The Good News in the Infuriating New Reality: There Are Now Super-Douchey Vegan Restaurants

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In yesterday's post, to mark my fifth anniversary as a vegan, I described how my wife and I planned our wedding in June, with a completely vegan menu that was delicious and pleasing to our non-vegan loved ones.  The broader message of the post was to refute the argument that some events are too "traditional" to be adapted for ethical veganism.  (Take note re Thanksgiving and Christmas/holiday dinners.)  As promised, this follow-up post is dedicated to describing our recent travels, specifically being vegan travelers in a non-vegan tourist universe.

Rather than focusing exclusively on our honeymoon, I will refer also to the rather extensive amount of traveling that I have done in North America in the past year.  I will not bore readers with a city-by-city account of vegan dining, but for the record, I am drawing from recent experiences in the following cities: New York, Halifax, San Francisco, New Orleans, Rochester (NY), Boston, Toledo (OH), Lexington and Louisville (KY), and Vienna (Austria), as well as our honeymoon cities of London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Berlin, and Stockholm.

The most important tool for any vegan is the website, which provides a list of vegan, vegetarian, veg-friendly, and health food stores, for any location that the user specifies.  The HappyCow app is excellent (and worth the $3 fee), although the information on the website is sometimes dated.  Using Google Maps or the iPhone maps app is a VERY distant second-best choice.

In many cities, HappyCow ends up mostly providing a list of Indian and Thai restaurants, the menus of which naturally include plentiful vegan options.  Even the biggest cities (except New York, which is really in a category of its own) still typically have only two or three restaurants that identify as vegan.  Usually, those are actually places that are vegan-friendly rather than vegan, which is annoying, but at least it usually means that it is possible to tell the server that you are vegan, without getting a blank (or hostile) stare.  Again, NYC is miles ahead of everyone else.  (Try any of the three branches of Blossom, and you'll never eat non-vegan again.)

In each of the capitals that we visited (except, surprisingly, London), we found at least one good restaurant for brunch/lunch that was so good that we returned there each morning.  Even Dublin, which was otherwise an extreme disappointment as a tourist destination, had a restaurant called Cornucopia that was fantastic.  Dinner choices in the various cities were uneven, ranging from vegan restaurants, to places that had one or two vegan choices on the menu, to being stuck with the salad-and-fries default.  We ate a LOT of fries -- er, chips -- in London.

To get beyond the travelogue, however, the most interesting thing about our travels for the past year is captured in the title of this post.  That is, veganism has now become common enough in the "advanced countries" that the market has segmented.  Whereas vegans have, until recently, typically had to be content to settle for any restaurant at all that served vegan food, the market over the past few years has split into two parts: (1) the older segment, including restaurants often run by new-agey types, and (2) the newer segment, consisting of expensive restaurants run by condescending jerks.  Allow me to explain.

For most of the five years that I have been a vegan (and for the six years before that, when I was a vegetarian), restaurants that explicitly did not serve meat were a predictable lot.  The food was usually wonderful, but the decor was old and tacky (or simply "eclectic," meaning a collection of non-matching tables and chairs), with uneven service and a general feeling that it was important for patrons to be forgiving of the shortcomings.  Even if the restauranteurs did not have graying ponytails, the vibe was very reminiscent of the the stereotypes that non-vegans have of vegans.  Nice people, but usually some type of nonconformist (beyond the veganism).

That is not to say that those restaurants are unpleasant.  Quite the contrary.  For example, our go-to breakfast/brunch place in Stockholm was a small shop that served heavenly food, especially a daily soup special that was a meal in itself.  What made it obvious that this is a Type I vegan place, however, was that the young woman serving us was a Spaniard who had moved to Sweden to get a degree in yoga, during which time she was volunteering to staff the small restaurant (which had only four tables).  You get the idea.  I love such places, but they really are of a type.

Type II vegan restaurants, by contrast, are the newer, high-end places that go out of their way to be pricey, exclusive, and snotty.  One place in San Francisco captured this ethos perfectly, with a maitre d' who could have come out of any snobby French restaurant in any movie ever made.  He refused to make eye contact, he made it clear that he was doing the customers a favor by even paying attention to them (sort of), and he couldn't be bothered to tell people where they were on the long waiting list.  Notably, this is NOT the superior attitude that some people ascribe to vegans, but the douchey attitude of high-end service workers.  We saw a bit of this in restaurants in Edinburgh and Berlin, too, but the one in SF was really in a class by itself.

This market segmentation is good news, in that it reflects the growth of the market, as reflected in the particular demographics of the vegan restaurant clientele.  At this point, vegans are typically not people who would otherwise be eating at middle-brow places like TGI Friday's.  There are no typical vegans, of course, but my wife and I are representative of the current growth market for this restaurant segment: middle-aged professionals with high food quality expectations, and a willingness to pay somewhat higher prices for an excellent vegan meal.  We do not eat out at high-end restaurants very often, but we will go to high-end vegan places every now and then.  And the good news is that there are now enough of us, at least in the major cities, for a few entrepreneurs to make a decent living by running snobby, high-end vegan restaurants.

These typologies, of course, miss a lot of variation (especially across countries).  There was a simple lunch counter in Edinburgh, The Potato Shop, that served (among other things) vegan haggis -- which was, especially given its non-vegan alternative, surprisingly delicious.  There was a family-run bar in Berlin, called Vaust, that had a full vegan menu, along with two home-brewed beers on tap that stood up to the highest-end craft brews.  Amazingly, Louisville (Kentucky!!) has a brewpub with multiple vegan options, including seitan barbecue "wings" that are simply heavenly.  The middle of the market, in other words, is not completely empty.

The emergence of the insufferably snotty vegan restaurant, however, is a very positive development.  It means that the high-disposable-income professional crowd has discovered veganism in sufficient numbers to make it possible for pretentious poseurs to open restaurants just for us!  (How bizarre is it that this is good news?  Yet it is.)  Even if current trends to do not pick up speed -- although they surely will -- the high end of the market will continue to fill in, and the middle of the market will begin to develop.  It is a good time to be a vegan, and it is only getting better.