Philadelphia is at a food crossroads. Millennials and empty nesters have flooded Center City, bringing with them a hunger for creative, delicious dining options. The place that has long prided itself on the meaty, greasy cheesesteak is changing and may be the most exciting city in America for vegan fare.
“It's a great time to be vegan in Philly, because all these businesses are making vegan look cool, desirable, healthy, fun, tasty, delicious,” says Kate Jacoby, co-owner of Vedge and V Street. “The cheesesteak town actually has impressive, serious cooking.”
Jacoby’s celebrated Vedge (pictured) doesn’t call itself a vegetarian or vegan restaurant; it’s a vegetable restaurant. There are no animal products on site, and while meat substitutes like tofu make appearances, the showstoppers are grown in the ground. Smoked carrots are paired with white bean sauerkraut mash and pumpernickel, a nod to a Reuben sandwich. Nebrodini mushrooms, sliced paper-thin, stand in for pasta and are sauced with charred tomato and basil.
The kitchen performs a magic trick with a creamy—cheeseless—rutabaga fondue. Vedge’s elegant decor and professional service gives it a special-occasion feel. “You don't have to be a card-carrying vegan to eat at one of our restaurants,” Jacoby says. “We're a serious, vegetable-focused restaurant with a serious beverage program to match, and it just so happens to be vegan.”
Vedge has become a Philly landmark, but the city’s meatless offerings extend into take-out, dessert and cocktails around town, too. Hip City Veg is a local, fast casual chainlet with two locations and a plant-based menu of salads, sandwiches and sweets, all under $10. Charlie was a Sinner, a swanky vegan lounge with bumping music and movies playing on the walls, serves small plates like potato carpaccio and tofu puttanesca. V Street—a take on global street food by Vedge’s owners—employs international flavors like piri piri, za’atar and miso, and makes a mean vegan waffle at brunch.
Some 20 vegan eateries have found ways to create cheesesteaks sans meat and cheese. Blackbird, which is famous for its cheeseless vegan pizza, makes a popular version using rosemary and garlic seared seitan, while Soy Cafe turns the popular sandwich into a wrap with grilled soy beef, sweet onion and mushrooms. Cantina Dos Segundos reimagines it as a seitan carne asada burrito stuffed with fried yuca, vegan cheese and smoked mushroom ketchup.
For dessert, P.S.&Co, skips the dairy to create sweets like pistachio cookies with cold brew coffee creme. Grindcore House—a 100% vegan coffee shop—serves Dottie’s Donuts (in flavors like lemon cardamom and crunchy peanut butter) on weekends, alongside sandwiches and bagels.
Neighboring suburbs have kept up with the meatless trend, too. Vegan dining extends past city limits to Blue Sage in Southampton, Flora in Jenkintown, Sprig & Vine in New Hope, and Vge Cafe in Bryn Mawr.
Sarah Maiellano is on the Philadelphia beat for Travel + Leisure. You can follow her on Twitter at @SarahMaiellano.