Home » Six Pioneering Plant-Forward Restaurants in the USA

Six Pioneering Plant-Forward Restaurants in the USA

Traveling Gourmet

by Jeff Heilman
Salad at Dirt Candy CREDIT Dirt Candy

“Eat your vegetables!” never sounded or tasted so good as at Dirt Candy...

Salad at Dirt Candy (Photo by Dirt Candy)

In September 2022, I attended the two-day Plant Based World Expo North America, the official tradeshow of the Plant Based Foods Association, at New York City’s Javits Center.

Attracting 232 exhibitors from across the U.S. and abroad, including Italy, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, South Korea, and The Netherlands, and featuring keynote speakers including influential chef restaurateur Spike Mendelsohn, co-founder of the expanding East Coast PLNT Burger chain, the show affirmed the plant-based food movement’s major momentum. The Javits Center itself is plant-forward, supporting 300,000 honeybees on its 6.75-acre living roof and growing 40,000 pounds of roof-to-table produce on its one-acre rooftop farm each year.

While commanding increasing global attention and market share, the mission-driven emphasis on natural, 100 percent plant-based foods, focused on healthier living, human and animal well-being, and planetary sustainability is not new. As far back as the early 1970’s, chef-restaurateurs, often organized as collectives, were putting vegetarian and vegan food on the map.

From original pioneers to today’s champions, here are six progressive plant-forward restaurants across the U.S. that have made an art of delicious and wholesome cooking.

MOOSEWOOD RESTAURANT (Ithaca, New York)

Established in 1973 in the town of West Danby, south of Ithaca, Lavender Hill was among several gay communes in the area at that time. In contrast to the prevailing separatist ethos of the period, the group uniquely comprised gay men and lesbians living together. While only lasting about a decade, the commune’s other legacy lies in changing the way we eat.

Created in 1973 by David Hirsch and Ned Asta, who were among Lavender Hill founders, Moosewood Restaurant became one of the first proponents of the natural vegetarian cuisine we know today. In 1978, the founders, who also pioneered farm-to-table sourcing, sold the restaurant to the staff, creating the Moosewood Collective that set a template for the globally adopted “worker managed, worker owned” cooperative model.

Fifty years and 15 cookbooks (five millionplus copies sold) later, including the original industry-shifting Moosewood Cookbook, this internationally celebrated restaurant, which earned James Beard “America’s Classics” honors in 2000 as “one of the most popular regional destinations,” retains its original spirit of putting the fun into cooking wholesome food. In 2022, Moosewood reopened under new owner Danica Wilcox, a second generation “Mooser” whose chef-father was an original collective member, and her partner Nicholas Wood.

Winter 2023 menu highlights, drawing extensively from local and area producers, included starters such as hummus and a tasty New York State cheese board. Salads included Roasted Beet and Quinoa, while main dishes featured Spicy Coconut Curry, the Black Bean Burger, and Strozzapreti al Tartufo Nero, organic pasta with black truffle, shiitake and oyster mushrooms, baby spinach, sherry cream, and gremolata. Moosewood also celebrates the prodigious Finger Lakes beverage industry with local wines, craft beers, ciders, and distilled spirits. The Dewitt Building, 215 N. Cayuga St., Ithaca, NY. Tel: 607-273-9610. moosewoodrestaurant.com

BLOODROOT (Bridgeport, Connecticut)

In 1977, the preeminent feminist-lesbian Bloodroot Collective emerged from a women’s cooperative exchange hosted by Bridgeport-born Selma Miriam in her Westport, Connecticut home between 1975 and 1976. That same year, Miriam and Noel Furie, then a part-time worker, opened their legendary namesake vegetarian restaurant and feminist bookstore.

Carrot Lox at Bloodroot (Photo by Noel Furie)

Carrot Lox at Bloodroot (Photo by Noel Furie)

Named after a native Northeastern wildflower with independent yet connected blooms emblematic of Bloodroot’s framework, the restaurant was among several hundred of U.S. feminist eateries that blossomed from the 1970s to the early 1990s. Most are gone, but this landmark is still going strong as a feminist space and destination for delicious seasonal ethnic vegetarian and vegan food.

Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, and lunch on the latter, Bloodroot serves flavorsome soups such as the black bean with onion and avocado, and Cambodian kanji with basmatirice, cashews, potatoes, and coconut milk. Entrees include the baby bok choy with oyster mushrooms, brown rice and plum sauce, and the Colcannon, a hearty mix of Irish mashed potatoes with gravy, apple chutney, and parsnip chips. Saturday lunch items include the Bloodroot burger and avocado on toasted signature house-made Tangzhong rye bread.

“We get inspiration and recipes from around the world,” said Furie. “Above all, we are about serving delicious food.” Save room for the decadent desserts such as the Chocolate Devastation Cake and house made Vegan Bourbon Vanilla Ice Cream. Quench your thirst with select organic and sustainable red and white wines and various organic beers. 85 Ferris St., Bridgeport, CT. Tel: 203-576-9168. bloodroot.com

GREENS (San Francisco, California)

In 1979, the seeds of another vegetarian revolution were taking root in the Bay Area. Inspired by the food served at venerable member organization Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, located in a mountainous valley inland from the Big Sur coast, the San Francisco Zen Center opened Greens as a place for Zen students to extend their Buddhist practice.

Founding chef Deborah Madison, herself a Zen student of eighteen years, made sure that “every guest in the dining room would not miss eating meat.” Four-plus decades later, Greens upholds that commitment with ever-changing menus developed from the seasonal harvests of local farmers and the restaurant’s Green Gulch organic farm.

Madison, who also worked at legendary Chez Panisse, was highly influential in shifting national perception of “vegetarian” from a “dirty word” into mainstream adoption. Regarding as America’s foremost authority on vegetables, “The Queen of Greens” makes the case in her celebrated books Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and her memoir An Onion in My Pocket.

Led today by Executive Chef Katie Reicher, the kitchen delivers all manner of lunch, dinner, and brunch goodness, from Baby Kale & Wild Rice Salad and Roasted Carrot Salad to Fennel & Onion Pizza, Winter Vegetable Risotto, and Paprikash Stew.

Located near Fisherman’s Wharf, the harborside warehouse-size restaurant is as pretty as the plates. Twelve varieties of wood, all joined Japanese-style without nails, form the doors, tables, stairs, and curving bar, with a magnificent redwood sculpture serving as the artistic centerpiece. Grand floor-to-ceiling windows provide stunning panoramas of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands. 2 Marina Boulevard, Fort Mason, Building A. San Francisco, CA. Tel: 415-771-6222. greensrestaurant.com

DIRT CANDY (New York, New York)

Count Toronto-born Chef Amanda Cohen as one of the most refreshing, honest, and inspiring faces of the modern plant-based scene, including sustaining her team with a no-tip, living wage policy. Where others (NYC’s one-time culinary darling Eleven Madison Park, most glaringly, for one) get the category entirely wrong, Cohen continues to get it unerringly right at her acclaimed “vegetable-focused restaurant” on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

“Eat your vegetables!” never sounded or tasted so good as at Dirt Candy, which Cohen opened in 2008 following schooling at the Natural Gourmet Institute and getting her chops down at stints including Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill and NYC’s first Whole Foods. Now in her third location, Cohen won her first Michelin star in 2022, and like Mother Nature herself, “freely explores the wild world of vegetables” in her ever-evolving five-course tasting dinner menu.

Cohen opened her winter 2023 medley with the Beet Éclair, an all-in confection of beet mousse, candy cane (or candy stripe, a Southern favorite) beet balls, dehydrated grapefruit, goat cheese, and red beets with a side of beet tea. Veg out on the Onion Pizza and her taming of rutabaga (which she likens to “a big angry potato”) into delicious gnocchi with Malaysian sauce and other exotic flavors. Cohen brings it home with the Kentucky Fried Butternut Squash and the French Fries & Frosty. You say potato,

Cohen’s pastry chef Rachel Bossett dishes out her confection of potato and chocolate malt ice cream, potato brownie, and potato caramel. $95 per person, with a wine pairing for an additional $50. 86 Allen St., NY, NY. Tel: 212-228-7732. dirtcandynyc.com

PHARM TABLE (San Antonio, Texas)

Born and raised in San Antonio, Elizabeth Johnson spent countless hours in the kitchen with her restaurateur grandparents, who worked at the Tower of the Americas from the 1968 World’s Fair. “My ever-resourceful grandmother Mimi created no-bake desserts, while my mother, who was a health food advocate, never used refined sugar in her cooking,” recalled Johnson.

Gravlax Board at Pharm Table (Photo by Josh Huskin)

Gravlax Board at Pharm Table (Photo by Josh Huskin)

“Those were among the early influences in my future direction as a chef.” Much else shaped the vision for Pharm Table, her celebrated “apothecary kitchen,” including traveling the globe and earning her culinary degree in Mexico City. After spending years documenting and researching traditional ingredients and techniques of Latin American cooking together, Johnson and fellow chef Iliana de la Vega introduced the new Latin Cuisines Certificate Program at the San Antonio campus of the Culinary Institute of America. Launched in January 2012, it was first U.S. program to offer a comprehensive study of Latin American cuisine and culture.

For Johnson, who taught at CIA from 2008 to 2014, her embrace of “the ancient wisdom of a plant-forward lifestyle,” including timeless Ayurvedic tradition and National Geographic’s Blue Zones research focusing on longevity and nutrition, were instrumental in creating Pharm Table, her “synonym for culinary medicine,” in 2014. In the decade since, Johnson, named a “Food is Medicine guru” by the James Beard Foundation, and her “Pharmily” team have helped patrons to greater digestive health with locally sourced and foraged ingredients. Healing highlights on the current all-day menu at her Southtown sanctuary, which includes a lovely open patio and covered garden patio, include the Regenerative Bone Broth, Super Seed hummus, and Green Goddess Salad.

This being San Antonio, she also interprets the classic Mexican street food antojito with tacos filled with za’atar crusted fish, grass fed beef short rib, and lion’s mane mushroom, known for its medicinal properties. The botanical cocktails and natural wines are also just what the doctor ordered. 611 S Presa St Suite 106. San Antonio, TX. Tel: 210-802-1860. pharmtable.com

CROSSROADS KITCHEN (Calabasas, Los Angeles & Las Vegas)

Another National Gourmet Institute graduate, Israel-born Chef Tal Ronnen, has gained the national spotlight in unique ways, including catering Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi’s original wedding. In 2008, he prepared the food for Oprah Winfrey’s 21-day dietary detox, which she called her “baptism in Vegan Land.” A decade ago, around the time he was collaborating with the chef teams at Wynn-Encore on developing the luxury operator’s comprehensive vegan dining program, he opened Crossroads Kitchen in West Hollywood. In vegan-rich Los Angeles, he set a new standard for flavorsome vegan fare with Mediterranean flair.

From lunch to late-night, recover from your WeHo excesses with sophisticated plates from Executive Chef Scot Jones at Ronnen’s elegant Melrose Avenue flagship. Creative starters include the Impossible Cigars, pastry “cigars” filled with Impossible meat served in a cigar box with spicy almond milk yogurt dip, and refreshening Poached Pear & Whipped Feta. The prize-winner for me is the vegan interpretation of classic Spaghetti Carbonara, topped with a runny “egg” yolk made from yellow tomatoes. Other tasty house-made pastas include the Lasagna Bolognese, made with impossible meat and bechamel sauce, and the Porcini and Cauliflower Ravioli with herb butter.

Learn more about Ronnen and Jones’ innovative techniques in their 2015 New York Times bestseller The Conscious Cook and Crossroads: Extraordinary Recipes from the Restaurant That Is Reinventing Vegan Cuisine.

Ronnen has since expanded to affluent Calabasas, California and Las Vegas, Nevada inside Resorts World Las Vegas. crossroadskitchen.com


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