Plant to Plate

The cheesesteak may be the global mascot of Philly. But a contingent of pioneering chefs and restaurateurs have made the city a hub of vegetarian innovation.

8 min read
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When Nicole Marquis told people that she wanted to open a fast food vegan restaurant in Philadelphia, the response from her family and friends was skeptical at best. It was 2010, the economy was still reeling from the housing crisis, and Philadelphia's chief culinary export — the cheesesteak — has long been about as far from veganism as imaginable. But Marquis, a Philly-area native who discovered her passion for plant-based nutrition while going to school in California, was undaunted. 

There was precedent in Philly, after all. Husband-and-wife chefs Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby started their vegan cafe, Horizons, out of a health food store in Willow Grove, and expanded it to a two-story building in Bella Vista in 2006. They shuttered that space in 2011 in order to open Vedge, a pioneer of vegan fine dining that lured in Philadelphians, both vegetarian and carnivorous, with elegant, inventive dishes like rutabaga fondue. But in terms of quick and easy vegan spots — a place where the lunch crowd could easily grab a sandwich — Marquis couldn't find much beyond her local falafel spot.

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"Philly is such a foodie scene, and they know good food and flavor," she says. "I knew if I could make the menu taste as good or better than what you were having at the deli, that people would choose plant-based." So she worked with chefs to nail plant-based versions of fast food classics — including, yes, a vegan cheesesteak that puts some of the rib-eye versions in the city to shame. When Marquis' HipCityVeg opened in 2012, lines wrapped down Sansom Street for weeks. 

"I knew if I could make the menu taste as good or better than what you were having at the deli, that people would choose plant-based."

Nicole Marquis, Founder & CEO, HipCityVeg

Today, there are four locations of HipCityVeg in Philadelphia, and two more in D.C. Aside from that mini-chain, Marquis has opened two more vegan eateries in Philly: Charlie Was a Sinner, a Midtown Village bar and cafe that serves cocktails and small plates; and Bar Bombón, which pays homage to Marquis' Puerto Rican roots with plant-based Latinx cuisine. Meanwhile, Landau and Jacoby, the couple behind Vedge, last year opened a new restaurant, Ground Provisions, in suburban Glen Mills, further evidence of the ravenous demand for vegan food in a city known best for unruly sports fans and meat-based sandwiches. 

I moved from Brooklyn to Philadelphia in 2021, looking for more space after a pandemic spent flirting with insanity in a one-bedroom apartment. My husband, a vegetarian since second grade, quickly began raving about the vegetarian options in Philly, but I wasn't so sure. Could it really be better than Brooklyn, where you can't throw a rock without hitting a juice bar or grain bowl specialist? As it happens he was right, with spots like Fitz on Fourth and Goldie, Michael Solomonov's falafel, french fry, and tehina shake mini-chain testaments to how vegan dining has not only endured and expanded in Philadelphia, but is perpetually evolving. 

That's perhaps clearest these days at Pietramala, a snug Northern Liberties BYOB that opened in 2022 inside a former coffee shop and quickly became the source of much critical fawning. The menu, which is constantly rotating based on seasonality, eschews processed meat substitutes like seitan or the near-ubiquitous Impossible and Beyond meats, and instead focuses solely on plants on the plate — often deploying culinary techniques usually reserved for cooking meats. While such an approach would seem a particular challenge in the winter, when tender baby greens are still months from poking out of the soil, Pietramala's chef Ian Graye, a veteran of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's abcV and Dan Barber's Blue Hill at Stone Barns, has found there is a yearly bounty to work with. 

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Example: the humble turnip, a vegetable that, as I joked to Graye when we met, I get sick of every March, when spring's glories remain dormant and the memory of the last summer tomatoes has faded. Graye and his team have a playful and creative antidote to such fatigue, taking farmer's market turnips, rendering them into stock, and then cooking farro in the stock. This becomes a riff on risotto, infused with puree of turnip and olive oil, topped with pan-seared turnips, and finished with shaved raw turnip. "We found people really responded to that — it's multiple layers of turnips," Graye says. "There seems to be per capita more vegan options in Philadelphia than in most cities that I've been to."

One of the reasons that vegan dining has such an enthusiastic and resilient customer base in Philadelphia, Graye posits, is the proximity to the source of ingredients.

On Pietramala's Instagram stories, Graye's team features their finds from local farms, teasing new dishes built around sungold tomatoes, say, or a fresh crop of garlic scapes. "I realized a lot of the things chefs covet in New York City are grown in Pennsylvania," Graye says. Kennett Square, just an hour away, is where the majority of the mushrooms for the entire country are harvested; nearby is Eckerton Hill Farm, Camporosso Farm, and Lancaster Farm Fresh, a cooperative of 100 smaller growers in the region, which drive produce to the Union Square greenmarket in Manhattan. "Those are the places where chefs are buying tomatoes in the summer and chicories in the winter," Graye says "You're in New York City and you're really getting a lot of stuff from down here." 

Increasingly, plant-based cooking isn't just a force in strictly vegan restaurants in Philly.

One of the most remarkable parts of the dining scene here is how unremarkable it is to find a plant-based item, unheralded, on the menu.

When Wyatt Piazza recently opened his restaurant Kiddo, for instance, he wasn't aiming squarely to win over plant-based eaters; but he crafted his menus knowing that the demand for vegan food would be constant. "A lot of our menu isn't vegan inherently, but can easily be made that way," Piazza explains. "We do that on purpose to be able to accommodate anyone." And so far, Philadelphians have taken him up on it. "There's not a vegan dessert on the menu," he notes, "but I end up freestyling vegan desserts every night. I love it, and it definitely adds value to the guests too."

Whether it be enthusiastic chefs, great local produce, or a city that's secretly a little sick of cheesesteaks, veganism is clearly here to stay. And maybe the reason that it's been embraced for the last decade or more is, at root, a simple one. Philadelphians, while agnostic about cuisines and dietary traditions, are diehard in their search for good food.

About Secret Menu

We created Secret Menu, a print and digital magazine from DoorDash, on the belief that one restaurant's story can help or inspire another. We're proud to elevate stories that connect local restaurant communities and celebrate the craft and ingenuity that makes them so vibrant here on the Merchant Blog. Read more Secret Menu stories here.


Margaret Eby
Margaret Eby

Writer and Editor

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