Eleven Madison Park had a major announcement to make when it reopened its stately dining room last month for the first time since the pandemic began. The acclaimed New York restaurant — possessor of three Michelin stars, once named No. 1 on the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list — would no longer serve animal products. “It was becoming ever clearer that the current food system is simply not sustainable,” wrote chef Daniel Humm in a statement. Goodbye to menus lavish with foie gras, honey lavender duck, and suckling pig fashioned into miniature works of art on the plate. Every dish on the tasting menu — $335 per person — would now be plant-based (a frequent euphemism for vegan, without the term’s potential baggage): Japanese seeds fashioned to look like a caviar course; a roasted beet presented in a clay vessel that’s then cracked open for serving. In other words, still miniature works of art on the plate.
The move took observers of fine dining by surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. After all, grocery store shelves now groan with a universe of Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meats, oat milks and soy cheeses. According to the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit focused on alternative proteins, consumer spending on plant-based foods increased 43 percent over the past two years, growing two times faster than overall food sales in 2020. Mike Kostyo, trendologist at food market research company Datassential, named the continued growth and evolution of plant-based as a major trend for 2021. The Boston Vegetarian Society’s guide to plant-based restaurants in Massachusetts, which grew from 30 listings in 2009 to 57 in 2017, today includes 119 businesses, according to president Evelyn Kimber. And new ones keep opening all the time. In the Boston area, the last month has seen the arrival of vegan pizzeria Double Zero in Back Bay, vegan Mediterranean takeout counter Littleburg in Somerville, and Donut Villa Diner in Cambridge (not plant-based, but with a substantial vegan menu). Also coming to Cambridge in August: PlantPub, offering vegan pub fare and craft beer.
Could we be ready for our own version of Eleven Madison Park, a meatless temple of haute cuisine (with haute prices to match)?
“Oh, God yeah. I would be first in line,” says Douglass Williams, chef-owner of Mida in the South End and Newton, who staged at Eleven Madison Park more than a decade ago (the culinary version of an unpaid internship, a common way to get experience in the world’s top kitchens). “There’s a huge market for this. There’s fast-casual, and then there’s this void on both sides. The city would receive it well. It’s time for it. It’s almost necessary. How could it not be? It just revealed what we were all thinking, that it could be possible.”
The market has shifted tectonically in the two decades that chef Matthew Kenney has been working in plant-based food. He runs vegan restaurants all over the world, from Bahrain to Sydney, New York to LA. His latest is Double Zero on Newbury Street; he’s also behind Plant City, the vegan food hall in Providence. “The term ‘plant-based’ was not even used when I started with vegan cuisine. You would not see a restaurant like Double Zero or a high-end vegan restaurant on Newbury Street or prime real estate,” he says. “Developers and landlords didn’t believe in it, the financial community was not investing, consumers didn’t want it, media wasn’t covering it, and the education wasn’t there” — the books, documentaries, and other resources that are now at the public’s fingertips. “It has evolved steadily over the last 20 years, and over the last two years it has accelerated rapidly. It’s kind of become fashionable.”
Kenney is from New England and has a personal connection to Boston, but that’s not the only reason he was drawn to the area. “It’s one of the most well-educated, dynamic cities in the country,” he says. “Boston is an incredible city for restaurants because of the business community and student community. We plan to do more in Boston. We’re working on other things already. [Vegan] is not a fringe thing anymore at all.”
And Boston-area diners have long demonstrated an appetite for elevated, elegant plant-based dining. At L’Espalier, the Back Bay restaurant that closed in 2018, chef Frank McClelland served a multicourse degustation of vegetables alongside the likes of lobster with truffles and roasted beef tenderloin. McClelland introduced the vegetable tasting in the late ’80s, soon after he purchased the restaurant. “People were interested immediately,” he says. “It’s one thing to say I’m going to do this, but if there’s not support for it, then the guest has kind of told you there’s no interest.” The vegetable tasting never left the menu over the next 30 years the restaurant was open.
Today McClelland runs the eponymous Frank in Beverly, as farm-focused as he has been throughout his career, but in a less formal setting. Once a month, he hosts a supper club that harks back to L’Espalier with a five-course tasting menu. In June, he prepared a vegetable dinner. “A lot of the men, I have to say, were like, ‘I never thought I would be full or feel completely fulfilled with this dinner because there’s no protein, but what a surprise.’ Those are the remarks I was hoping for.”
At Oleana in Cambridge, the vegetable tasting menu has had a devoted following, featuring an assortment of mezze plus dessert. (It is not currently being offered as the restaurant transitions back to in-person dining.) Chef Ana Sortun first started offering it as a way to use and showcase as many vegetables as possible from Siena Farm, run by her husband, Chris Kurth. “You don’t have to be vegetarian to do it. You just do it because it’s delicious,” she says. “That’s the mind-set that I think has happened already. We’re there and we’ve been there for a while.”
In fact, it’s possible that the biggest obstacle to plant-based fine dining is not the plant-based part, but the fine dining. White tablecloth restaurants are few and far between in Boston, as are restaurants like Menton or Ostra, where the service can be as elevated as the cuisine. Never mind that rents are sky high, food costs are too, and any staff at all — never mind staff with experience — is nearly impossible to come by.
“Fast-casual is working. That makes sense to me. It’s not the style I embrace. It certainly is the style that is more well received,” says Stuart Reiter, chef and co-owner of True Bistro in Somerville. Opened in 2010, it is perhaps the most upscale vegan restaurant in the area. “I think overall there is a decrease in the population that wants to get dressed up and go eat dinner and have a glass of wine with white linens. It’s a style of eating and a structure and price point and time commitment that I think is a little on the wane at the moment.”
Reiter, who got his start cooking at groundbreaking vegetarian and vegan restaurants Greens and Millennium in California, sees more acceptance of plant-based dining. “A term I don’t love but it’s useful, the ‘flexitarian’ population is the one that’s really growing at the moment. Increasingly, I meet people coming to this diet more for environmental concerns who are not adamant about adhering to a vegan diet. There are so many excellent restaurants — Forage, Sarma — that can accommodate the diet,” he says. According to Kostyo of Datassential, 24 percent of consumers identify as flexitarians, those who exclude meat from their diet to some extent. It’s even the subject of a new documentary, “Meat Me Halfway,” out July 20.
At Coppa, it is a point of pride for chef Jamie Bissonnette that a vegan can come into a restaurant named for a kind of ham and eat as well as anyone. “I think the fine dining hurdle would be harder,” says Bissonnette, a former vegan himself. “Vegan and plant-based cooking, that would be enticing and people would want to try it. But if it’s expensive and fancy, I think people would maybe be turned off. One thing I’ve heard a lot of chefs saying about Eleven Madison, one of the best restaurants in the world, is how do you rationalize a menu with no expensive proteins? I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that, but I hear that gripe.”
Mary Dumont, the chef behind the forthcoming PlantPub, has worked her whole career in fine dining, at places like Harvest and Cultivar. This project represents an alignment with her personal values and diet. Also, not everyone can afford to eat at upscale restaurants. “There is an exclusive factor to fine dining, and I want people to be able to eat better for themselves and the planet. [I want to] be able to be more approachable and accessible to more people at a price point more people can afford,” she says. “To me, right now in this moment, that’s how you move the needle on climate change and get people to be more comfortable with plant-based eating. Meanwhile, I think what [Eleven Madison Park’s Humm] is doing is really wonderful. It’s huge. He has an enormous name. I think it’s really meaningful. You’re 100 percent going to have people say ‘I’m not paying $335 for a carrot,’ but you really should if you can afford that, because those vegetables cost money, those farms cost money.”
And it’s that name, that reputation, that may be most important when it comes to Eleven Madison Park’s plant-based statement. In and of itself, the shift may not affect the environment very much at all. But the modeling, the example setting, and the normalizing, even glamorizing, of reducing meat consumption have the potential to shift attitudes across the dining spectrum. Reservations for the month of August became available July 1 at 9 a.m. They were gone within minutes.
“In five years, six years, when there’s this amazing all-vegetable tasting menu or a restaurant that has no meat, we’ll look back and say ‘How’d you get this idea?’ They may not say Eleven Madison Park, but hindsight is a weird one,” says Williams of Mida. “This is an incredible moment that when you’re in it, you don’t realize the significance. They did it because it felt right, because it was necessary, because somebody had to do it.”
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.