Explaining Toronto’s Vegan Renaissance

Plant-based establishments are winning over new demographics by “putting flavour first”

Veganism’s rising popularity among millennials puts the diet at the forefront of our social discourse. It's a polarizing and complex topic, involving one the most intimate parts of our life: eating. Our tastes are unique to us, our diets precisely curated, our budgets carefully planned and the nutritional benefits considered. We’re sensitive about what we eat, and expectedly so, considering we spend around 32,098 hours in our lifetime eating.

 When we think about veganism, we think of two extremes. Throughout social media, what we predominantly see is the sharp divide between both ends of issue: the ardent followers and unwavering opposers. Veganism’s absence of animal products, include dairy and animal textiles, raises many arguments around ethics, expense and health. From comments on vegan recipe videos to images of slaughterhouses shared on our feeds, most people seem to find their place in one group or the other.

 In reality, vegan food isn’t as political as how it is represented online. Vegan options are becoming more commonplace in restaurants and even in fast food chains like A&W, who introduced the Beyond Meat Burger to all of their Canadian locations in June 2018. Gradually, plant-based dishes are integrating into our mainstream food culture as restaurants and chefs continue to subvert our historical perception of this “bland” type of cooking.

 More and more, plant-based restaurants are exploring ways to make their dishes attractive and accessible to non-vegans. Lucky for current vegans and curious eaters, Toronto is a plant-based paradise and a great place to start exploring. There are currently 254 restaurants in Toronto with vegan menu items – a number that is only climbing. Its vegan scene is blossoming with new, innovative restaurants that are revolutionizing this niche cuisine, such as Awai on Bloor.

 Vegandale: Toronto’s plant-based utopia

 When talking about vegan food in Toronto, it’s impossible to leave out Vegandale, a self-proclaimed “mecca for the ethically minded and hungry, with the best of vegan food, goods, and services co-existing on one city block in downtown Toronto.” Vegandale, both a restaurant collective and geographic area, is located on Queen Street West between Dufferin and Brock streets.

 Their first project, Vegan Food & Drink Festival, now Vegandale Food Drink Festival, launched in Toronto in August 2015 and ever since, they’ve been rapidly adding new establishments and festivals to their ever-growing repertoire. In April 2016, Doomie’s Toronto opened, followed by The Imperative, an all-vegan general store, in December 2016. Their annual Vegandale Food Drink Festival launched in Chicago in June 2016, New York City in September 2017 and more recently, Houston in June 2018.

 Currently, they are home to three vegan establishments: Mythology, Not Your Mother and Vegandale Brewery, as well as two pop-up restaurants, Stella and V-Eats.

 Vegandale’s branding is thoughtful, distinct and perfectly executed. Each establishment boasts an unique vibe and look, from Not Your Mother’s ‘70’s hippie-inspired colour palette to the unapologetic names of Vegandale Brewery drinks—featuring the “Principled Pilsner” and “Morally Superior IPA.”

 According to spokesperson Eva Lampert, the collective’s motto, “Veganism for Everybody” focuses on “veganizing classic food experiences.”

 She then added, “We look to prove (our motto) by creating food experiences that people feel familiar with and that make it clear that veganism is an exclusion of animal exploitation, not flavour, ambiance, or otherwise.”

 Being at the forefront of plant-based establishments in Toronto, Vegandale’s rapid expansion can be seen as a smaller scale glimpse at the rising trend of veganism in the city. Lampert described Toronto as a “foodie city” akin to New York and Los Angeles; one that vegan cuisine has gained tremendous traction and celebrity in.

 It is because of its increasing prominence in these global cities that veganism has been able to reach a much wider audience.

 “As veganism sheds its stigma and finds more media coverage, the resources, be it a restaurant or literature or documentaries, will create opportunities to reach more people,” said Lampert.

The Vegandale collective proudly displays their slogan on branded merchandise at the front counter of Vegandale Brewery on Queen Street West. (The Unaffiliated Press/Kayla Zhu)

The Vegandale collective proudly displays their slogan on branded merchandise at the front counter of Vegandale Brewery on Queen Street West. (The Unaffiliated Press/Kayla Zhu)

The recipe for success

 An exemplar of Lampert’s philosophy is Virtuous Pie, a recent addition to Toronto’s vegan assemblage that has been spotlighted generously in local food and culture publications. It’s a plant-based pizza and ice cream franchise that has been making waves on the west coast ever since it opened its doors in Vancouver’s Chinatown area.

 Aaron Okada, a Toronto local and head chef of the restaurant’s Toronto location, said that the plant-based restaurant scene is “much more developed out west” but there has been a surge of new vegan restaurants in the GTA.

 “I feel that Toronto’s vegan scene is in the beginning of a bit of a renaissance,” said Okada.  “We still don’t have as much available in terms of ingredients or restaurants, but there’s a noticeable difference over the past couple of years. The change is happening and vegan restaurants are becoming more accepted and frequented by the mainstream crowd.”

 Okada cited two main reasons for plant-based cuisine’s recent success in Toronto, the first being the “trendy” nature of the city and its literal hunger for new food fads. Plant-based cuisine, as Okada sees it, is a new trend that the city is embracing with open arms—and mouths.

 The second factor, he mentioned, was the evolution of the cuisine itself: “Modern plant-based restaurants have found that the formula to attracting non-plant based customers is to put flavour first,” said Okada. “It’s no longer the old school healthy salads and wraps that contributed to the negative reputation.”

Sous chef Dan Raznavi deftly tops off the Chorizo and Artichoke pizza with a generous helping of fennel fronds. The Chorizo and Artichoke features unique meat and dairy substitutes such as their “soyrizo” bits and cashew mozzarella. (The Unaffiliated Press/Kayla Zhu)

Sous chef Dan Raznavi deftly tops off the Chorizo and Artichoke pizza with a generous helping of fennel fronds. The Chorizo and Artichoke features unique meat and dairy substitutes such as their “soyrizo” bits and cashew mozzarella. (The Unaffiliated Press/Kayla Zhu)

Challenging stereotypes

 Lampert says many people still have a narrow view of vegan food, incorrectly assuming it be “dry, boring or comprised primarily of grass and nuts.” Today, there are several players in the vegan scene actively challenging those stereotypes.

 Take Awai, for example: this upscale Bloor Village establishment is doing away with common vegan food tropes like imitation meats and questionable health fads. Instead, they’re focussing on creating new flavor profiles by experimenting with unique ingredient combinations and, as Okada said, putting “flavour first.”

 Awai’s approach to vegan cuisine diverges from other vegan restaurants, said chef Maria de Oliveira. The restaurant focuses on accentuating the profiles of each ingredient and creating new, striking dishes using unprecedented culinary techniques.

 “The idea of faux meats generally doesn't appeal to non-vegetarians, so we try to bring up new flavours and present fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts in their best form,” explained de Oliveira.

 Not only is Awai pushing the boundaries of plant-based cuisine, they’re also reinventing the whole dining experience. They offer a surprise tasting menu, meaning diners won’t know what they’re having until the dish reaches their table.

Social culture and beyond

 The social culture around veganism plays a major role in its increasing popularity and accessibility said Rakelle Vernon of Sorelle and Co.  A well-loved bakery, Sorelle and Co. is a haven for the allergic with their extensive menu of vegan, gluten-free and nut-free options

 “An increase in popularity of veganism is definitely due in part to large festivals, events, social media awareness, and even word of mouth,” said Vernon. “Vegan restaurants are popping up everywhere you turn, and major restaurant chains are even offering vegan alternatives on their menus.”

 However, Vernon also believes that more and more people are opting for vegan foods because of an increasing concern for health.

 “Many people are learning new information about how their food is made and are choosing a more health conscious way of life – more people are starting to care about what is going in their body,” said Vernon.  “Excessive chemicals and animal cruelty are also two major reasons why people have chosen to live a vegan lifestyle.”

 In addition to health, the environment is also a major factor in many people’s exploration of veganism. Eating vegan is irrefutably one of the best ways to reduce one’s environmental impact. The meat and dairy industries are responsible for 60 per cent of agriculture’s gas emissions and 75 per cent of global farmland. Experts say that if everyone in the U.S went vegan once a week, it would be the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road in terms of carbon emission reduction.

 With those factors in mind, the rapid growth of the plant-based restaurant industry makes perfect sense. In any competitive industry, increasing demand leads to increasing supply. As more and more individuals are opting for vegan joints during their Friday nights out, more players are entering the game, generating competition and innovation even further.

 But at the root of it all, veganism’s popularity in Toronto goes back to Okada’s recipe for success: putting flavour first. With the influx of plant-based establishments popping up in the GTA, introducing fresh flavours and never-before-seen dishes to all diet demographics, the accessibility and acceptance of vegan food here shows promise.