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Photograph: Time Out

Why London’s vegetarians should resist the veganisation of their food

We’ve just about had enough of all this fake cheese now

Ella Doyle
Written by
Ella Doyle

Once upon a time, vegetarians had one option at London restaurants: mushroom risotto. Mostly fine, sometimes nice. But that was before the veggie movement took off in the early noughties and people went wild for Linda McCartney sausages. We entered into an almost utopian veggie existence, full of meat-free high-street delicacies and sweet potatoes and labneh and ravioli tossed through butter. 

But then came veganism. And by 2020, the plant-based diet had gone from being a relatively niche lifestyle choice to a full-blown mainstream food trend. Suddenly, you couldn’t cross the street without getting pelted by seitan chicken wings, Quorn nuggets and vegan Whoppers. And the veggie option? Stripped of dairy and added to the mob. 

In other words, we’ve gone back to the mushroom risotto era once again. In 2022, for veggies, it’s often the vegan option or the door. But veggie numbers still trump vegans – between 5 and 7 percent of the UK are veggie, but only 2 to 3 percent vegan – and London’s got the most of both. So where, I hear you cry, are all the vegetarian restaurants? Where is all the cheese?

Boom. Vegans

Well, the short answer is they went vegan. For instance, 1980s veggie pioneer Mildreds has gone fully vegan across its six branches. Vegetarian restaurant chain The Gate is now proudly plant-based. Old-school veggie joints Cranks and Food for Thought were both done for by the end of the noughties. 

And alongside? The roaring success of newbies Adesse and Tofu Vegan, and brand spanking new plant-based restaurants-a-plenty in their wake. How did this happen to our city? And, more importantly, are we ever getting our beloved cheese back?

‘Veganism has kind of leapfrogged over vegetarianism,’ says Peter Cox, who was CEO of the Vegetarian Society back in the ’90s. ‘It’s the general commercial impetus. And I think vegetarian restaurants have found it quite hard to keep up with consumer expectations.’ (Peter is now vegan, by the way.) 

‘Commercial impetus’ is one way of putting it. Vegan options make money, baby, and veggie restaurants are out. And who’s paying? You know it: young people. In 2019, half of all vegans were aged between 15 and 34, according to the Vegan Society. Under-thirties are more likely to be passionate about the environment and sustainability, and it’s mirrored in their lifestyle and spending habits. Gen Z are the reason ‘Love Island’ got sponsored by eBay this year, remember?

Vegan food is a marketable product, and you can put a hell of a mark-up on it

But dairy didn’t just get cancelled because London’s young people like to spend their hard-earned cashola on vegan grub. ‘Cheese is expensive, and it’s going up in price,’ says food historian Annie Gray. ‘Whereas vegan food is pretty cheap to turn out a lot of the time… it’s a marketable product, and you can put a hell of a mark-up on it. So, from an economics point of view, it makes sense.’

‘I suppose,’ Gray adds, ‘if you’ve got a choice of vegetarian food or vegan food, you’re gonna go for vegan food on the grounds that vegetarians can eat it as well.’ And sure, it might have been radical to be veggie in the ’80s, but it’s certainly not cool anymore. Just glance at TikTok, where the #vegan hashtag’s frightening 23.3 billion views towers over the 3.2 billion videos tagged #vegetarian. If you want to be down with the kids, you’ve got to go vegan. 

So, where is the cheese?

It’s no wonder, then, that restaurants are favouring vegan options, squeezing their free-from menus into a cheeseless, eggless one-size-fits-all. ‘I was at the pub and the only vegetarian main was a burger that also happened to be vegan, which I was fine with,’ says vegetarian Londoner Sarah Berlingieri, 25. ‘But when it came, it was a vegan burger, vegan cheese, and the bun was gluten-free too. And this is a 16-quid burger as well.’

Vegetarian food is still hot in London, if you know where to look. London’s Indian food scene, for example, has a ton of veggie spots – Rasa and Sagar, to name just two – but they’re not necessarily marketed as joints for vegetarians. (The exception being, obviously, Indian Veg in Angel, which literally says ‘carnivorism causes war’ on its wall). 

Marc Summers, founder of meat-free Middle Eastern restaurant Bubala, thinks non-shouty meat-free cooking is the way. ‘If it’s going to grow, it can’t be only vegetarians and vegans that eat at a restaurant, because it’s only going to appeal to those people,’ he says. ‘A restaurant being “vegetarian” doesn’t tell you anything about what food you’re actually serving.’

Marc Summers, founder of Bubala
Photograph: Chris FynesMarc Summers founded Bubala in 2019

‘We would never create a vegetarian dish and try to substitute it with something vegan,’ Summers explains. ‘Our dishes happen to be vegetarian, or they happen to be vegan.’ Bubala serves up confit potato latkes layered with butter, garlic and thyme, oyster mushrooms brushed with tamari and slapped on the grill, halloumi coated in sweet honey. Meat-free, yes, but not in a seitan-deep-fried-leg-of-lamb kind of way. 

As for the future, Gray reckons that veganism and plant-based food is here to stay. ‘And that’s really good,’ she says. ‘Everything that enables people to have choices in food is good.’ Whether it will look the same as now is yet to be determined. And as for the cheese? ‘I hope vegetarians get their cheese back,’ says Gray. ‘What is life without cheese?’

London’s best vegetarian restaurants.

And 49 great vegan places to eat.

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