Vegetarian fare has come a long, long way since the days of Woody Allen’s “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk” in Sleeper. Be it the mastery of fake meats displayed by many Chinese kitchens or the literally nutty innovations of raw-food chefs, herbivores these days have nearly as many dining options as carnivores. Whether you’re looking for vegan vittles in L.A. or meatless meals in NYC, take your pick of the best vegetarian restaurants across the country, from lunch counters to white-cloth plant palaces.
America’s best vegetarian restaurants
Chicago Diner, Chicago
Even non-vegetarians know Chicago Diner. The vibe is normal, everyday diner, albeit with soy milk, tofu and tempeh on the giant menu. Waits for weekend brunch can get painful (even though the menu is served daily), but patient non-meat-eaters are rewarded with flaky soy margarine biscuits. Of the non-brunch options, the tofu- and veggie-packed soul bowl is a healthy pick, and if you still have room, try the vegan caramel crunch torte or the thick, perfect milkshakes for dessert.
Clover Food Lab, Boston
Clover has become something of an empire. Its food truck fleet has expanded handsomely, and you’ll find brick and mortar food labs in Burlington, Vt, Brookline, Mass and all over Cambridge, Mass. While waiting in the inevitable line, you’ll hear a lot of chatter about the chickpea fritter: golden-fried falafel, hummus, a drizzle of tahini and red pickled cabbage stuffed into a hearty bun. But the egg-eggplant sandwich and the savory stuffed popovers offered for breakfast have their vocal proponents as well. Alongside your feel-good selection, sip a brown-sugar lemonade or hibiscus iced tea.
Dirt Candy, NYC
Fueled by the ambition to make people crave vegetables, Amanda Cohen revived her beloved East Village eatery on the Lower East Side with a ramped-up menu and a space three times the size of the 18-seat original. Emblazoned with a mural of greenery by graffiti artist Noah McDonough, Dirt Candy’s sprawling dining room is focused on the open kitchen at its heart—complete with a chef’s counter—and a full bar along one wall. Much like the plates of Cohen’s past, each dish is anchored by one vegetable, but her retooled offerings layer multiple ingredients.
Elf Cafe, L.A.
Elf Cafe is a quintessential Echo Park restaurant—a tiny, romantic eatery where veggies are turned into complex dishes. Chef Dave Martinez is serious about his food philosophy, from local and non-GMO ingredients to specified sea salts and cooking oils. Early proponents of the kale salad, the kitchen at Elf also makes a rich, wild exotic mushroom risotto and a kofta with saffron couscous, speckled with orange blossom dates and crispy chickpeas.
The Gadarene Swine, L.A.
In a charming Studio City bungalow sits The Gadarene Swine, a mostly vegan (some honey is used) restaurant from chef Phillip Lee and his pastry chef wife, Margarita Lee. Whether you opt for the tasting menu or order à la carte, you’ll find olives transformed into deep-fried bites, cauliflower whipped into a savory base and mushrooms so thick you’ll think you’re biting into beef. For dessert, the grapefruit cotton candy awaits.
The Gothic; Belfast, ME
This fine-dining destination lives up to both its setting in a beautiful 19th-century red-brick building and the reputation of its owner, raw-food pioneer Matthew Kenney. As expected, The Gothic’s ever-changing menu is largely vegan and raw—but not entirely, which means you’ll find zucchini “lasagna” with macadamia “mozzarella” next to sweet-potato fritters with nettle chutney or wilted greens with pears and coconut “bacon” in chive-buttermilk cream—all plated with a painterly flourish and accompanied by libations from the full bar. There’s also an all-BOS (biodynamic/organic/sustainable) wine list.
Gracias Madre, San Francisco
Mexican and vegan are not terms you would expect to sidle up against each other in a restaurant concept, but Gracias Madre has not only married the ideas; it’s done so with spectacular success. Antojitos (street-food-inspired starter snacks) such as grilled potato-masa gorditas topped with salsa verde and cashew cream, and sweet potato and caramelized onion quesadillas topped with cashew cheese and pumpkin-seed salsa are full of piquant flavor and meaty textures that don’t suffer in the least from their lack of animal ingredients. Main plates such as nopales (prickly pear cactus) topped with pico de gallo and cashew cheese, accompanied by black beans, rice and handmade tortillas, and an heirloom masa tamale stuffed with seasonal veggies will leave you satisfied and possibly rethinking your preconceived notions of vegan food.
Greens, San Francisco
A pioneer of farm-to-table vegetarian cuisine for more than three decades, Greens almost singlehandedly exploded the stereotype of vegetarian cooking as a variation on alfalfa sprouts and tofu. The restaurant has a prime waterfront location, with the Golden Gate Bridge as backdrop, and chef Annie Somerville’s wildly inventive and flavorful menu continues to win the battle of carnivore hearts and minds. Dishes such as warm cauliflower salad with crisp capers and pine nuts; coconut risotto cakes in red curry; or wild mushroom and caramelized onion gratin with fromage blanc custard could have you swearing off meat altogether. If you can’t get a dinner reservation, go for brunch when the kitchen dreams up some of its most imaginative offerings, such as spiced carrot cake pancakes and ciabatta French toast or merguez poached eggs with vegetable ragout, grilled polenta and goat cheese.
There’s no shortage of cheap ramen joints in postgrad mecca Murray Hill, but house-made soba crowned with shaved black truffles? You’ll only find elevated versions like that at Kajitsu. The minimalist, Michelin-starred den displays a devotion to produce, influenced by the monk-approved shojin-ryori (vegetarian) tradition. The sublime fare has made it a cult favorite among top-notch toques like Momofuku’s David Chang. In the small, bare dining room or at the eight-seat chef’s counter, choose from two ever-changing menus—four or eight courses—each paired with sake, if you like.
Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant; Boulder, CO
As it nears its second decade in one of the nation’s greenest towns, this tranquil herbivores’ haven off Pearl Street just keeps getting better. Smartly conceived and handsomely presented, longtime chef Rachel Best’s seasonal creations range from the sophisticated—pineapple gazpacho, sesame-crusted beet steak, oyster-mushroom paella—to the soothing, as with pimiento-stuffed jalapeño poppers and a sumptuous portabella-quinoa-walnut cheeseburger for lunch. Craft cocktails, shrubs and BOS wines clinch Leaf’s reputation as a date-night refuge for legions of, well, leaf eaters.
Mana Food Bar, Chicago
At this shoebox-size meatless mecca, global vegetarian fare is gobbled up by diners lounging on chunky wood stools and in dark booths under dim lights. Most dishes at Mana are available in small and large sizes, so even a party of two can sample lots of dishes. Our favorites include the sesame noodles, bibimbap and a fresh panzanella, and you’ll probably see at least one brown-rice-mushroom slider delivered to every single table. House-made ice creams make a great ending, unless you’re looking to drink dessert, in which case go for the cucumber Sakerita.
Natural Selection; Portland, OR
Natural Selection’s Aaron Woo has an apt last name for a chef who has seduced all of PDX with his weekly changing four-course prix fixe, prepared in the open kitchen of his intimate 30-seat space. Truffled leek arancini, kabocha gnocchi with mushrooms and pears, lavender-scented melon soup with figs and coconut panna cotta: each dish (the majority of which are vegan and gluten-free) is more elegant than the last, paired with wines from sustainability-minded boutique producers. (Or craft beer, or cocktails—or intriguing virgin concoctions, like the turmeric spritzer, for that matter.)
Plant; Asheville, NC
Since 2011, vegan chef Jason Sellers has been turning out special occasion-worthy meals, amuses-bouches and all, from his perch in the open kitchen of Plant’s airy, modern dining room. Asian, Latin and Mediterranean influences undergird the seasonal menu—consider uttapam, a south Indian savory pancake, flavored with watercress and coconut; game-changing raw enchiladas; and a cannolo à la mode redolent of anise and bergamot. But it’s the applewood-smoked “portohouse” mushroom steak that’s got the number of carnivores.
Roots; Louisville, KY
Through a landscape of hot browns and mint juleps, Coco Tran has been blazing tofu-and-tea trails for decades. Among her other firsts, Zen Garden introduced locals to Asian vegetarian cuisine; in 2011, she built on that foundation with the launch of counter joint Heart & Soy—featuring the only tofu-manufacturing machine in Kentucky—and its upscale next-door sibling, Roots. In serene, streamlined Japanese-style environs, Tran delivers vibrant East-West fusion fare: an insalata caprese with smoked-tea vinaigrette or fried oyster mushrooms with wasabi aioli here, forbidden-rice risotto with cherries and walnuts there. To complement it all, she eschews booze in favor of an array of fine teas, spanning the globe from Taiwan to Malawi.
Seva; Ann Arbor and Detroit, MI
Frankly, few leaders of the hippie-era natural-foods movement have aged well. Seva is an exception. Opening in Ann Arbor in 1973, it recently moved into sleek new digs resembling those of its younger Detroit sibling; the drive to evolve shows equally in the breadth of its offerings. Alongside old favorites like General Tso’s cauliflower and butternut-squash enchiladas, both branches present a slew of weekly specials as well as gluten-free, kids’ and happy-hour menus; there’s also an “answer book” to check recipes for allergens. The bar pours everything from house-made beet-sugar sodas and fresh-squeezed juices to local craft drafts and cocktails, and a dedicated pastry chef—rare outside of high-end restaurants—prepares seasonal desserts.
Tree House; St. Louis, MO
Back in 2013, Tree House broke ground as the lone full-service vegetarian establishment in a city best known for its barbecue. With a colorfully cool vibe and a full bar, the instant hit remains beloved for its bold twists on classics—house-made seitan replaces beef in a Wellington drizzled with sesame-chili oil; dates and cashews transform banana-cream pie into a raw torte; a brunchtime bagel with cream cheese stars cured-tomato slices in lieu of lox. Local beers and inventive cocktails built around seasonal produce seal the deal for devotees.
Light-years from the mom-and-pop health-food huts of old, this husband-and-wife-run sensation joined the vanguard of the modern vegan movement the moment it opened in 2011. Warmly polished decor sets the mood for a menu that’s at once progressive and playful, incorporating vegetables you may never have heard of before (tromboncino squash? piracicaba broccoli?) into complex dishes that showcase their versatility—terrines, pastas, roulades, you name it. Granted, these days Vedge has some serious competition: its own sibling, the slightly more casual and funky V Street.