Medlinsky’s opinion, healthy and plant-based go hand in hand.
“I started working around here and getting to know the neighborhood, and one thing I noticed was that there wasn’t a lot of healthy, fresh food,” says Medlinsky. “We thought it would be a good addition to the neighborhood to offer some vegetables.”
The Martha team makes vegetables delicious using cooking techniques and ingredients that many associate with meat—like smoking and adding hot sauce. “Vegan food isn’t flavorless food,” says Medlinsky, “it just doesn’t have animal parts.”
Medlinsky and others in the restaurant business believe that veganism is “the way of the future”—it’s better for people, animals and the planet.
And great for business.
Triangle Tavern has offered vegan dishes since it opened in 2015, but when chef Mike Schwartz began offering more vegan options and specials, sales jumped “exponentially.”
Schwartz sees the future of food as being connected with the future of veganism. “Going forward, veganism is going to keep growing. I don’t see this as some kind of trend, I feel like this is a new way of American eating,” he says.
Schwartz thinks diverse and exciting vegan options—rather than plain, boring salads—are crucial to businesses succeeding in the future.
“It’s a win-win for all of us, having these options and having the accessibility,” says Schwartz.
Offering vegan dishes brings more customers to restaurants, and vegans tend to be especially loyal to the establishments they love.
“One of the great things about the vegan community,” says Perry, “is that they’re very loyal and supportive. Especially of small businesses creating vegan, plant-based things. They’re very vocal about sharing things that they enjoy.”
Thirteen-year vegan Lauren Hooks sees the buzz happening every day in the online vegan community. She says vegans get gossipy when it comes to food—if something is good, the entire community hears about it instantly.
This isn’t unique to the Philadelphia area—as throughout the country and around the world vegans have a unique passion for spreading the word about delicious plant-based foods. What is unique about Philadelphia is the quality of its vegan dishes.
“Philadelphians in general will call you out if something doesn’t taste the best,” Hooks says. She compares the food she experiences in this area to other cities she has visited, pointing out that other areas care more about putting a marketing twist on their dishes.
“Philly is no-nonsense. Everything has to actually taste good for it to work here,” she says.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Philadelphia’s vegans have also been passionate about supporting the restaurants they love to keep them around.
“We don’t want restaurants to stop offering vegan options,” says Roberts. “If people stopped going there, or they’re not supporting that food, these restaurants might decide to scale it back a little bit. And that would be really terrible.”
While customers like Roberts take power into their own hands by ordering take-out more frequently, restaurants themselves have also gotten more creative.
Triangle Tavern has used the pandemic as a time to experiment with and explore new vegan food options, especially vegan comfort foods. It’s provided an opportunity to offer new specials and menu items that customers are celebrating as their new favorites.
Martha’s staff has adapted their dishes to the habits of patrons. Many of their menu options are crafted for people who will be eating the food later, after it is delivered to their home. They also offer limited outdoor seating, and have created warm dishes that can be eaten in chilly weather.
Tattooed Mom, which has a similar approach to adapting menu items, has also branched out by offering unique pickup programs.
Once a month, the restaurant offers Crucial Barbecue, a vegetable-based barbecue platter for the whole family. They have also begun selling grab-and-go items at local stores and farmers markets.
Though restaurants have been hit hard by the pandemic, vegan eaters, chefs and restaurant owners have found unique ways to support each other—providing another example of the vegan community working together to make the world a better place.
“I feel like we’re gonna come out of this pandemic even more popular,” says Triangle Tavern’s Schwartz. “So I’m gonna keep pushing vegan food and keep having more exciting options. There’s no stop to it.”