Over the past 12 months, London has witnessed the opening of not just vegan restaurants, but a vegan pub, its first vegan doughnut shop, the debut of a meat-free “bleeding” burger, high street and fast food chains introducing vegan menus, and an entire new street food scene devoted to “plant-based,” meat-free, dairy-eschewing foods. But what is driving this change, where did it come from, and what does it say about new eating habits in the city? Is it about lifestyle, health, the environment, all of the above, or something else? And, ultimately, is London’s new vegan obsession more than just a fad?
Renowned chefs like Theo Randall at the Intercontinental and Jason Atherton at his Michelin-starred Pollen Street Social are creating new vegan tasting and a la carte menus and, while they’re at it, contributing to the creation of a new language, too. “Plant-based,” it seems, is the descriptor of the moment. Investors, too, like Grace Regan — who moved from Silicon Valley to London to start vegan food business Spice Box — are jumping on the plant powered bandwagon. Even chains like Wagamama, Rosa’s Thai, All Bar One, Itsu and Pret want a slice of the (dairy-free) cake, either by using vegetarianism as a stepping stone to going completely vegan themselves, or piloting new ideas with exclusively vegan menus. Lest it be forgotten that even the sister restaurant of London’s foremost steakhouse group introduced a vegan menu for a month.
The trend is a response to the boom in the number of vegans in Britain; up from around 150,000 ten years ago, to at least 542,000 last year, according to the Vegan Society. Retailers are also embracing the trend; between 2013 and 2017, the number of vegan food products in the UK nearly doubled, according to Mintel’s new products database. Mintel also found that two fifths (42 percent) of UK consumers who eat meat-free foods prefer these products to be “plant-based,” rather than containing eggs or dairy.
One strand of what could be called the “new veganism” is a tacit evolution of the clean eating and wellness trend, in some ways a response to that fad having been comprehensively debunked. Self-styled “healthy” restaurants, like Camilla Al Fayed’s Farmacy Kitchen in Notting Hill, offer a range of “earth bowls,” “health syringes,” burgers, and salads to an affluent clientele willing to pay a significant premium for those dishes. At Yeotown Kitchen in Marylebone, guests are invited to use a meditation pod to digest the meal’s fibre after they’ve eaten; at Redemption Bar in Notting Hill a customer can select from alcohol-free drinks alongside hearty dishes like wild mushroom and black rice risotto. All three opened in west London; Redemption bar opened in 2015 (it now has a branch in Shoreditch too), followed by Farmacy Kitchen in 2016 and Yeotown Kitchen’s arrival in September last year.
Meanwhile, the other major new strand of veganism is a thriving, so-called “dirty” food scene which is shattering an old-fashioned and once arcane image, as well as repudiating the assertion that vegan food, by necessity, has to be “healthy.” There are now fast food offerings like kebabs, fried “chicken,” and doughnuts, which appear designed to appeal to a wider — and younger — generation.
Damien Clarkson is the co-founder of Vevolution, a media and events company that promotes veganism. He sees the fast food trend as an attempt to normalise being vegan. “No-one wants to miss out, to be the weirdo in the corner who can’t enjoy a burger and fried chicken,” he told Eater. “I love places like What the Pitta where you can have a vegan kebab. It’s gluttonous and it’s a treat.”
Camden market has a plethora of these sorts of vegan traders, including the Young Vegans who have built up a strong following for their vegan pie and mash, and the Temple of Seitan, a recent arrival and London’s first fried “chicken” joint, which opened its first permanent site on Morning Lane in Hackney last year.
But it’s not just homegrown vegan talent that’s making a mark. London, as ever, is ready and willing to import the biggest brands from across the Atlantic, too. An American fast food chain fluent in the new “plant-based” dialect, By Chloe opened last month in Covent Garden, with a glossy new space tailor-made for Instagram. The brand is so confident of its success in London, that it had announced its second branch before even opening its first. A chain it will be. But how come? The menu, presumably aimed largely at millennials, refashions familiar fast foods like burgers, meatballs and mac ‘n’ cheese, made from ingredients like black beans, sweet potato, mushrooms and cashew nuts.
The speed of the transformation is partly because London is playing catch up. For years, this city has lagged behind cities like Portland, which many say now has the best scene in the US, and the vegan meccas of Los Angeles, Melbourne and Berlin. Yes, London has some vegetarian trailblazers — Manna, The Gate, Mildreds — but vegan food was long confined to just a small number of options on those menus, or to alternative, comparatively specialist street food stalls, or the Hare Krishnas’ Govinda’s Pure Vegetarian Restaurant in Soho and region-specific Indian restaurants in Southall or on Drummond Street.
No longer, says Clarkson: “What has made a difference in the last four to five years is the emergence of the street food scene. People with an idea could launch straight away at low cost, and many of these traders have come from the world of business, and so they understand how to build a brand, raise money and grow quickly.”
One such entrepreneur is Meria Armitage who started Club Mexicana at Kerb Street Food after living in Melbourne for seven years.
“I was already a veggie, but in Melbourne the food was so good that there was no sacrifice in becoming a vegan. When I returned to London I couldn’t believe that all I could get was a dry veggie burger and a mushroom risotto. I quit my job in advertising and launched Club Mexicana at Kerb Street Food in 2014,” she says. Her Mexican vegan offering has been a hit, and now, four years later, Armitage has just opened London’s first fully vegan pub, The Spread Eagle, in Homerton, east London where even the leather sofas were banished. The menu includes dishes like beer battered ‘Tofish’, Mexican fried ‘chicken’ and ‘chorizo’ quesadilla, as well as vegan wines and craft beers. On a recent visit the place was packed, and the punters were lapping it up.
The new wave of veganism can be attributed in part to a growing awareness of the perceived wrongs in dairy farming in particular: both its role in contributing to climate change and its questionable ethics. Many cite the 2014 Netflix documentary Cowspiracy as a turning point: the film showed that animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation. Mintel found that animal welfare (54 percent) is the number one reason why non-meat eaters say they avoid meat, but for those under 25, environmental benefits are the leading factor. This new political awareness has prompted many to go beyond vegetarianism and reject animal products completely.
Lauren Watts, who opened London’s first vegan doughnut and coffee shop in January, deftly summarised the motivations of many in conversation with Eater London earlier this year: “We weren’t really aware of the practices that go on, with dairy farming especially. Everyone has the whole ‘they have a good life, they’re killed humanely’ [idea]. Those two words — ‘humanely’ and ‘killing’ — are contradictions of each other. That doesn’t exist. I think, if you can live your life eating everything that you need and could want — like burgers, fried chicken, doughnuts — and not actually kill anything, why would you not?”
It’s a more complex issue than just this, however, and while the storyboarding of mainstream veganism has been overwhelmingly white, there is a strong and vocal vegan presence among people of colour in London that has been drowned out by the heavy PR machinery utilised by brands like ByChloe. Jay Brave — a prominent London activist and “vegan ambassador” — in conversation with Grace Dent, explained that among BAME communities, veganism can represent an opportunity to push back against the structural inequalities entrenched in British society:
...by and large, a lot of the black and African vegans I’ve met, it comes from a place of personal autonomy, and how can they take back control of their own diet in a system [in] which they are not in control of many of the things that we purchase.
He points to prominent vegans in London’s booming grime scene, including Akala and JME — and their support for Boxpark start-up Cook Daily and its founder King Cook — as driving this movement, which he says is finally giving BAME youth an opportunity to “look at how they can build from the inside out, starting with their own bodies, their own families, their own communities” and is empowering people to make these decisions for themselves.
Social media has played a major part, too. Not only has it spread information about factory farming, health and climate change, but it also features pictures of lavish looking vegan food a million miles away from a student stew made on a shoestring. In January, Tesco launched its new vegan range, Wicked Kitchen. Chef Derek Sarno — who has co-authored a vegan cookbook, Wicked Healthy, which will be released in May — is the supermarket’s director of plant-based innovation and creator of the Wicked Kitchen range, and knows the power of social media in spreading the message:
On our social media platforms we show amazing pictures of food. Food you want to eat, good food, food that just happens to be plant based. I don’t use the word vegan as I don’t want to create a barrier. My target audience is meat eaters. As for my personal views? I don’t need any animals to die for me to live an indulgent lifestyle in today’s world.
But it is quasi-innovation as well as aesthetics that has inspired veganism’s new popularity. Many of the nascent vegan restaurants or street food operators rely heavily on meat substitutes: seitan (a protein made from the gluten in wheat) is often used for burgers and “chicken,” whereas jackfruit is commonly used to replace pork. And though that has facilitated the food’s rebranding for a new market, excellent vegan food (using some of those same ingredients) has always existed in the city’s many African, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, South Asian, even Modern European restaurants, without any frankenstein food in sight. This is not all new. Places like Ottolenghi, Palomar, Honey & Co, Rasa, Dishoom and Lyle’s have long offered quality vegan options, without feeling the need to dust off the zeitgeist-branded megaphone. And as leading chefs embrace the trend — from Ravinder Bhogal of Jikoni to Chantelle Nicholson of Tredwells and Atul Kochhar of Benares — expect to find more exciting and creative vegetable-focused dishes popping up on regular menus across London. It’s becoming the new normal.
Where to eat vegan food in London right now
Itadaki Zen, King’s Cross
This claims to be Europe’s first vegan Japanese restaurant and offers a good range of tempura, sushi and bento boxes.
Mildreds, Soho, Kings Cross and Camden
Soho’s original veggie trailblazer goes from strength to strength with more vegan choices on the menu and new branches in Kings Cross and Camden.
It will be too purist for many with no gluten or refined sugar on the menu, but star American vegan chef Matthew Kenney achieves intense, creative flavours with modern techniques.
By Chloe, Covent Garden
It’s fast food, but the mac ‘n’ cheese, burgers, tacos and meatballs are moreish and tasty
Tredwells, Covent Garden
Chef Chantelle’s Planted menu is high-end, creative vegetable-based cooking at its best.
Ravinder Bhogal at the W Hotel
The Jikoni chef has launched a three month pop-up vegan menu at the central London hotel.
Tempting vegan street food from the Michelin-starred Mayfair Indian.
One of a number of time-honoured vegetarian south Indian buffet restaurants on Drummond Street near Euston station. Guests can eat as much curry, bread, rice and myriad sambals and chutneys as they please — for less than £7. Lots of the food here is vegan, they just don’t shout about it.
The Vurger Co
There are no meat substitutes at this popular vegan burger joint. Burgers like The Auburger are made from chipotle smoky aubergine, red onion and chickpeas with lashings of cumin mayo and pickled cabbage. Former street food traders, they crowdfunded to launch a permanent site which recently opened in Shoreditch.
Temple of Seitan
The place in London to find vegan fried ‘chicken.’ So popular there are now restaurants in Camden and Hackney and pop-ups throughout the city.