Our Guide to Healthy Dining and the Best Vegan Restaurants in North America
AAA Travel Editor Sherry Mims
Have you been seeing more healthful options on your menu lately? Maybe you’re noticing almond or even oat and hemp milk alternatives? Or spotting a growing number of meatless entrées and healthy vegan meals available?
According to the comprehensive Ipsos Retail Performance Study, which stretched from 2004 to 2019, the number of Americans eating a plant-based diet rose from 290,000 to 9.6 million, a 300 percent increase over a 15-year period. The Vegan Society, based in the U.K. and responsible for World Vegan Day, encourages the practice worldwide and celebrates each Nov. 1.
So what is a vegan or plant-based diet? Simply put, it’s one that eliminates animal products. Whereas vegetarian diets eschew eating meat (and sometimes eggs), a vegan diet eliminates all products derived from animals, even honey.
While you might not be ready for such an all-encompassing change, Technomic Inc., which provides insights on the food industry, has noticed some diners are changing up what they consume, with many looking toward smart eating and choosing the best healthy food.
“Twenty-five percent of consumers are consuming more dairy alternatives (e.g., nut- or soy-based items, etc.) more often than they did two years ago, including 37 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds. Sixty-seven percent of consumers find plant-based fare to be healthier, [and] 25 percent find it tastier,” wrote Lizzy Freier, senior research manager, citing Technomic’s 2018 “Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report.”
Consequently, that’s caused more restaurants to change up their menus. “Vegetarian menu mentions are most common at midscale restaurants (e.g., IHOP, Cracker Barrel, etc.), with 49 percent of midscale concepts menuing something with ‘vegetarian’ as a healthy menu descriptor,” Freier noted from Technomic’s Ignite menu data. “After midscale, fast casual is the next most popular, with 36.8 percent of fast casual restaurants menuing vegetarian.”
AAA inspectors have noticed changing preferences as well; it’s part of their job, even if veganism is not their dietary preference. “I don’t have many [vegan restaurants] that I go to,” said one inspector, “but I do like City Silo Table and Pantry in Memphis, Tennessee. The portabella burger is very delicious. I also like … the Go Green juice.” The menu variety is by design. According to the website, “Whether you have food allergies, dietary restrictions, or eat anything under the sun, all will feel welcome here at City Silo!”
If you’re interested in healthy dining — or have dining companions of varying diets, a restaurant that serves a variety of dishes could well be your cup of vegan chai. Unsurprisingly, AAA inspectors have found many such places to eat, even quintessential breakfast spots that you’d expect to just serve bacon and eggs. That is, Penny Cluse Cafe in Burlington, Vermont, where you can get tofu scrambles in addition to eggs and a variety of breakfast sandwiches. According to the AAA inspector, it offers “plenty of vegetarian dishes packed with flavor, located in the heart of downtown near the Church Street Marketplace.”
If you enjoy vegetable-based meals and are ready to make the leap to fully vegan, AAA inspectors have you covered as well. The next restaurants on our lists serve fully plant-based meals. (For vegetarian restaurants, which may serve dairy and/or eggs, check out “Best Vegetarian Restaurants to Try”; a few of those picks, such as Ethos Vegan Kitchen Inc., in Winter Park, Florida, are fully plant-based, with others able to accommodate vegan diners.)
Serving traditional Persian cuisine, this family-owned restaurant promotes itself as “Fredericton’s first fully vegan” and serves gluten-free as well as raw food options. Desserts here are a must, as they are created in-house. Note: The dining room has reopened, and, although reservations are recommended, walk-in customers are welcome.
Inspector tip: “Highly recommend the vegan baklava with a Turkish coffee.”
flickr / CC BY /Jules Morgan
San Francisco, California
With its organic, vegan menu, the restaurant promotes “love for Mother Earth and reverence for all mothers [with] traditional Mexican cuisine made plant-based, all from scratch using local, organic ingredients.” Standout fare includes corn tortillas created with heirloom corn. The outside patio is open for dining, though it can get busy during peak hours.
Inspector Tip: “Gracias Madre is my favorite vegan restaurant in San Francisco,” said the AAA inspector. “This wildly popular family-owned, plant-based restaurant focuses on offering delicious, locally grown organic food from their own Be Love Farm in nearby Vacaville, California.”
Planta South Beach
Miami Beach, Florida
A variety of plant-based dishes are available for takeout, delivery and “IRL” (“in real life”) at the restaurant, which supports environmental sustainability and social justice. There are also themed nights, ranging from “Maki Mondays,” with discounts on maki sushi rolls, to “Wednesdays are for Pour Decisions,” which celebrates half-priced bottles of vegan wine.
Inspector tip: “This is a true vegan restaurant because zero animal products are used; even the cheese is nut-based. They have everything from plant-based ‘sushi’ to gluten-free pizza all served in an upscale ambience.”
Courtesy of Sunflower Cafe
All dishes are plant-based by default, with gluten-free, soy-free and oil-free options for wraps, sandwiches and bowls. The sister restaurant Sunflower Bakehouse, owned by the same company, expands the concept with allergen-friendly, vegan baked goods as well as plant-based breakfast and healthful salads.
Inspector tip: Sunflower Café “[has] a BBQ bowl that makes you feel like you are eating real meat. Sunflower Bakehouse is fast-casual with wonderful pastries and delicious salads premade ready to grab-and-go.”
Thrive Juice Bar & Kitchen
Bar Harbor, Maine
Breakfast bites are a good way to start the day at this restaurant, where the customization options are truly impressive. Juices, smoothies and bowls can have superfood add-ins, including extracts, protein powder, fiber and antioxidants. Wraps and sandwiches also are available.Inspector tip: “Most items pack well, making this an ideal stop before exploring or going out on a boat.”
flickr / CC BY /T.Tseng
This AAA Inspector Pick, its main dining room within a historic row house, presents an upscale, plant-based dining experience. According to the AAA inspector, “The menu depends on the seasonality of fresh vegetables, but the flavors are always richly layered and provide a dining experience that will leave you feeling fully satisfied.” Note: Only takeout and outdoor dining are available at press time.
Inspector tip: “Every meal has to start with the homemade soft pretzel featuring a rutabaga fondue. The texture stays creamy and the flavor is so rich you would swear it was a cheddar cheese sauce,” said the AAA inspector. They add that the cocktail menu uses “infusions of fresh herbs and flowers to create unique combinations that also pair with the current season.”
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AAA Travel Editor Sherry Mims
AAA Travel Editor Sherry Mims is an AAA Travel Expert.