D.C.’s vegan restaurateurs have been waiting for their moment in the sun – and it appears to be here.
For decades, being vegan conjured images of Birkenstock-clad hippies eating millet, brown rice and carob purchased from bulk bins at a co-op. Indeed, that’s exactly what Doron Petersan was running away from when she decided to go vegan back in the ’90s.
“I grew up in New York state right outside of Woodstock, and I was so opposed to anything that was pulling me back into those hippie roots of the early ’70s,” she says. “This is not what vegan means to me. I do not want to eat millet ever again in my life. I want to eat all the food that I enjoy, and then some.”
Restaurateurs like Petersan have been instrumental in transforming Washington, D.C. from a relative vegan wasteland to a plant-based paradise, helping to grow the demand by making veganism more, well, delicious. It’s a trend that appears to be gaining traction across the country: A Gallup poll released in early 2020 reveals that “nearly one in four Americans (23%) report eating less meat in the past year than they had previously. The poll also shows, “The biggest factor in reducing meat consumption is health concerns. Nine in 10 say it is a major (70%) or minor reason (20%) they are cutting back on meat.”
Luckily for those folks, vegan and vegetarian options have come a long, long way. For instance, Petersan’s aversion to those “hippie roots” pushed her to experiment with making vegan food more flavorful and palatable. She eventually earned a degree in dietetics and spent years working in restaurants before launching Sticky Fingers, an award-winning vegan bakery now located in Columbia Heights, in 1999. She opened Fare Well, a successful vegan diner on H Street in Northeast D.C., in 2016.
If there’s any doubt that her food can stand on its own merits, regardless of whether it’s vegan, consider this: Petersan has won Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars.” Twice. She says great-tasting food makes the concept of veganism a lot less scary.
“Of course, you’re going to have people who will hate it forever,” she says, “but the majority of the population is going to be like, ‘Okay, this isn’t really weird anymore, and we know this term now.’ Also, using terms like plant-based and veggie-centric gives it a little bit more life.”
Navigating Vegan Terminology
Most people know what vegan means, but what are these new terms like plant-based and veggie-centric? If you’re really looking to cut out all animal products and byproducts, pay attention to the terminology. Anything with “centric” in the name implies that plants are an emphasis, but the food is not necessarily vegan. “Plant-based” means different things to different people – with some using it interchangeably with “vegan” and others using it to mean “mostly vegan.” Check websites and read the fine print before you order.
When it comes to increasing the appeal of vegan living, Calabash Tea & Tonic owner Dr. Sunyatta Amen says it also doesn’t hurt to add a little bit of sizzle. Amen was raised vegan by parents who ran one of those crunchy health food stores – in this case, a few doors down from the Apollo Theater and Masjid Malcolm Shabazz, formerly known as Mosque No. 7, in Harlem. And while she might be continuing the family line of work, she’s intent on updating the model.
“My job is to move wellness out of Birkenstocks and into stilettos,” she says. “It should be sexy, because healthy is sexy. Even the makeup we wear – all of these mimic healthy responses in the body, that healthy glow. This is all about being sexy. Let’s do it from the inside out.”
It appears she’s succeeding. What started as a few cups of chai and kombucha following belly dancing and yoga classes at her Shaw studio blossomed into opening her first Calabash in Shaw in 2015. The fifth-generation master herbalist and naturopathic physician sells teas, spices, tonics and light vegan fare in Shaw and at a second location in Brookland, with her eye on franchising the business across the globe. Her Shaw location is temporarily closed due to Covid, but the Brookland location remains open.
And while the old stereotype of the hardcore health food hippie is now outdated, Amen also wants to make sure the new stereotype of a white 20-something in yoga pants doesn’t overshadow the long, rich history of veganism in Black and brown communities. Vegan soul food spots like Everlasting Life and NuVegan Café have long been anchors of the plant-based movement in D.C., and places like Busboys & Poets continue the tradition of the vegan-friendly community gathering place, restaurant and bookstore that her parents embraced in the ’70s. In addition, she notes that places like Woodlands Indian restaurant in Adelphi, Maryland kept her fed and nourished when she first moved to the city in 2002.
“I’m always glad when the movement goes forward,” she says, but also notes that many health trends come from Black and brown cultures and regions including turmeric, yoga, raw cacao and cinnamon. “Everything that makes life worth living is grown and picked by brown hands. The colonization of the healthy lifestyle is sometimes quizzical to me – and not because I don’t want everyone to be living this way. But you have to give credit where credit is due.”
One big thing Petersan has seen push the movement forward is that it’s not just vegan chefs offering plant-based dishes these days.
“Making change from the inside is always slow,” she says. “It takes somebody from the outside looking in to make the change for us, and that’s what has happened over the past five years.”
This outsider perspective might be exactly what chefs like Rob Rubba bring to the table. The vegetarian spent many years cooking for omnivores before opening Oyster Oyster in Shaw last fall, but he knew that if he intended to continue cooking professionally, he wanted to make some big changes.
“I really was unsure if it was still responsible to be a chef just cooking the way I was prior to opening this restaurant,” Rubba says.
He worried about the environmental impacts of all the single-use plastics and meat consumption, among other things, and wanted to focus on the things he loved to cook most: plants and vegetables.
“The creativity and discovery of it all – it’s fun for chefs and the community. It’s just a progressive way that it’s going to continue to go. We’re going to see more demand as a society that we need to eat more of this in our diet.”
Like others, he’s noticed a definite uptick in veg-friendly options at local restaurants in the past five years or so.
“I can actually go and eat something really tasty that’s not just the vegetable risotto or some kind of salad that’s the only vegetarian option. Chefs are seeing that it takes a lot more creativity to make something really delicious out of just plants.”
Until it can open fully post-Covid, Oyster Oyster is offering casual to-go items like pizzas and sandwiches. The restaurant also sells a rotating winter feast for two that could include beet tartare, celeriac bisque and roasted mushroom cannelloni, giving diners a peek into what Rubba plans to offer with his full-blown experience. He admits it feels great when an omnivore loves his food as much as their vegan or vegetarian partner – a feeling likely shared by other plant-focused restaurateurs.
“It’s good to know that we’re able to do that,” he says. “And that’s the real goal, just to be a delicious restaurant. We’re not really aiming to be just for vegetarians or vegans. It’s just supposed to be a great place to come for hospitality and a good meal.”
Learn more about Calabash Tea & Tonic, Fare Well, Oyster Oyster and Sticky Fingers below, including where to follow them on Instagram.
Calabash Tea & Tonic: 1847 7th St. NW, DC (temporarily closed) + 2701 12th St. NE, DC; www.calabashtea.com // @calabashtea
Fare Well: 406 H St. NE, DC; www.eatfarewell.com // @eatfarewell
Oyster Oyster: 1440 8th St. NW, DC; www.oysteroysterdc.com // @oysteroysterdc
Sticky Fingers: 1370 Park Rd. NW, DC; www.stickyfingersbakery.com // @stickyfingersdc
Vegan-Friendly Short List
Note: This is a list of notable spots, but is by no means exhaustive. All social media handles are for the Instagram accounts of the respective restaurants.
Bubbie’s Plantburgers & Fizz: 1829 M St. NW, DC; www.bubbiesburgers.com // @bubbiesplantburgers
Chaia: Multiple locations; www.chaiatacos.com // @chaiatacos
Elizabeth’s Gone Raw: 1341 L St. Suite 1, NW, DC; www.elizabethsgoneraw.com // @e.g.raw
Equinox: 818 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.equinoxrestaurant.com // @equinoxdc
Fancy Radish: 600 H St. NE, DC; www.fancyradishdc.com // @fancyradishdc
Galaxy Hut: 2711 Wilson Blvd. Arlington, VA; www.galaxyhut.com // @galaxyhut
HipCityVeg: Multiple locations; www.hipcityveg.com // @hipcityveg
Khepra’s Raw Food Juice Bar: 2800 10th St. NE, DC; www.kheprasrawfoodjuicebar.net // www.fb.com/kheprasrawfoodjuicebar
PLNT Burger: Multiple locations; www.plntburger.com // @plntburger
Pow Pow: 1253 H St. NE, DC; www.eatpowpow.com // @eatpowpow
The Red Bandana Bakery: 8218 Wisconsin Ave. #101, Bethesda, MD; www.theredbandanabakery.com // @theredbandanabakery
Senbeb Cafe: 6224 3rd St. NW, DC; www.senbebcafe.com // @senbeb_vegan_cafe
Shouk: Multiple locations; www.shouk.com // @shoukfood
Soupergirl: Available in multiple grocery store locations; www.thesoupergirl.com // @thesoupergirldc
Vegz: 2120 18th St. BSMT, NW, DC; www.vegz.us // @vegzdc
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